“Soldiers and police opening fire on unarmed youths in an upscale neighbourhood shocked the nation, even older citizens who recalled growing up under a series of military dictatorships”
– The New York Times, October 21, 2020.
Tuesday evening’s massacre by security forces of unarmed young protesters operating under the rubric of #EndSARSNow, leading to the death of around a dozen Nigerians, have continued to send shockwaves and ripples around the nation and the entire globe. Suddenly, and in a tragic vein, to borrow Nobel laureate, Wole Soyinka’s expression, the well-worn reference to a global village takes on immediate and real application. Once again, as in the #OccupyNigeria movement of 2012 and the Chibok girls’ saga of 2014, Nigeria has been thrown without preparation to the world stage, not on its own terms, but in a manner that puts it in the darkest and most regrettable circumstance.
The world is discussing Nigeria spiritedly, not as a role model, or a beacon of democracy, but as a throwback to the world of brutal dictatorships, in which citizens can lose their lives for peaceful protests, even while raising their nation’s flag. There is, perhaps, no stronger confirmation of the authenticity of the initial campaign regarding police brutality than the sordid factor of Tuesday’s slaughter of young, if defiant protesters at the Lekki tollgate in the commercial city of Lagos. There is a flurry of condemnations and negative commentaries by global celebrities such as American singer, Beyoncé Knowles; Twitter’s CEO, Jack Dorsey; Archbishop of Canterbury; Nigeria’s footballer with Manchester United, Odion Ighalo; and Nigerian hip-hop artiste, Burna Boy, as well as top political figures and institutions such as former United States’ Secretary of State and former presidential candidate, Hillary Clinton; the United Nations’ Secretary-General, António Guterres; current presidential candidate of the Democratic Party in the US, Joe Biden; the European Union; the United States, among others.
True, all politics may be local but in the age of social and orthodox media, their ramifications and resonances are increasingly global. It is as if the #EndSARS protest was being enacted on the world stage with the world watching, keenly, its unfolding. Perhaps, had this been fully appreciated, the tragic blunder of Tuesday’s brutal dispatch of unarmed civilians to the great beyond and the confusing aftermath of denials would have been avoided. In an age where soft power, what Antonio Gramsci called the ‘power of attraction’, counts more than armaments and battalions, the country and its leadership should have avoided this equivalent of dancing naked on the streets, revelling, in what Amnesty International described as extrajudicial executions. Thanks to the international media which are filling us in on the enigmatic silences and double speak of officialdom. Nigerians do not lack information even if they are starved of it by their own government. For example, it was the BBC news, among others that quoted Lagos State governor, Babajide Sanwo-Olu, as saying to the BBC News Hour that, “I think about 7 o’clock or thereabout, there was a small unit of the military that went to Lekki and we later heard that gunshots were fired”. This was a direct contradiction of the claim by the military that no member of the force was in Lekki during the shootings and that it is ‘fake news’ to ascribe the killings to the military.
It is part of our national contradictions and infirmity that we have yet to have, this late in the day, a comprehensive and reliable account of what exactly took place on what has now gone down in history as Black Tuesday.
Rummaging through a couple of foreign newspapers, including the New York Times quoted in the opening paragraph, we find the equivalent of a video recording of the events of that tragic decimation of unarmed protesters. The New York Times, for example, conveys the sense of shock, putting it in the context, not just of the current civilian dispensation, but in the entire gamut of our history. Even under dictatorships, this writer, who was a Student Union President during the heroic anti-military struggle at the University of Ife, under the military, confirms that there were very few examples of the use of live ammunition on young protesters. Although the dictatorships became more brutal with each succeeding one, culminating in General Sani Abacha’s reign of terror, the civic space was left relatively unspoiled by most of the dictators. But here we are, as the New York Times implied, in a so-called democracy, which is largely electoral, anyway, with the military having little or no qualms at sacrificing the lives of protesters. Interestingly, the New York Times, in its edition of October 21, went on to say that the killings have brought back imagination of the years of coups and counter-coups during which civil liberties were, sometimes, recklessly trampled upon.
Our democracy, by implication, seems to come alive only during elections when rival politicians fight tooth-and-nail to secure office, even if they haven’t taken time to understand the demands of such a calling. How refreshing will it be if the current spate of events were to inaugurate a reset in Nigerian politics and governance.
On its own part, The Guardian of London (October 21) puts its report on Black Tuesday, in the context of wider dissatisfaction with poor and weak governance among the Nigerian populace. The article is entitled, “Police brutality is the tip of the iceberg for protesters in Nigeria”. It refers to what it calls “deep disappointment with President Buhari who took power in 2015 and set to remain till 2023”. Similarly, the piece captures the general frustration with SARS which it described as a police unit with reputation for corruption and torture. There also is the BBC Africa Eye (October 21, 2020), which documented, relentlessly, the tragic shootings at the Lekki tollgate, informing that the sad incident took place against the backdrop that, “thousands of protesters had set up tents, and waving Nigerian flags under vast billboards and screens”. In other words, the atmosphere was festive and apart from the mistaken announcement of a curfew initially to begin at 4pm, there was not a single trace of rebellion or riot in that atmosphere.
At any rate, these were presumably well-educated youths, residing for the most part in that elite suburb, and therefore, unlikely recruits for a serious breach of law and order. This made it all the more baffling that it was this very group that became the casualties of sporadic shots fired at them while they waved the national flag and sang the national anthem.
Among the international resonances of the event is the statement by the UN Secretary-General, decrying, “the violent escalation on 20th October in Lagos, which resulted in multiple deaths and injuries”. Guterres also called for an end to reported police brutality, as well as, an investigation into the tragic incident. This statement, as well as those of those of other world leaders, and the intense focus of the international media suggest that our leaders can no longer do their insular thing, operating in irreverent silos which do not connect with global values and trends.
Sensitivity to national and international outlooks ought, henceforth, to be a requirement of leadership in a nation, where too many lives have been tragically wasted on the altar of vanity and arrogance of power.