Any hopes that we are going to quickly move on from the tragic #EndSARS protests and enter into the phase of reconstruction and rehabilitation are disappearing by the day as the federal government closes in on the promoters and supporters of the mass action. A lawyer who actively supported the protests was barred from travelling abroad; bank accounts of many protest promoters have been frozen; a company the Corporate Affairs Commission (CAC) mistakenly thought was involved in the protest has been deregistered for “deviation” from its objectives, and a lawyer has filed a lawsuit against everybody and anybody who tweeted in support of the protests.
Some campaigners have also been picked up and their lawyers are working overtime to secure their release. Mr Femi Falana, the senior lawyer who has been at the centre of the fight for human rights, rule of law and democracy in Nigeria for decades — including under military dictatorships — has been “reported” to the International Criminal Court (ICC), which prosecutes mainly war crimes. He is accused of inciting the rioters and looters. The petitioner wants Falana to pay $2 billion (only) in damages. By and large, there is a flurry of co-ordinated actions targeted at those who endorsed, supported or promoted the mass protests that rocked Nigeria to its very foundations.
In a sense, one can argue that the ruin we saw in October 2020 was unprecedented. The Civil War of 1967-70 was, after all, a war — so it belongs in a different category. The scale of the destruction in the wake of the #EndSARS protests in Lagos state alone is heartbreaking. Ambulances and health centres were set on fire — and you just have to question the motive. The DNA and Forensic Laboratory, said to be the only one in Nigeria, was burnt down. Buses that ferry millions of passengers monthly were set ablaze. Private businesses, shops and banks were not spared. The anarchy within such a short time was unrivalled. You don’t want to see anything like that again.
The protests started on a benign note: to curtail the excesses of the special anti-armed robbery squad (SARS), a police unit that was created in 1984 when — now this is an irony — President Muhammadu Buhari was the military head of state. Over time, SARS had lacked any respect for human life or dignity. Mr Fulani Kwajafa, a retired police commissioner, recently told the BBC: “SARS of today is not the same SARS I established in 1984… I always tell my wife that I was sad [that] what I created with good purpose and direction has been turned into banditry.” That Buhari would be confronted with casting out the demon 36 years later is something you cannot easily make up.
The #EndSARS campaign did not start this year, but the government never took it seriously. Each time there was public outcry, the police would announce a “reform”. The harassments, tortures and extrajudicial killings continued unreformed. All you needed to become a suspect was to wear a tattoo, grow dreadlocks or keep an ATM card in your wallet. You could be dead before you knew it. How an anti-robbery unit went full-time into physically fighting cyber crimes is a good topic for researchers. The long and short of it all is that the failure to rein in SARS eventually landed the country in a horrible place. The cost of recovery is not just heavy, some losses are irreversible.
After the protest was hijacked, I was not expecting the government to give the organisers a pat on the back. I doubt any government would do that. But I was not expecting a crackdown either. It would only escalate the situation. However, when the northern governors alleged that this was an attempt at regime change — in simpler words, a plot to remove Buhari as president — I knew this would not go away quickly. But my questions are: do the security agencies have concrete proof that some politicians planned and funded the mayhem in order to forcefully change government outside of constitutional means? Or this is just a knee-jerk reaction? That, to me, is the crux of the matter.
If indeed there was a plot to bring down Buhari by extra-constitutional means, how much of it were the #EndSARS organisers privy to? When you embark on a campaign of this nature and get financial support from the public, all kinds of people will come on board. There will definitely be fifth-columnists and agent provocateurs. It is a fact of life. But the pattern of the crackdown so far shows that among those targeted are many well-meaning Nigerians who only lent their voices to a legitimate campaign against police brutality. The security agencies must separate the wheat from the chaff. This must not become an exercise in trying to stifle voices of dissent in the country.
As I have said probably a million times, when you start mass action, you know the beginning but you may not know the end — or the dimensions it would take. All sorts of people with different motives would jump on board and be saying “End SARS” even when their own agenda is different. In this instance, armed robbers evidently joined in. Yahoo guys were there. Nigerians already burning with anger over economic hardship let rip as well. Some politicians were apparently very involved. #EndSARS started morphing into #BuhariMustGo and #EndNigeria. Some developed END SARS into an acronym for “restructuring”. It was so very easy to read politics into the mayhem.
I previously wrote that I won’t be surprised if state agents also used the opportunity to go after perceived political enemies. We saw videos of men who looked like security operatives arranging thugs to attack protesters in Abuja. A former DSS director said the operatives were the security detail of a senator. Nobody has denied it. The targeting of Asiwaju Bola Tinubu’s assets does not appear to be random to me, based on the reports in the media. There were so many dimensions to the mayhem that will need a comprehensive investigation to unravel. It was more than an #EndSARS campaign or an explosion of public anger. We deserve to know the whole truth.
Going after the activists can only come across as a witch-hunt which I believe would further escalate socio-political tension. Before I am misunderstood, though, I am not saying if the government has criminal evidence against some people, they should be left alone just because they are waving the activist flag. I am not saying the government should fold its arms and watch Nigeria burn. I am not, by any means, challenging the powers of the state to enforce the law. But I would rather the focus is on the looters, hoodlums and rapists — not the peaceful campaigners and promoters who, for all you care, were only exercising their constitutional rights. A blanket crackdown is a no-no.
For now, I would keep appealing to the activists not to be discouraged. With #EndSARS, they have proved that they can mobilise, organise and solidarise. Part of the benefits, in my view, is that they have learnt the hard way: that protests can be end up being hijacked and polarised. Those with “aluta” experience in Nigeria know this very well. There are always people lurking in the corner waiting to pounce whenever there is public disorder. I would advise those whose accounts have been frozen and those arrested to seek every legal support available to clear their names and get justice. This is another opportunity to test our laws and strengthen this democracy.
For the genuine activists, there is always a price to pay. The trick is not to give in or give up. The great Gani Fawehinmi was regularly arrested and detained, usually driven by road at night from Lagos to Gashua prison — a journey of about 1,300km. Gashua, built by the colonial masters, was Nigeria’s most horrible prison. Gani used to sleep on the hot floor inside a mud cell. Mr Abdul Oroh, then executive director of the Civil Liberties Organisation (CLO), was arrested in July 1995 and detained for one year. The wife had just given birth! Nigerian activists saw hell. Now that we have the democracy that they fought for, we have to jealously guard our precious freedoms.
Let me repeat myself: if the government has solid evidence that some people planned and funded the mayhem, then it should go after those people. But there should be no blanket arrest of activists, neither should people’s accounts be randomly frozen just because they were involved in organising the protests. The laws of the land give everyone the freedom of expression. Agitating for a better Nigeria should never be treated as a crime. Government should never give the impression it is desperately out to get people because they spoke out. My final word to the government is that we need healing. We need all the peace we can buy to stabilise this country. A crackdown will not cut it.