Insight

#EndSARS: Uncommon protests with unpredictable outcomes

For two weeks, Nigerian youths, hitherto docile and submissive, held the country, nay the whole world, spellbound with their resolute protests seeking an end to police brutality and bad governance. But after sponsored thugs hijacked the protests, Nigeria was pushed to the precipice, writes ABIODUN BELLO

“It hit all of us like a thunderbolt and it was just a wakeup call.” That was how Governor Babajide Sanwo-Olu of Lagos State described the #EndSARS protests. The mass of Nigerian youths had on October 7 begun demonstrations to ask for an end to harassment, extortion, illegal arrest/detention, brutality, and extrajudicial killings by a unit of the Nigeria Police Force, the Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS), as well as all other atrocious activities of the police in general. Government and, by extension, the generality of Nigerians expected that the protests would, as usual, be a flash in the pan.

But the demonstration, which was initially confined to Lagos and Abuja, swelled up in style and content. It started to spread, on a daily basis, to other major cities and towns of some states. It did not stop there; it also grew in size and soon spread to almost every nook and cranny of Nigeria. It did not spare even the villages, especially in the South-West, South-East and South-South. Like the Frankenstein monster, it later took a life of its own.

It was not the first time youths of Nigeria have demonstrated against perceived bad polices, actions or inactions of government. The #End SARS protest itself was not new. In 2019, when the End SARS protest was organised, the government made promises, including reforms of not only the dreaded unit but the police as a whole. A committee was emplaced, which went round states and police commands. Recommendations were made and reportedly submitted to President Muhammadu Buhari.

Promises were made. But if actions were taken on the recommendations, they were probably not visible, effective or were half-heartedly implemented. With the promise by the Federal Government to reform police, the protest ended, died and was buried. Or so it seemed then.

Things returned to ‘normal’ as SARS became more brutal and continued its atrocities. But on September 19, 2020, in Port Harcourt, Rivers State, the dreaded unit caused the death of a budding 20-year-old song writer and recording artist, Daniel Chibuike aka Sleek. The day, which started beautifully for the young musician, ended in a bloody encounter with members of SARS.

Sleek and his friend, Reuben, just came out from the latter’s house when SARS members attempted to arrest them. Afraid of what they would probably go through in the hands of the vicious SARS members, the young men, on an impulse, took to their heels.

For Sleek, it turned out to be a fatal decision. The SARS members gave the lads a hot chase. But when they realised they could not matched the young boys in speed, they employed an old trick. The SARS men started southing thieves, thieves! On hearing their shout, a Mobile Policeman attached to a supermarket at Elelenwo area of Port Harcourt fired a volley of shots at the running friends. One of the shots not only caught Sleek, it cut short his life.

Sleek didn’t die immediately. May be he would have lived if the conscienceless policemen had helped him to the hospital. They left him to die in a pool of his own blood in front of the supermarket. Ruben begged and pleaded with them to rush the victim to the hospital but they refused and asked him to shut up. They later took both Sleek’s body and his friend to Miniokoro Police Station from where they later transferred Reuben to the State Criminal Investigations and Intelligence Department (SCIID).

Sleek’s elder brother said a witness called the victim’s mother to inform her of what happened. He said: “My mum went to the DPO’s office at Akpajo, Elelenwo and he said they shot him in the leg, that it was a mistake. He said they rushed him to the hospital, and asked us to go and check, but on getting there, we found out that he was already dead and in the mortuary. “The DPO later asked us to leave his office and even threatened to detain my mum.” Sleek’s hopes and aspirations of becoming a global brand were killed at the dawn of his life.

But with Sleek’s death, the End SARS protest rose from its aches and became not only a demonstration but a movement; an agitation for an end not only to police brutality but bad governance. Describing what had been on for more than 14 days as a thunderbolt may seem a misnomer. But a deeper reflection shows that the Lagos State governor may also be right in his assertion. No one, not even the protesters, could have accurately predicted its outcome.

In the usual Nigerian protest, it would have ended when Sanwo-Olu delivered the protesters’ demands to President Buhari in Aso Rock. But the Nigerian youths had probably thought of the maxim: “Once bitten, twice shy.”

