The #EndSARS Protests: A Fundamental Lesson in Democratic Governance
I heavily grieve for those who have lost their lives or been injured during the period of these protests. My deepest sympathies go to their families and loved ones for none should have been made to pay such a dear price. My career as an active politician spans nearly three decades. In that time, I have seen many things as Nigeria has struggled, sometimes against itself, to undertake the often painful yet inexorable push toward democratic government accountable to, and protective of, the people.
Through this journey, I have traversed the landscape of human experience. Having been as a political prisoner during our struggle for democracy but also having the singular honour of serving this state and its people as governor, I have known highs and lows, seen both the good and the bad of things.
But the events of the past few days have been extraordinary in a most dire sense. Only time will tell if we have the collective wisdom and requisite compassion to learn the proper lessons from these events that we may yet steer toward a better, more just Nigeria. Despite the tumult we now see, I believe with all my heart that we will meet the current challenge.
Here, let me directly address the sharp point aimed against me. I have been falsely accused of ordering the reported deployment of soldiers against peaceful protesters that took place at Lekki on 20 October, 2020. This allegation is a complete and terrible lie. I did not order this or any assault against anybody. I would never want such a vile thing to happen nor did I have any prior knowledge about this sad event. It is my firm belief that no one should be harassed, injured or possibly killed for doing what they have the constitutional right to do in making their contribution to a better, more equitable society.
As a political figure, I am accustomed to people attributing to me all manner of indiscretions of which I have no knowledge and in which I played no role. I have usually ignored such falsities as the cost of being in the public eye.
This time, it is different. The allegation now levied against me is that I called on soldiers to kill my own people. This allegation is the foulest of lies.
The use of strong force against any peaceful protesters is indefensible, completely outside the norms of a democratic society and progressive political culture to which I aspire and have devoted my public life. That people were angered by the reports of violence and death is acutely understandable.
Understandably outraged, people sought to hold someone accountable. For various reasons, I became the most available scapegoat. Some people don’t like me because they believe the false rumours uttered about me over the years. Some maligned my name because they hide ulterior motives and harbour unrequited political scores they intend to settle.
A week ago, such people tried to bring enmity between me and the state and federal governments by contending I was sponsoring the protests. When that did not work, they then sought to sow enmity between me and the people by saying I ordered soldiers to quash the very same protests they first accused me of organising.
My opponents have every right to oppose me politically but let them have the courage to do so in the open, above board and to employ facts not evil fiction in their efforts against me. They have no right to slander and defame anyone with the terrible and vile fabrications now cast at my feet.
Those who have decided to hate me will hate me regardless of the truth. Again, they have the right to think as they may and I am not troubled by their unfounded animus. Today, I speak not to them. I leave them to the workings of their own conscience.
Today, I speak to those who believe in the importance of, and want to know, the truth.
The slander aimed at me is based on the untruth that I own the toll gate concession. The hate mongers prevaricate that I ordered the Lekki assault because the protests had caused me to lose money due to the interruption of toll gate activity.
Minus this alleged ownership, the slander employed against me falls to the ground as a heavy untruth. I ask people to thoroughly investigate the matter of my alleged ownership of the toll gate. By seeking facts, instead of being swayed by gossip, you will find I have no ownership interest or involvement in the toll gate. Having no business interests in the operation, my income remains unchanged whether one or 100,000 vehicles pass through that gate.
At bottom, the toll gate is a public asset. Given what has happened, I would like to propose to government that the toll gate be left closed for an indefinite period. If it is reopened, revenues should be donated to the confirmed victims of the Lekki attack as well as to other identifiable victims of police brutality in Lagos. Let government use the money to compensate and take care of those who have lost life or limb in the struggle for all citizens to go about the quiet, peaceful enjoyment of life without fear of undue harassment at this or that checkpoint.
On the other hand, I am, indeed, a promoter and financial investor in the Nation newspaper and TVC. It was widely known and circulated through social media that certain malevolent elements were going to take advantage of the situation to attack the Nation newspaper facilities and TVC in Lagos.
The attackers came. Both facilities were significantly damaged. Although equipped with prior notice of the imminent trespass, I did not call any one to seek or request for the army or police to deploy let alone attack, kill, or injure those who razed and vandalized these properties. I did not want any bloodshed. These elements, mostly hirelings of my political opponents, wreaked their havoc and destroyed those buildings and facilities and I thank God that the employees of these two media institutions managed to escape largely unharmed.
