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That Black Tuesday

By Ray Ekpu
23 November 2021   |   3:02 am
After one year the Lagos State Judicial Panel of Inquiry on Restitution for victims of SARS Related Abuses and other matters panel has submitted a two-volume report to the State Government.

A man kneels on the road while holding a banner during a protest to commemorate one anniversary of EndSars, a protest movement against police brutality at the Lekki tollgate in Lagos, on October 20, 2021. – Hundreds of youth match to commemorate one year anniversary of Endars protest that rocked the major cities across the country on October 20, 2020. (Photo by PIUS UTOMI EKPEI / AFP)

After one year the Lagos State Judicial Panel of Inquiry on Restitution for victims of SARS Related Abuses and other matters panel has submitted a two-volume report to the State Government.

The Governor Mr Babajide Sanwo-Olu promptly set up a white paper committee which is to produce a report within two weeks. He commended the chairperson of the panel retired Justice Doris Okuwobi and members of the panel for the report. The report or an unauthorised version of it is said to be making its impact on the internet. Snippets of it have been published in several newspapers while the report is being discussed already on television.

I have not read the report yet but I have devoured snippets of it published in several media. From the various reports a few facts are indisputable (a) The armed forces personnel did shoot and kill some demonstrators at the Lekki Tollgate on October 20, 2020 (b) The armed forces personnel used live bullets at the toll gate on that day (c) The protesters were sitting on the ground, holding Nigeria’s national flag and singing the national anthem (d) The protesters were unarmed, orderly and peaceful. Part of the report as published by some media says that the unarmed protesters were “shot at, assaulted and battered” leading to both “injuries and deaths.” Irrespective of what the Lagos State Government’s white paper may come up with it is clear that the Okuwobi report has confirmed what most people already knew, namely that some unarmed protesters were shot at, killed and or injured at the toll gate by Nigeria’s armed forces personnel. When the media, local and foreign, described what happened there as a “massacre,” the Minister of Information, Mr Lai Mohammed and other Wannabe Goebells said it was a “phantom massacre,” and that nobody was killed at the Lekki Tollgate on that fateful night. Mr Mohammed and his gang of lie-lie artists have disparaged the media and civil society personnel for their position on the matter. They were asking for the corpses of those allegedly killed that night. But that is the limit of their insensitivity and incredulity. They failed to recognise that there were many people within Lekki area who were rushing home to beat the curfew that was imposed that day. They forget that technology has changed the world, that you can record sights and sound with your smartphone within seconds and most of the protesters were armed with their sophisticated phones which made their protest seamlessly efficient.

When the protests started the young men and women who carried the burden of protesting, on behalf of all of us, against the unconscionable brutality and extortion of policemen generally and the SARS gang specifically, thought because they were peaceful, everything would end peacefully. But I have studied the Nigeria police for years and I have been their involuntary customer many times in the course of my work. I was also a member of the Governing Council of the Police Service Commission from 2001 to 2006. I have lived in this country all my life and have seen how lives have been recklessly wasted by the Police and the Army for the flimsiest of reasons. So I can claim to understand the mentality and the disposition of Nigeria’s security operatives.

During the early part of the EndSARS protest, a young man told me that he and his friends in the protest group have bought a bunch of Nigeria’s green-white-green national flags. I asked him “what for?” He told me that a retired senior army officer told them that if they held the national flag no army or police personnel would molest them. I laughed loudly. In fact it was a guffaw, the kind of laughter that a winner of a jackpot would exhale. The young man asked why I laughed. I told him he was probably talking about another country, not Nigeria.

Considering the brutality that Nigerian men in uniform have inflicted on Nigerians over the years I knew that we had not yet arrived at that humane and sublime threshold. Look at what happened to the Shiites in Kaduna State in December 2015. They were holding a religious ceremony and they blocked the road. The then Chief of Army Staff, Lt. General Tukur Buratai, now an Ambassador in Benin Republic, was passing through that road. A civilised army group could have calmly told the worshippers to get off the road for the Army Chief to pass, but they did not. They simply opened fire on the worshippers and 347 of them perished. In which civilised country would that happen? None. So my view that holding a Nigerian flag by protesters was no armour against death was correct to a T.

The report of the panel has shown that sitting on the floor by the protesters did not help them. Sitting on the floor, in a sense, was a peaceful act, an act of capitulation, if you like. That did not help them, just as holding the national anthem, too, meant nothing to them. To them it was infamy for protesters to sing the anthem while using another part of their mouths to ask for reforms in the Police Force. That reaction showed that our security personnel have little or no respect for human life.

Since the Lekki Tollgate incident there have been attempts at peaceful demonstrations by various groups and they have always been ruthlessly suppressed. The Police have always had a stock answer to strikes: “Don’t dare because we don’t want hoodlums to take over your peaceful strike.” But the truth is that police can march with demonstrators and prevent hoodlums from doing what hoodlums do. But the real truth actually is that protesters are often blackmailed with this talk about hoodlums. If you search carefully, you may find that hoodlums are often sponsored for a fee by anti-demonstration agents of the state to disrupt demonstrations, harass people, so as to give the protesters a bad a name. With a bad name on their necks, they can be hanged. That is a very familiar strategy. We have grown over the years into a democracy that is opposed to peaceful protests. For any protest the police always finds a reason, tenable or not, to say No.

The violence that erupted on October 20 last year appears to be an excuse for sweeping the five-point agenda raised by the protesters under the carpet. At the time they raised the five issues President Muhammadu Buhari said he had heard them “loud and clear.” To show good faith he ordered the immediate disbandment of SARS. But curiously a day later the Police announced that it would be setting up a special unit called Special Weapons and Tactical Team (SWAT). It looked to most people as SARS by another name.

The Governors’ Forum denounced the haste with which the new group was set up. It thought it would deprive it of credibility. It is, I believe, time to ask whether the five-point agenda raised by the protesters have been addressed by the Federal Government or not. In 2018 and 2019 the Federal Government had promised to initiate comprehensive reforms of SARS and the police generally. It never did give the impression that some promises are perhaps meant not to be taken seriously. How many of the issues on the agenda of the protesters have been ticked on that list in the last year?

Anyone who knows how many of them has been resolved by the Federal Government should say so. The government may claim that it was waiting for the reports of the various committees set up by state governments on the riots that erupted. Some of the State Governments have released the reports and implemented the findings. Now the Lagos report is in and a white paper will be produced within two weeks by which time the Federal Government will be well equipped to deal with the fallouts of that protest.

The Lagos report is the most important because of the massacre of peaceful and unarmed people at the Lekki Tollgate by some members of the Nigerian Armed Forces. The entire world is waiting for the white paper to be released by the State Government especially because of the controversy that surrounded the word “massacre.” For me, the word massacre is not the problem. Massacre is an attempt to define how large the number killed at the toll gate was. For me, it is not an issue of numbers. Even the killing of one defenceless and unarmed civilian is a problem for which answers must be found. To talk about numbers is to demonstrate our crudity, our barbaric approach to human lives. One unarmed and peaceful demonstrator killed in cold blood is the equivalent of a massacre or a pogrom because no human life taken can be replaced.