The shooting of the #EedSARS protesters who had been camping at the Lekki Toll Plaza in Lagos has sparked both local and global outrage with many countries demanding a probe of the incident. In this interview with ONWUKA NZESHI, a security strategies and former Provost Marshal of the Nigeria Army, Brigadier Idada Ikponmwen (rtd) looks at the shooting incident, the various dimensions of the protest as well as their underpinnings
What is your reaction to the shooting of protesters at the Lekki Toll Gate in Lagos?
Well, the Governor of Lagos State appears to have reacted swiftly to the incident and has talked about instituting an investigation into the incident. I hope the investigation will unravel those responsible for that sad development.
On the other hand the military has said that they did not send anybody there how much more to shoot at the protesters. So, against this background, one cannot say anything with any degree of certainty. But outside that, so many people within and outside Nigeria as well as international organisations have condemned the incident and also called for investigations to understand what really happened that fateful night.
The outcry around the world is because it appears that excessive force has been used against peaceful protesters. If it is true that the military was used against the protesters, it is highly condemnable.
The deployment of soldiers to quell civil protests is uncalled for and unnecessary. These are unarmed civilians on a peaceful protest who are demanding for their rights to be treated well by the police in their own country. It is unfortunate.
The shooting incident came same day the Nigeria Army launched Operation Crocodile Smile VI nationwide. Could this be a coincidence?
There is a popular saying that there are no bad leaders but bad advisers. Unfortunately, that cannot hold in the presidential system that we run in Nigeria. This is a President who was voted by the people and enjoys the mandate of the people.
So this idea of advisers taking the blame when things go wrong is not ideal. We cannot say with certainty who is responsible for what happened but even so, it is true that leaders take advice from those who work with them or work for them.
We are all of different backgrounds and different specialties. If you ask my opinion on this issue of Operation Crocodile Smile and some of the utterances by the Minister of Information, I will tell you that it came at the wrong time. It shouldn’t have come at all. This protest had already started when suddenly Nigerians were told about the operation by the military authorities.
They even gave a date for the launch of the operation and it was this same Tuesday that this attack on protesters happened.
Before then, the Minister of Information had said that government had granted enough concession and they would not concede any more. All these were not coming from the President but from his men and all of a sudden we heard gunshots being fired at the Lekki Toll Gate. Who wouldn’t believe that the invasion was ordered by the government given the sequence of the events?
In my village, they say the witch cried at night and the baby died in the morning. Whom do you blame for the child’s death? Would you blame anybody who accuses the witch of killing the child?
So this kind if thing, the Army may deny, the governor may deny but why should this thing happen at that place and at that time? This is why wellmeaning people inside Nigeria and in the Diaspora as well as the international community can easily believe that it is the government that is behind the shooting incident in Lekki. Even if the government is innocent, I think this thing came at wrong time.
To cap it all, it is not part of the Rules of Engagement of the military for soldiers to be used in such a situation. The role of the military in the constitution is very clear. When some of us talk, we are looking at loyalty to the constitution and the laws as the standard. I expect that a lot more thoroughness has to be brought into governance.
Even the military authorities, Ministry if Defence, Ministry of Justice and Ministry of Foreign Affairs should be able to advise the President on some of these things that embarrass not just the administration but the whole country.
What advice can you offer to Nigerians on the crisis at this time?
I call very strongly for restraint on the parts of both the government and the protesters. I think we need to direct a lot of our energies towards finding solutions to our common problems. We need to exercise caution because the hoodlums and miscreants are taking advantage of the present crisis.
The situation should not have been allowed to get to where anybody will feel justified to burning vehicles and government properties. If care is not taken, before we know it, things will get out of control. In fact things are going out of control in some parts of the country.
In Benin City, Edo State, two prisons were broken into and many prisoners escaped; in Abuja, we saw cars being burnt and particular car dealer said 40 of his cars which were on sale at his shop, were burnt. We also saw vehicles that were conveying the so called miscreants and hoodlums into the city, invariably to counter the protesters.
A lot of people have interpreted it to mean that these were thugs hired by some people in government to attack the peaceful protesters. I think this is quite condemnable.
But like I said before, this is the time for restraint from all sides. Nobody is going to benefit from this situation getting worse. We do not want a situation where anarchy will be the order of the day because when that happens, every life and every property will be endangered.
If we allow this situation to degenerate further, it would be very dangerous because when government feels overwhelmed it might lead to a declaration of a state of emergency across the country. I think that the best thing to do now is for all well-meaning Nigerians, all opinion leaders, all traditional rulers, all religious leaders and everyone in positions of authority to appeal to the protesters to give peace a chance.