They refused to end the protest with a mere promise. The Nigerians youths have been taken for granted for too long. They have been variously described as lazy, indolent, comfort-seekers and a band of internet fraudsters. But a two-week of consistency and peacefully well-organised demonstrations has put a lie to all the negative appellations which the leaders have given the Nigerian youth.

But like the protesters said in a WhatsApp message, in two weeks the Nigerian youth created an administration that worked. It reads: “We raised funds. We fed thousands of people, people were actually returning food saying ‘I have eaten, pass it to people at the back’.

“We provided security for ourselves. We set up a legal team that bailed protesters out of police dungeons. We created a health care system that worked. We created a call centre, basically our own 911 that you could call for anything protest based. “We provided basic amenities. We made sleeping on the protest grounds more comfortable than what many Nigerians had at home. And we did it together. Everybody just stood up one morning and said ‘I can provide this’. And they did.” This is true.

One of the groups backing the peaceful protests, Feminist Coalition, said within two weeks it raised over N147 million and disbursed over N60 million. Would it not be beneficial if, instead of suppressing the youth, the Nigerian government, not only borrow a leaf from the youth but tap from the skills just displayed by the Nigerian youth for the socio-political, economic and technological development of Nigeria.

As the protests grounds, including the states considered traditionally as enclaves of predictably dogmatic establishment followers such as Kano, among others, were swelling up with agitators, concerns were also grow-ing among political leaders that the protests, if not stopped, might bring about a citizenry that would kick against the old order. This probably explained the introduction of thuggery, which many people believed was state-sponsored.

That also became part of the flesh of the Frankenstein monster, which later turned to hunt not only its creator but the creator’s family members. The Lagos State Commissioner of Police, Hakeem Odumosu, confirmed that the protest was peaceful before it was hijacked by thugs. He said: “It’s crystal clear that the End SARS protest has been hijacked by hoodlums who want to run down the state and the police command will resist such state of anarchy, unrest and brouhaha with all powers within the ambit of the law.”

Within a few days after the protests were hijacked, several police stations, government buildings, infrastructure, facilities and individuals’ properties have either been vandalised or burnt. Several policemen have been killed across the country by the thugs who hijacked the protests, which even the government confirmed, were peaceful. Banks, shopping malls, fuel stations, and even schools were not left out of the gale of arson and vandalism. Media houses were not also spared in the destruction, vandalism and arson.

The thugs later turned their attention to warehouses housing palliatives meant to cushion the effects of the coronavirus pandemic. It started in Lagos with a ‘discovery’ of a warehouse at Masamasa, a community on the outskirts of the Lagos metropolis, initially thought to belong to an individual who probably diverted the palliatives.

But it soon moved to Osun, Ekiti, Ondo, Kogi, and Plateau states, as well as the Federal Capital Territory (FCT), among others, where residents and hoodlums broke into several warehouses and looted COVID-19 palliatives.

In the FCT, three women were trampled to death on Monday when residents overpowered security men, including soldiers, guarding what is described as the biggest and largest warehouse in the territory and looted palliatives.

A day earlier, four people, among them a child, were trampled to death when hoodlums looted a warehouse full of COVID-19 palliatives in Lokoja, the Kogi State capital. It was instructive that Governor Yahaya Bello has vehemently denied the existence of coronavirus in Kogi State.

So, it is baffling why his government was hoarding the palliatives. On Monday, the administration of Governor Dapo Abiodun tried vainly to outsmart the hoodlums when it decided to share the COVID-19 palliatives to residents in Ijebu-Ode, Sagamu and Ifo local government areas.

But the thugs were probably smarter. They invaded the distribution centres and hijacked the palliatives. Thugs have also stolen guns from some of the burnt police stations which could pose a great risk to the generality of Nigerians. The Akwa Ibom State Police Public Relations Officer (PPRO), Mr. Odiko Macdon, shared this sentiment when he warned citizens to be vigilant.

