Opinion

The #ENDSARS Memorial

By Reuben Abati

“Credible intelligence at the disposal of the Command has revealed clandestine plans by some youths, individuals or groups to embark on a protest today in commemoration of one-year anniversary of ENDSARS…

In view of the volatility of the situation in the country, and the breakdown of law and order which the planned protest might cause, the Lagos State police Command sternly warns against any form of protest… To forestall breakdown of law and order, the police will use legitimate means within their constitutional powers to suppress the planned protest. Therefore, parents and guardians are advised to warn their children against participating in the planned protest. Individuals or groups sponsoring such protest are also warned in their own interest to desist from such unpatriotic plan or face the full weight or wrath of the law.” – Hakeem Odumosu, Commissioner of Police, Lagos State.  

I read the foregoing quote with which this commentary is prefaced with a considerable amount of amusement and alarm: about how security agencies in Nigeria have lost the capacity to learn or show the civility that their work requires. But before that, the statement, being the Lagos State Police Command’s response to the plan by Civil Society Organisations to commemorate the first-year anniversary of the #ENDSARS protests in Nigeria, is written in perfect Yoruba transliteration, what the late Professor Dapo Adelugba referred to as “Yorubanglish”. The use of English as a second language can be problematic, and indeed as has been argued variously, “The Empire Writes Back” and has been doing so in interesting ways, creating varieties of English or “Englishes”. The short quote above is in a class of its own in that category. It reminds me of that popular local, Yoruba, antiphonal lyric: “Ko lo’mo kilo fo mo re o… oni a le.”

It is amazing how in a modern, democratic dispensation, those in charge of the levers of power consistently throw back to the ancient, monarchical ethos of dominance and authority. It is a reflection of how Nigeria has failed to modernise or educate its institutions and the rather absolute lack of enlightenment on the part of its personnel. Or could it be hypocrisy? Sycophancy? Or plain sight stupidity?  What makes it more shocking is that it is not only the Lagos Police Command that has issued a similar threat with regard to the #ENDSARS Memorial that is scheduled to be held tomorrow. There have been similar threats from the Osun and Oyo State Police Commands, a reflection of the mood of Nigeria’s security establishment. Except that their objection to the right of the people to protest is unlawful, condemnable and indefensible. We aver that there must be no display of stupidity on the part of the Police or any of the security agencies tomorrow as Nigerians choose to commemorate the tragic events of October 8 – 20, 2020, popularly known as the #ENDSARS protests.

The right to protest is a constitutional right within the purview of Section 38 of the 1999 Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria (right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion); Section 39 (right to freedom of expression and the press); Section 40 (right to peaceful assembly and association); Section 41 (right to freedom of movement) and Section 42 (right to freedom from discrimination), all of which are tied to other fundamental rights in the 1999 Constitution including the right to the dignity of the human person in Section 34. In IGP v. ANPP, the Court of Appeal upheld the right to protest as a right guaranteed under the Constitution of Nigeria “without seeking or obtaining permission from anybody.” Further, Nigeria is signatory to several international conventions which affirm the individual’s right to protest as a major pillar of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the obligation of state parties to respect the right to protest and ensure that there is no violation by third parties.  The big problem that we face is that state actors in Nigeria do not always respect agreements or commitments, except it serves their own narrow, selfish interests.

Under Part II of the Fifth Schedule to the Nigerian Constitution, public officers swear an oath of allegiance to the country and to defend the Constitution. But they don’t. They act as if they are above the law. They disrespect the courts. They choose what aspect of the legal dispensation is convenient for them, often times, those aspects that grant them the lee-way to punish and dehumanise any person or group that they consider, in their own reckoning, an enemy of the state. Due to systemic failure, the institutions and officials who run the engine room of the state are the worst culprits. They play politics when they are supposed to be neutral. They misbehave beyond the margins of error. This then is my problem with the conduct of the Nigeria Police issuing threats that its men would “kill and maim” if anybody goes out tomorrow, October 20, to commemorate the #ENDSARS crisis of October 2020. Should the police even kill anybody, extra-judicially or issue unreasonable threats in the first place? It is the duty of the police to protect every protester and facilitate the people’s right to protest. The Nigerian Police are described as law enforcement officers, and friends of the people. When the same police institution breaks the law and becomes the people’s enemy, an ironic source of agony and frustration, and indeed a notorious chief lawbreaker, it is the very foundation of society itself that is shaken and compromised.

