By Dotun Adekanmbi
I had a fitful sleep last night. The day had gone rather badly. For me, like several other Nigerians, Tuesday 20 October, 2020, began on a lousy note, a carry over from the sad developments of the Monday before it. Monday was the day it became too evident that fifth columnists had demonstrably infiltrated the march and determination of young Nigerians to pull their country from the brink. They had manifestly won the early rounds of the battle to rid Nigeria of all forms of impunity, starting with police brutality which is the worst form of degradation that ordinary citizens of this nation suffer daily in their fatherland. With the police, no life matters in Nigeria. The stories are gory. Yet so quite true. We all are aware of it. We know the victims. Because we are the victims. Yet our leaders pretend not to know, unless the excesses of law enforcers are brought to their notice. And this, precisely, was the essence of the #EndSARS protests.
When news filtered in on Monday from Benin, the Edo State capital that massive arson had started with the burning of police posts, we knew things had got out of hands. When video footage confirmed prison breaks, it was clear that the handshake of #EndSARS campaigners had been made to go beyond the elbow. But we knew that the hand did not belong to the young protesters who had demonstrated across Nigeria for more than 10 days without reports of molestations. Where in the world has escaped prisoners ever granted video interviews? The demonstrators knew the arson and the jail break did not bear their signature. Official collusions were suspected, granting various video evidence of how hoodlums were injected into the protests across locations in Nigeria. The authorities, too, knew and were jittery. Both sides were unsure of how to make the next move. Then came the first ’24-hour’ order of curfew announced by the Edo State Government. That order grammatically confounded everyone more for its inexactitude and replication of the 1976 proclamation of a drunken coup leader, Col. Bukar Sukar Dimka, who imposed a ‘dawn to dusk’ curfew in the wake of the putsch in which then Head of State, Gen. Murtala Mohammed, was assassinated.
Lagos was next on Tuesday, with reports of the burning of police stations at Orile in the Mainland. Next, too, came the imposition of the nebulous ’24-hour’ curfew announced by Governor BabajideSanwolu, which other State Governors have now announced. The Lagos #EndSARS protesters were unfazed at the Lekki Toll Gate, which everyone knew to be the ‘headquarters, of the ‘Resistance.’ Veterans of demonstrations against government and its policies clearly and stridently warned the protesters to clear off the streets, as things were about to really get bloody. The protesters failed to heed the warning, convinced they had reasons to continue to express their point of view. They felt assured because they had conducted themselves in a non-violent manner, though they obstructed the right of other citizens to enjoy free movement. Stalemate.
The evening of Tuesday showed the ugly side of Nigeria that citizens felt had gone with the military. The use of force in its most brutal form. And deliberately so. Worse, in a place that had been acknowledged as the most peaceful location all through the demonstrations. The way the curfew order was carried out demonstrated beyond any reasonable doubt the amazing capacity of the Nigerian establishment to fumble big time and at a huge cost. Though the protests were against police brutality, the happenings in the night of Tuesday, 20 October, proved that brutality is a major, if not the only, leadership weapon in Nigeria. It is a first line action to respond to the simplest of citizens’ call for reason.
Let us admit it, everything that could go wrong went wrong on Tuesday. Why pick Lekki Toll Gate, the most peaceful location of resistance for the most brutal assault on our young people? If the action was not deliberate and pre-planned, why dismantle the closed-circuit television system of the location? Why plunge the venue into darkness? To cover evidence? If the Lagos State Government had given a revised order for the curfew to begin from 9pm, not 4pm as earlier stipulated, to allow citizens caught in gridlocks across the metropolis ample time to get home, why launch the military action ahead of a lawful executive order? True, too, why did the protesters not ‘clear out’ when it had become evident that government would not back down to avoid a breakdown of law and order that had become so imminent? Howsoever we wish to answer these questions, we cannot avoid admitting that protest is a legitimate instrument to bring about change in society, just as government owes citizens the duty of protection of life and property. What then to do in the face of this obvious clash of values?
This is a no brainer. Even if most citizens have not travelled abroad, technology has brought how things are done abroad to the fingertips of citizens at home. We have seen how crowds are dispersed abroad: with water cannons; with rubber bullets and with a few arrests, especially of the most vocal voices that had been earmarked from a deep study of the trend of the protests. These, only after persuasion has manifestly failed. Nowhere, except in the Eastern countries has history recorded that training guns at citizens is the first, most effective recourse to quelling riots, which the #EndSARS campaign had not become. Turning loose the military at the first opportunity to end civil disturbance is a clear admission that the system of policing is severely defective, if not completely sterile. One wonders how the police hierarchy feels at this obvious vote of no confidence on their competence. Worse, one wonders how the head of the country feels about authorising the deployment of soldiers against his young compatriots. Not exactly heart-warming is the way some elders are gloating over how their ‘prophesy’ of heavy repercussions have been prescient. ‘But-we-warned-them,’ you say. Fair enough. But did you heed a similar warning many years back when, as an ‘activist,’ you had a conviction that your country had badly fallen your hand? Was this the country you dreamt of? Sad to say, quite a number of the sadists in power today and the ‘mis-managers’ of our commonwealth were yesterday’s activists. If in doubt, letthe records speak.
I dread to wake up this morning because I am too scared to know what will be in the news: the casualty figures, the justifications, the lies, the blame game and the cover ups. The gory picture that sent me to sleep last night was that of the Nigerian flag splattered with blood. I dread to wake up to see more of this picture. The tears of my young daughters made me to shut down for the night. I had no answers to the questions they asked about the quality of Nigeria’s current leadership and how my generation reacts to issues. Is this the image of the ‘new’ Nigeria we keep praying for? I fear to read, see or hear the haunting stories of what happened last night. I am afraid that I might recognise one or two casualties. I hate to think that, even if I know none of the casualties, the figures will appear to be mere statistics of the dead and the wounded. This is not my Nigeria. Bad as things have been in Nigeria, I never thought a day would come when our first option would be to kill or maim our young ones, no matter how hot-headed they had become. I never thought a day would come when the leadership of my country would be happy seeing citizens as no better than living dead, for that is what we all have been reduced to. Regarding what happened in Nigeria in the night of Tuesday, 20 October, 2020, let Mr President keep his sympathy and address to the nation, if ever there was any in the works. The success of the military’s ‘Operation Crocodile Smile IV’ should make him happy. He, therefore, should spare us the ‘crocodile tears.’
DOTUN ADEKANMBI is a biographer and former Editor of Business Times