In a statement in Uyo, Macdon said the warning became necessary following the targeted attacks on police stations and prisons in which some criminals carted away arms and am-munition. According to him, most of the criminals, who escaped from the correctional centres during the prison breaks, have relocated to safer areas to avoid being re-arrested, while hoodlums, who seized weapons from the burnt police stations, could deploy the arms against the ordinary citizens.

He said: “To those of us that like going out at night or staying out till late night, kindly readjust your schedule and reduce your late night movements. Remember, many guns have been carted away by hoodlums and many of them will use the same guns to attack and rob innocent citizens under the cover of darkness. Remember, most policemen may not be on the road because several police stations were burnt by hoodlums. If we must go out, let us do so and come back home on time.

“Again, many prisoners, who escaped from prisons in different parts of the country may likely change location and relocate to another city to continue their criminal activities. “The consequences of recent happenings will undoubtedly contribute to increase in crime rate. Let us be sensitive and security conscious every time we go out.”

The thugs have literally set Nigeria on fire with the rate of killings, maiming, looting, arson, and vandalism still ongoing in almost every part of the country. The damage done to infrastructure is enormous and unquantifiable. In Lagos alone, over 20 police stations were burnt.

The media houses burnt in the state were the Television Continental (TVC), Max FM, and the Nation Newspaper. Banks vandalised included the Zenith Bank, GTB and Polaris Bank, all on Admiralty Way, Lekki, among other banks in other places. Other places attacked included the Palace of Oba Rilwan Akiolu of Lagos, a Forensic Lab, Lagos State High Court, Oriental Hotel, Lekki Toll Gate, Lekki Concession Company (LCC), the BRT buses at both Oyingbo and Berger, Governor Sanwo-Olu’s family house, Ajeromi Ifelodun Local Government Secretariat, cars on the premises of Ministry of the Environment, Alausa, and the Nigeria Ports Authority Building, Marina. The list is endless. According to reports, each of the 27 of the burnt BRT buses at the Oyingbo and Ojodu Berger costs $200,000, while 57 others cost $100,000 each.

This gives a total figure of N3.9 billion. Giving a conservative estimate, the Speaker of the House of Representatives, Femi Gbajabiamila, said Lagos State would need about N1 trillion for the reconstruction and repairs of the properties and infrastructure either vandalised or torched by hoodlums. Gbajabiamila said this while responding to questions from State House Correspondents after the assessment visitation of some of the properties.

He said: “I learnt from the governor of Lagos State that it will take N1 trillion to rebuild what had been lost and asked him what’s the budget size of the state, he said about N1 trillion. You can see we are moving backwards.

“Hence, we must consider the consequences of our actions before embarking on any venture. I, therefore, appeal to the youth to allow peace to reign henceforth. I still believe in the unity of Nigeria.” Also on Sunday, during a tour of Lagos State, governors of South- West and ministers from the region expressed shock at the level of destruction wrought on the Centre of Excellence.

At a joint press conference held after the tour, the Chairman of South- West Governors’ Forum who is also the Ondo State Governor, Rotimi Akeredolu, likened Lagos to a war zone, given the extent of the damage. Akeredolu said there was an agenda beyond the protests against police brutality.

He said: “We are deeply concerned with the ease with which public buildings, utilities, police stations and investment of our people have been burnt despite the proximity of security agencies in those areas.

The development leaves us with no other option than to believe that there may be other reasons for continued protests, well-coordinated and funded. “We are particularly worried that 48 hours after the unfortunate incident at the Lekki Toll Gate by persons adorning military outfit, there has been no definitive statement from the military authorities on the incident. Our anxiety becomes heightened by the categorical denial of the governor of Lagos State concerning the military deployment. No governor has powers to authorise deployment of military personnel in Nigeria.”

The delegation demanded an investigation into the circumstances which led to the destruction of public assets and private businesses in Lagos. But Sanwo-Olu asked Nigerian leaders to allow the lessons of the protests to galvanise them into taking positive steps to give Nigeria good governance.

He said: “I genuinely believe there would be change. For two reasons; what has happened, especially in Lagos is extremely unimaginable. Also, it was also a clarion call for all of us in government understanding and realising what the youth want us to be doing. It hit all of us like a thunderbolt and it was just a wakeup call.”

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