They have made their point and a lot of Nigerians support the demands they’ve made during the peaceful protest. Nearly everybody agrees with them that there is need for these issues to be addressed. We all agree that there is need for better governance in the country.
Everybody knows that there are lots of flaws in our governance system. There are immediate things that need to be done but there are also certain things that will take a little longer before they can be addressed. So we must create the atmosphere now to enable government to do the needful. We cannot make changes without the cooperation and full support of the people.
However, the government must take urgent steps towards rolling out the reforms needed to transform our country. If government does not rise the oc casion and allows the citizens to bring the reforms by force, that will lead to the anarchy which we are trying to avoid. We must do everything now to appeal to the protesters not to allow anybody to take advantage of what they are doing.
It is normal that when there is massive movement of people agitating for a better society, miscreants will come in and I regret to say that this cannot but be so in an environment where there is so much poverty, suffering and mass unemployment especially among the youthful segment of the population. The danger inherent is so large and could be so devastating that we need to apply the brake now.
In the last few days, a number of state governments have imposed curfews on their domains but the Federal Government has been largely silent. Do you think we can make headway with these curfews alone?
In a situation like this where crisis is spreading all over the country, it is imperative that the President and Commander -In – Chief should come out and talk to his people. They elected him and even those who didn’t vote for him during the election have acquiesced to his leadership. So he is everybody’s President and it is his responsibility to attend to the needs of every citizen of Nigeria.
At this time, the government of Nigeria under the leadership of President Muhammadu Buhari has only two options. It is either they use whatever measures it can to suppress disorder or declare a state of emergency nationwide. To my mind, none of these two measures will be desirable. So silence is not the answer. The government must take charge by doing those things that will convince the people that the measures being taken are directed at solving the problems.
There are issues outside the police reforms which have been placed before the government, how should these be approached?
We know that there are issues such as changing the structure of governance. It is not something that can be done overnight. Therefore, the machinery for such a demand to be met must be set in motion. If people see such machinery set in motion; if people see things that can be done now being done immediately, the tension will come down. The option of declaring a state of emergency nationwide is not attractive because that will have so many repercussions.
It would be that there is a complete breakdown of law and order in Nigeria. It means that the government would invoke marshal law and the normal laws will be suspended and no longer be in operation. The constitution will also be suspended and all the democratic structures will be disbanded and it will be rule by force.
I don’t think that Nigerians and the world at large would accept such a situation. So the long and short of the story is for the government to take the necessary actions on the demands of the people.
This protest started with #EndSARS but when the government announced the disbandment of SARS, the protesters came up with other demands. Were you surprised about that development?
No. Not at all. I can’t be surprised because most of the issues raised by the protesters are issues that have been in the public domain but which government had failed to address for several years. I have said several times that things have not been going well in this country.
Since the return to democracy in 1999, successive governments have refused or have been unwilling to listen to advice on what is supposed to be done to make things better. We have said times without number that the 1999 Constitution is at the root of our problems.
It is a defective document that can take us anywhere but to stagnation and anarchy. You can’t build good governance on a defective constitution. Since 1999, no government has done much to ensure that something is done holistically to bring about a new constitution.
We can’t continue to amend the bad constitution using politicians in the National Assembly. The constitution is bad; it is bad; you set the machinery in motion to produce a new one. There is no constitution unless it is derived from the people. We cannot expect a good government from a bad constitution. That is the truth and the earlier we address this challenge, the better. I will continue to emphasise that successive governments are guilty, not just the present one.
However, a lot of people expected a lot more from the present government led by President Muhammadu Buhari because he was known to be a patriot, a no nonsense man who has zero tolerance for corruption and a man who promised to change the system for the better.
This is a man who promised to tackle a lot of the challenges plaguing the country but six years down the line, his administration has not been able to address many of these issues. So why won’t there be a lot of resentment and discontentment in the polity? You cannot have peace where the environment is unfair and unjust? So, I think that some things need to be done urgently. Nigeria is a heterogeneous country.
We have people with diverse cultural, ethnic and religious background and the best governance system is federalism. This was what was agreed by our founding fathers before our independence. Today, everybody knows that what we are running is far from the federal system of government. We are indeed, running a unitary system of government and the obvious challenge is that unitarism cannot be applied in a plural society.
There are calls for investigations into the Lekki toll plaza shooting incident but both the Nigeria Army and the Lagos State Government have been fingered in the incident. Who will investigate this matter for the truth to be unraveled?
