The needle sleeps in the haystack

The judicial panel set up by the Lagos state government to find out who authorised the army to shoot the #EndSARS peaceful protesters at the Lekki toll gate on October 20, is now at work.

But let us lower our expectations in the capacity of their lordships to sift the grains from the chaff – and serve us the grains.

The panel faces the rather tough task of sifting the truth from the welter of accusations, allegations, dissembling, half-truths, varnished truths and naked lies. It has never been easy for anyone to find the needle in a haystack.

No one should envy the panel. But the impossible sometimes happens; it may happen here; just don’t cross your fingers unless you want to risk whitlow.

It is not uncharitable to remind ourselves that Nigeria is the graveyard of such public enquiries; they have become no more than safety valves for official escape from sticky points.

        The contest for the truth is between the Lagos state governor, Babajide Sanwo-Olu, and the commander of the 81 division of the Nigerian Army. Last week, the army denied that its personnel shot at the protesters but early this week, its spokesman, Major Osona Olaniyi, admitted in a public statement that the soldiers, at the express invitation of the state governor, came out, gun blazing, to enforce the 24-hour curfew he imposed from 4 pm but later pushed to take effect from 9 pm that night.

        The governor denied that he called in the army because, for one, he does not understand their command structure to resort to their help. Who, between the governor and the army, is telling us the truth? That is the assignment given to the panel; we must wait for its findings. But a few points stick out rather ominously. The first is that under our laws, no state governor is authorised to call in the army. The power to do so is constitutionally vested in the commander-in-chief and is exercised through the military command structure. 

Secondly, it has never been the business of the army to enforce a curfew.

That is the elementary duty of the Nigeria Police, a civil authority whose personnel are trained to handle civil protests.

But in this case, it would have been unwise to invite the police since the protest was against them.

Did the army then take advantage of this vacuum to move in?

Here is a pointer. Olaniyi said that “the situation was fast degenerating into anarchy. It was at this point that LASG requested for the military to intervene in order to restore normalcy.

The intervention of the military followed all laid down procedures for internal security operations and all the soldiers involved acted within the confines of the rule of engagement for internal security operations.”

We do not know what those rules of engagements are but we can safely assume that unlike the police, the military does not need to warn the protesters and give them a window within which to leave the scene of the protest. With the police, if they fail to obey, they risk some rough handling, not death.

Perhaps, that was why, from the reports that no one has credibly denied, the army arrived and without warning, opened fire on the peaceful protesters who molested no one and were not a threat to anyone.

Is that how to enforce a curfew? Enforcing a curfew simply means forcing people to obey the law with the use of reasonable force but not with live bullets.

The fact is that we are dealing with a more complicated issue than perhaps we assume here.

A civil protest, such as #EndSARS, is usually seen as the handwork of the enemies of government.

It makes the government uncomfortable and, understandably, leads to a panic reaction to stop the enemies of the government. As the protests got under way, the army, sure that the hand and the voice were those of anyone but Esau and Jacob, respectively, concluded that the #EndSARS protest was less about police brutality but more about the Buhari administration.

As the protests got under way, the military high command announced that it had launched a security operation code-named Operation Crocodile Smile VI against “subversive elements, terrorists and cybercriminals.”

On Monday this week, October 26, the chief of army staff, Lt-General Tukur Buratai, was quoted by the army spokesman, Col Sagir Musa, as having told principal staff officers, general officers commanding and field commanders: “The events in the past few weeks in our dear nation have shown the determination of some unscrupulous individuals and groups to destabilise Nigeria by all means.

These individuals, groups and other undesirable elements have hijacked the peaceful #EndSARS protest marches resulting in widespread violence, acts of wanton destruction and looting of public and private properties in many parts of the country.”

In effect, the army chief needed no one to tell him that the faceless “undesirable elements” had become a threat to “our country” and needed to be stopped.

Doing so is his sworn duty to the nation and the commander-in-chief. No one can dispute that.

What is not so certain is how far he can unilaterally take things into his own hands and act as if he is running a parallel government. At the same meeting with his very senior officers, Buratai ordered them to stop the widespread looting; the inspector-general of police, Mohammed Adamu, ordered the police to do the same.

The army intervention could only lead to the shooting of the looters. I thought this was a purely police business and the police ought to be allowed to do their duty.

It is dangerous for the army to insinuate itself into duties that are best performed by the Nigeria Police. We should not allow the boundary between the purely military functions and police functions to be blurred because it can result in the conflation of their duties and, therefore, confusion.

The Lekki toll gate killing was clearly avoidable. The youth who took position there to carry on their protest were not the looters and the arsonists that the army chief saw as the foot soldiers of the undesirable elements.

A government might be jittery about public protests as a function of the people’s right to dissent but such protests ventilate the system and prevent the people from bottling up their frustrations and grievances with the potential to explode with predictable results.

President Buhari himself supported the right of the youth to protest police brutality. We know of no order given by him to the security agencies to brutally end the protest.

The president responded to the demands of the protesters and disbanded SARS and promised police reforms. All right and civilised.

But in their zeal to please their commander-in-chief, the army has thrown ashes in his mouth.

Long after this, the nation and the world would remember our own Black Tuesday and the death of innocent youth in the hands of the Nigerian Army, whether or not the Lagos state governor invited them to enforce the curfew. In his state of the nation address this week, the Serving Overseer of Citadel Global Community Church, Pastor Tunde Bakare, said: “The Nigerian landscape is filled to the brim with the blood of its citizens.

By its brutal repression of unarmed protesters, the Nigerian state has blood on its hands.”

That is the problem. The state, for which the Buhari administration is to carry the watering can and Black Tuesday might become, perhaps unfairly, a reference point in the president’s relationship with the people and his degree of tolerance or intolerance of dissent.

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