There is a deeper truth involved here. Burned buildings and damaged equipment can be rebuilt or replaced. There is no adequate substitute for the loss of even a single human life. I am not one to encourage violence. I abhor it. Thus, I did nothing that might endanger lives, even the lives of those who destroyed my properties.
Now, those who claim I ordered violence in Lekki must face the sheer illogic of their assertions. There is no rationale that can adequately explain why I would order soldiers to repel peaceful protesters from the toll gate where I have no financial interest, yet, choose to do nothing to protect my investments in the Nation and TVC.
Why would I be so moved as to instigate the army to attack peaceful, law-abiding people at the toll gate where I have no pecuniary stake, yet lift not a single finger to stop hired miscreants bent on setting fire to these important media investments?
The allegations against me make no sense because they are untrue. They are parented by those seeking to stoke and manipulate the people’s anger in order to advance political objectives that have nothing to do with the subject matter of the protests.
The good and creative people of Lagos have worked hard over the years to build it into the dynamic economic and cultural focal point it has become. Lagos has enjoyed over two decades of sustained, uninterrupted growth. No other place in Nigeria can stake that claim. Some people are unhappy with this. They seek to tear down what we have worked hard to build that they may reshape Lagos to fit their own more destructive image. Such people have taken advantage of the current situation and of the public’s passions to set in motion a plan the people would never support if they only knew what the destructive schemers actually had in mind.
Not only lives have been lost in Lagos and throughout Nigeria, but livelihoods have also been impaired. I have seen the destruction to businesses, shops and homes.
I empathise with those who have lost their businesses and residences through no fault of their own but because hurtful, destructive misanthropes took it upon themselves to use this moment to disguise their efforts to destroy and upend the prosperity and hope so many of us took so many years to build. This is not what the genuine protesters wanted and no one should blame them for this destruction. In this tense situation, we must be careful not to rush to conclusions and to make sure we ascertain the true facts that we not be deceived toward rash action that may prove to be against our own interests.
This is particularly true regarding the Lekki incident. Various players will promulgate different casualty numbers. At this moment, no conclusive figure has been ascertained. Although an investigation has been launched by the governor, a totally accurate picture of the events may never be known. I for one refuse to engage in futile speculation regarding the possible number of casualties for such talk misses the vital point that we all must recognize.
We strive for a more compassionate, progressive society. Thus, we must do more than measure injustice by the number of dead or wounded. Injustice is injustice regardless of the number of victims from whom blood is drawn.
Based on the facts that come out of a thorough investigation, government may need to amend the terms of engagement for deployment of military forces in instances of mostly peaceful civil disobedience and protests. Although one of our nation’s most respected institutions, the military is not adequately equipped and trained to deal with such situations. It is placing a burden on the military they are ill-suited to carry.
Moreover, the time has come to take the necessary legal actions to allow for the creation of state police and the recruitment and training of many more police officers. Such state-created forces should be based on the modern tenets of community policing and optimal relations and cooperation with local communities.
Measures such as these are needed to cure present gaps in how military and law enforcement treat the general public. These proposals are important and they do not hamstring proper law enforcement and security operations. We know there are criminal elements in society primed to harm people and seize property. We expect this of criminals. What is not expected is that people will be brutalized and scarred by those commissioned to protect and serve them. This anomaly must end.
Given all that has happened, I must stress the great theme that underlies this entire situation so that it is not obscured and its proper societal impact lost. The right to protest is more than integral to the democratic setting; It transcends any form of government. The following thought may seem incongruous – but the right to protest exists only where orderly society exists.
Because of my strong belief in the right to protest and my adherence to democratic ideals, I was among those who actively protested the annulment of the June 12 election. I eagerly joined and sometimes led multitudes who took to the streets to protest the singular injustice of that historic moment. We demanded the establishment of a new democracy in Nigeria. Those protests are a part of the reason we have democracy in Nigeria today. They laid the foundation for the youth today to protest and to call to the fore their grievances whenever our social or political institutions fail them in a material way.
Thus, I cannot not wax nostalgic about pro-democracy protests of the 1990s yet castigate those who today protest against any form of institutionalized brutality.
No democratically minded person can fault those who protests in this regard. No society, even the most democratic, is perfect. All nations suffer lapses that cause even their most respected institutions to fall short of their better ideals. However, our imperfection does not preclude improvement or reform. We must constantly put our institutions and government to the test that we may reshape ourselves into a better nation constantly improving the manner in which it treats its citizens. If we do not commit ourselves in this way, democracy may not long be ours. We must be frank in recognizing our societal ills as well as resolute in curing them. Sometimes progress comes one election at a time. Sometimes, one protest at a time.
