Peaceful protest, pathway to peace

The reaction of the Lagos State Government and the Nigerian Police Force to the return of protesters under #OccupyLekkiTollgate exposed the failure to acceptance of the right of people to make demands of their government. The renewed call for civil disobedience was precipitated by the order granted by the Lagos State Judicial Panel on Restitution for Victims of SARS and the Lekki Tollgate incident of October 20, 2020, for Lekki Concession Company (LCC) to repossess the Lekki Tollgate.

As a site of the killing of young Nigerians by the Nigerian Army, many have agitated that the Tollgate should remain as is until the panel completes its findings and restitution agreed upon for victims. There were also suggestions for erecting a memorial for the victims of police brutality in general and the victims of the Lekki massacre in particular at the site.

Unfortunately, the Lagos State Government reacted negatively to these calls to protest. Political adverts on state television conflating the #EndSARS protests with the violence that followed the Lekki Massacre were played repeatedly. A concerted social media campaign was launched to counter the message of the #OccupyLekkiTollgate. LCC held a press conference appealing to its financial losses. A massive police presence was also deployed from the Friday 12th. Predictably, this led to the arrest of potential protesters and even ordinary random citizens. With reports and videos of torture and human rights abuses of protesters, it laid bare the very issues that necessitated the #EndSARS movement.

The very problems youths across the country mobilized to demonstrate against last year are still present today. The use of massive numbers of police to harass a very small number of peaceful protesters is a clear indication of where the priorities of the ruling class are focused. The full force of the Rapid Response Squad was mobilized against unarmed days after toll collectors of the National Union of Road Transport Workers (NURTW) and the Road Transport Employers’ Association of Nigeria (RTEAN) engaged in an armed confrontation right in front of a major police facility. The subsequent days saw continued challenges to state authority by bandits and kidnappers who seem to operate almost with impunity.

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The press statement of the Police Commissioner for Lagos, CP Hakeem Odumosu, condemning the torture of protesters and ordering the Deputy Commissioner for State Criminal Investigation Department (SCID) to investigate it was met with scepticism by a public used to such press releases not followed up by visible action. The use of the criminal investigation department, rather than X-Squad, for investigating police malpractice also calls into question the sincerity of the police authorities to find and punish the officers responsible for the dehumanising treatment of the protesters.

What these events demonstrate is that the problems of police brutality extend beyond rogue officers and out-of-control units. Far too many agencies of government have credible allegations of violating the rights of ordinary citizens levelled against them. Any attempt to address these issues must answer the fundamental questions of how the state interacts with the governed. It will also require concerted efforts to ensure that officers who step out of bounds are disciplined to serve as a deterrent to others.

The failure of the ruling class to appreciate peaceful protest as a key component of any vibrant democracy threatens its long term survival. Protest, voting and civil advocacy constitute the means for citizens to express their wishes and shape the policy direction of the state. For a political class that has largely walled itself off from their constituents to insist that peaceful protests are not welcome is unbecoming of people who have benefitted from past protests. It is the height of hypocrisy for politicians willing to deploy unsanctioned violence to steal ballots to insist that the same sullied ballot box is the only acceptable means of expressing their grievances. The use of excessive force to suppress such expression only increases popular support for radicalized elements willing to use violence against the state to achieve political aims.

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For a nation facing the Gordian knot of insecurity at several fronts, it is most unwise to make civil agitation more difficult. The political class must find ways to engage with a more aware population that will no longer be silenced. It must also recognise that not every problem is a hammer that will be met by the hammer of state violence. Politicians must be ready to meet their electorate and work out compromises that cater to legitimate concerns. To do otherwise is to invite trouble for everyone.

Damimola Olawuyi is an aircraft engineer with an airline in Nigeria and a geopolitical analyst when not fixing aircraft.

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