Well, I know that current protests and demonstrations by the people derived mainly from lack of trust in the government, but we still cannot go and bring people from outside to come and investigate this matter for us. We should learn to have trust in our system. We have to repose trust in our system. We have a government in place.
Any probe that does not involve the sitting government is not likely to work. I think that everybody should persuade the government to do things that will win the trust of the people. It is not too late. I am a patriotic Nigerian who wants a united Nigeria but you cannot have a united Nigeria if the component units are at odds with themselves.
There cannot be peaceful coexistence if the people in an environment are not comfortable with the arrangement under which they live. It is obvious; the best system of government in a
plural society is federalism. This system where the states have to go to Abuja to collection monthly allocations and subventions is abnormal. In an ideal situation, the central government should be looking up to the federating units, states and regions for support to run the few but basic national issues that are common to the whole country.
How did we get here?
The whole trouble started with the military intervention in 1966 and the promulgation of the Unification Decree.
It was an emergency situation and those who ran the country at that time saw the need to bring all the resources together so as to be able to fight the war and keep the nation together. Since it was a war situation, it could be justified at that time but it can no longer be justified today. We have left that era and military regimes are no longer fashionable.
The military has handed over power to democratically elected governments in 1979 and 1999. We have had at least, 21 consecutive years of civil rule since 1999 and we shouldn’t be carrying on with a system created out of the emergency of the Civil War.
Nigeria is still being run as if it was a military set up. Our governance system is still on a civil war mode. The resources of the regions have been confiscated by the central government which also issues orders to the component units.
The states are virtually powerless. If you look at the legislative list of the country, about three quarters of items on the list belong to the Exclusive List which is handled by the Federal Government. Even the few items that belong to the states, the Constitution says that when the central government makes a law on matters on the Concurrent List, the laws made by the state on the same subject becomes null and void. It means that the powers of government are predominantly at the centre. This is the direct opposite and antithesis of a federalist system.
As we speak, the police is centralised and we are talking about community policing. How can that work?
Every political and constitutional reform conference that I have attended recommended that the police should be decentralised even up to the local government level. If private companies, banks, hospitals and even churches have security units which serve as their police, why do we think the component parts of our federation must not have their own police? There are federal laws and there are state laws but how can you use a centralised police to enforce state laws.
These are anomalies in our federation and I expected our governments since the military handed over to have addressed this matter. Instead of the National Assembly to address these constitutional lapses, they have concentrated on their personal interests.
I don’t want to castigate anybody but we all know what happened to the Political Reform Conference that was set up by the Olusegun Obasanjo administration in 2005.
They abandoned the task of coming up with serious changes in the constitution and were pursuing the third term ambition. Look at Jonathan’s National Conference (CONFAB 2014) in which I was a delegate; at the beginning, it was agreed that constitutional issues will be taken to a referendum, things that touch on law will be taken to the National Assembly while policy issues will be addressed by the executive immediately. Unfortunately, when the President came to close the CONFAB, nothing of that nature was mentioned anymore and the whole thing has been abandoned. So if these things happened across two regimes, it means we have consistently failed to address these nagging issues.
Are you saying that it is this plethora of unresolved national questions that are fuelling the current uprising?
Of course, straight away. We should not allow politicians who play up ethnic and religious cards to divert our attention from the real issues confronting us. The call for restructuring and other constitutional reforms has been reverberating across Nigeria. It has been accepted nationwide – in the East, West, South-South, Middle Belt and even the North.
So who is actually stopping this restructuring? Who in Nigeria today does not know that restructuring or repositioning of the polity has become necessary? Some people pretend that they do not understand what restructuring means but they do.
Who told you they don’t understand it? I’ve said and will continue to say that you cannot put something on nothing and expect it to stand.
You can’t place good governance on a constitution that is faulty. It is this faulty foundation that has made Nigerians not to trust their government at every level. This is the root of all the anger, frustration and agitation you’re seeing on the streets.
What would you like to see in a restructured Nigeria?
Let the states or regions have their own police to maintain law and order. Most of the states as presently constituted are not viable. You may find two or three that are viable but what about the rest?
This is why the 2014 Confab recommended that a cluster of states could merge and pull their resources together for development of common infrastructure and services. There is no gain in having 36 states all coming cap in hand to Abuja before they can do anything.
There can be no federal system where the powers are at the centre. We can’t run away from the fact that we need a national constitution that suits our peculiar environment but the states/ regions should also have their own constitutions to govern their own affairs.
Until we get the constitution that meets the yearnings and aspirations of our plural society, we will continue to waste time and postpone the evil day