It must stand as a maxim for any compassionate, sane society that innocent people should not die or be injured at the hands of law enforcement. Enough blood has been spilled; enough pain has been felt.
Yes, some in the police have lost their way by distorting their helpful mission into its opposite. This gross malpractice by a tainted minority must stop so that the bulk of good police officers may do their job properly, with the support and thanks of a grateful community. This cooperative, productive embrace between the people and their genuine police protectors cannot occur as long as some in uniform continue to serially abuse fellow Nigerians.
In this regard, I must say that the steps thus far taken by the government are constructive. SARS has been ended and further reform has been promised with tangible steps taken in that direction. However, much more needs to be done for there is valid evidence of recurrent brutality and violence. Indeed, this is why the protests began in the first instance.
We are in a complex situation where almost every step has political overtones. Among the protesters, there are many people who do not politically support either the state or federal governments. However, this should not be a determinative factor in how one views the protests. We must not allow subjective politics to taint our view of what is right when it comes to the exercise of the fundamental civil liberties that we should all hold dear. Partisan narrowness cannot be allowed to redefine our core precepts of justice and human rights. This matter transcends daily politics. It goes to the of our constitutional arrangement and love of the people. While others may play politics with this issue, those who care about the nation dare not.
Young Nigerians across the country have peacefully stated their case. The president has pledge reform and should be given reasonable time to achieve them. The protests have accomplished their primary objective. There is no question that more needs to done. To achieve further progress, however, will require greater dialogue between government and protest leaders. As has been the case with almost every successful protest in every nation, there comes the decisive moment where a protest movement must shift gears to from demonstrations in the streets to negotiations with government. The protests against brutality are nearing this new stage or perhaps have already entered it.
Protest leaders and their genuine companions must now be careful. If the protests become too protracted, those genuinely interested in combating police brutality stand in danger of losing control of the protests. The risk is that the protests degenerate into something starkly inferior to the noble cause initially pursued. If so, the protests may then become associated in the public mind with localized disruptions and serious inconveniences. Through no fault of their own, except not having adequately planned their strategic endgame, protesters might lose the moral high ground they now occupy.
Here, government must also be exceptionally restrained. The protesters have remained peaceful. What has happened is that petty criminals and political miscreants sponsored by those who seek to stir mayhem are misbehaving and sparking trouble on the outer fringes of the protests.
Police and law enforcement have an overriding responsibility to differentiate between protesters and criminal elements. No doubt, they must stop the criminals. However, it would be morally wrong and politically counterproductive to use the existence of this fringe criminal element as a pretext to checkmate genuine protests. While some may think this is a cunning way to short-circuit the protests, such misguided cleverness will only worsen matters, rendering discussions towards a satisfactory settlement more difficult.
The present situation clearly does nothing to profit me politically or otherwise. It has complicated matters for me because many people now wrongfully blame me for a violent incident in which I played no part. Still, I stand strongly behind the people of Nigeria and affirm their right to protest peacefully. Along with all well-meaning, patriotic Nigerians, I want to see an end to all forms of institutionalised brutality and I shall do my utmost to see that this humane objective is realised.
For, if these protests can generate meaningful reform, our youth will have achieved a compound national success. First, they would have ended the terrible matter of institutionalized police brutality. Second, Nigeria would have made an important accretion to our political culture whereby government listened to and acted on the recommendations of ordinary people protesting against the wrongs done them.
This would establish a healthy precedent. Yet such durable progress can be made only if government respects the protesters and protesters actively negotiate with government. No steps should be taken by government to curtail protest activity as the people have chosen this vehicle as their preferred way to interface with government on this issue.
Yes, protest leaders too must appreciate the concrete realities of this situation. Street protests cannot last indefinitely without degenerating into other serious problems that no one wants. You have gotten government’s ear and attention, use this moment to press your case.
The right to protest should be pacifically exercised and never abused; neither should it be feared or unduly curtailed. It is essential because it lends greater depth to the relationship between government and the governed. If we are to attain parity with older, more established democracies, we must accept protests as part of our national development. It is important that Nigeria get this situation right. The direction and pace of our democratic progress weighs in the balance as the entire world watches to see how we manage ourselves at this delicate moment.
Asiwaju Bola Ahmed Tinubu
25th October, 2020.