The army of young Nigerians who trooped onto the streets between October 8 and 10, 2020 sought to draw attention to this, even if there were regional differences. In the South, the Generation X and Z who led the protests focussed on the brutality of the Nigerian Police, elite corruption and irresponsibility, power abuse, and extra-judicial killings by state actors. Their counterparts in the North said they had no issue with the conduct of brutal policemen. A few others complained about the bad governance that has made the North a killing field and the hotbed of insecurity. They all asked for Change nonetheless – the common, unifying thread of the protests. It didn’t take long before the typical Nigerian factor overtook the protests. In parts of the North, a pro-establishment group of sponsored thugs eventually joined the protests and attacked civil society activists. In the South, the protests were also hijacked. Police clamped down on the protesters.  In the South, the protests later went out of hand, as #ENDSARS degenerated into organised attacks on the homes of politicians, and the business interests of innocent persons, many of which were either vandalized or razed down and the unveiling and looting of secret places and garages where politicians had hidden COVID-19 palliatives.  In a particularly notorious case in Lagos, a female lawmaker allegedly converted palliatives provided by the Nigerian state into gift items to be distributed during a planned birthday party! Lagos was the epicentre of the protests.

Lekki Toll Gate was the location where many Nigerian youths gathered in their thousands on a daily basis. Matters came to a head on October 20, 2020, when soldiers from the 81 Division of the Nigeria Army, Bonny Camp, Lagos, and a contingent of policemen, invaded the Lekki Toll Gate to disperse the protesters. There have been many versions of what exactly transpired at the Lekki Toll Gate, and a lot of blame games and denials.  Protesters claimed that the military and the police fired live bullets at protesters, and many died or were injured. Nothing has been more surreal.

In response, after the storm, the Federal Government, through the National Economic Council (NEC) directed that special panels of inquiry should be set up across the country, including the Federal Capital Territory, to look into the causes and effects of the protests and make appropriate recommendations especially with regard to compensation for identified and proven victims. While most of the states complied and set up panels of inquiry, the states of Kano, Kebbi, Sokoto, Jigawa, Yobe and Zamfara flatly refused to do so. In total, only 29 states and the FCT constituted the panels and tried to investigate the reported cases of police brutality. Essentially, only the Judicial Panel of Inquiry and Restitution in Lagos State appeared to have made any serious effort. The eight-man panel led by Justice Doris Okuwobi considered about 230 petitions. The Okuwobi panel was given a period of six months to conclude its work, but it was still sitting as of this week, having been granted further extension till October 19, and so far, it has awarded over N400 million as damages to victims of police brutality.

The Lagos panel, and may be a few others, including Enugu and Ekiti, would seem to have shown a measure of commitment to the assignment. Other panels were hampered one way or the other, or they quickly ended their meetings. The panel in Taraba State struggled to conduct investigations but it complained about lack of funding. The panel in Imo state awarded N770.9 million as compensation after considering 145 petitions but there is no evidence that anybody has received any form of compensation. Ekiti state has paid part of the compensation decided upon by the panel of inquiry; but it is yet to pay the outstanding balance due to what they call “paucity of funds.” The panel in Ondo State recommend the payment of N755 million as compensation. As is the case in many other states, it is not clear if anything has been paid. So far, 28 states have so far managed to complete their assignments. Lagos State submitted an interim report, and has now closed shop.  

Whereas the Federal Government has taken the step of asking the states to set up judicial panels of inquiry, it is difficult, a year later to see whether any substantial progress has been made with the original five demands of the protesters viz: (i) immediate release of all arrested protesters; (2) justice for all deceased victims of police brutality and appropriate compensation for their families; (3) Setting up and independent body to oversee the investigation and prosecution of all aspects of police misconduct (within 10 days); (4) In line with the new Police Act, psychological evaluation and retraining (to be confirmed by an independent body) of all disbanded SARS officers before they can be redeployed and (5) Increase police salary so that they are adequately compensated for protecting lives and property of citizens. The key questions to ask are: where are we, a year later? Has anything changed?  I doubt if there is anyone out there who can answer these two questions with his or her full chest. The government of the day promised to address all the five demands. Has it done so? The Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS) was disbanded and renamed SWAT, its officials were asked to report to Abuja for psychiatric evaluation, and redeployment. There is no evidence of success in that regard.

The main issue was the brutality of the police – their sadism and wickedness to the tax payers who maintain them. After the #ENDSARS protests, the wickedness of the police to the people simply went a notch higher. They have not stopped killing people indiscriminately nor have they stopped extorting the people. Even the language of oppression that they speak has not changed. It is as if Nigerian policemen are on a revenge mission against the people they are expected to protect. The #ENDSARS protesters asked for increase in police salary. Some noise has been made about the need to improve the welfare of policemen, and indeed this is important. Nigerian policemen are as much victims of the system as the same people who protest against them. #ENDSARS was symbolically about a lot that is wrong in our society, including the dehumanization of policemen. Many of them lost their lives. Police stations were burnt down. There are hundreds of police children and wives out there whose breadwinners died in the course of the #ENDSARS protests. Not all policemen are corrupt and unkind, indeed many actually empathised with the protesters in October 2020, an indication of the complex nature of that event. In matters such as this, however, the lines are never so clear cut. There are good and bad cops just as there are good and bad citizens. In October 2020, we saw all of that on display.

Without making excuses for anyone, the #ENDSARS looks more like the boiling over of the Nigerian crisis. The villain is the Nigerian state itself and its bad managers, who do not care enough about issues of justice, equity and accountability. While openly, the government claimed that it was working on trying to establish the truth and compensate victims, the same government and its officials constantly lied about the details of what transpired: who ordered the troops to Lekki Toll Gate? Did the soldiers use live bullets? Did anybody die? How about the persons who were reportedly taken to hospitals or persons who jumped into the Lagoon? Who invited the military into what was a civil incident? We may never ever know the truth about these matters, and that is the way Nigeria is. And it is why Nigeria has trust and accountability issues and the gap between the people and those they have elected to lead them continues to widen.  

One year after, it is appropriate to remember the history, heroism and drama of October 2020. The heroes are the young people of Nigeria, the civil society groups and celebrities, who stood up for the truth, those who dared to say No to injustice and brutality and the cruelty of the Nigerian Police. The villains are those agents of the state who fought and brutalised the protesters, the rent-a-crowd charlatans who sought to change the narrative and the state itself that supported a police force that behaves badly. The heroes are the members of the Feminist Coalition and the local and international agents who sustained the protest with cash, food, drinks and entertainment to keep the tempo alive. The villains are the charlatans who, even while government made conciliatory noises, demonstrated by their conduct, the gross hypocrisy of the state, by arresting #ENDSARS protesters and their bank accounts. Many #ENDSARS activists fled abroad and have not returned. Those who stayed behind have been told that they cannot even have a memorial symposium or any event otherwise they will face the full wrath of the law. And of course, there is that other crowd of junior Judases who betrayed their colleagues by colluding with the state.      

The Police should not re-open old wounds by intimidating, harassing and molesting anyone who chooses to remember, commemorate or talk about October 20, 2020. It is the duty of the police to ensure that protests are conducted peacefully and in an orderly fashion. Nigeria’s Inspector-General of Police should call his men to order. Happy #ENDSARS anniversary.

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