1. PEACEFUL ASSEMBLY. First things first. There is NO justification whatsoever for shooting at peaceful protesters. The Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, as well as a number of International human rights protocols Nigeria is signed up to, guarantee the right to peaceful assembly. Shooting at peaceful protesters is condemnable, period.
Regarding the October 20 shooting incident at the Lekki Toll Gate, I very much welcome the inquiry (which starts this week) by the Lagos State Government. I hope that as many witnesses and concerned persons as possible are invited to testify, and that every available credible piece of evidence, including CCTV footage, is brought forward. May the souls of all the innocent dead across Nigeria — civilians and security personnel — rest in peace. These needless deaths will not and must not be in vain, Amen. The Nigerian Police and Military have a critical role to play in ensuring that any personnel found culpable of shooting at peaceful protesters are brought to justice. Anything less would suggest institutional complicity.
It goes without saying that all those who attacked, injured and killed security personnel, must equally be brought to justice!
2. OPPORTUNITY. This is the best opportunity in our lifetime to advance the all-important work of Police Reform. As I said on a recent (rare) TV appearance, never before has the issue of police brutality and police reform been on the front-burner as it is today. The ENDSARS protests succeeded in bringing what has been at best a stubborn undercurrent, onto the first page of public consciousness, and the priority list of national and sub-national governments. As I write this, no fewer than 27 States (i.e 75 percent of the total) have established Judicial Panels of Inquiry to investigate Police brutality, as agreed by the National Economic Council, which brings Governors and the Federal Government together. The Federal Government has disbanded SARS (contrary to reports out there, this is unprecedented, SARS has never been disbanded before; what we have seen have been structural tweaks and attempts at re-organisation). Now the concerns about SWAT, announced by the IG of Police as the SARS successor organisation, the fears about it turning out to be a Remix of SARS, are legitimate, and the onus lies on the Police Force to show the workings of the safeguards that will ensure there is a genuine difference.
3. CREDIBLE MEDIA. Never before, in my view, have we more urgently needed credible media organisations in Nigeria; considering the epidemic of fake news mediated and amplified by digital technologies. So much of what is out there right now is, simply put, Fake News. Some of it inadvertent; but the bulk of it appears to be deliberate and malicious. Look at how many of the photos and videos out there in recent days have turned out to be unconnected with the circumstances to which they were originally connected. We need credible media platforms that are skilled in fact-checking, and can cut through a lot of the bullshit out there, and get as close as possible to the heart of the truth, without partisan or other external agenda.
4. TECHNOLOGY. Yet again, we are seeing the game-changing impact of technology in Nigeria — re-shaping the protest landscape. On display in recent weeks has been the amazing role technology plays in connecting people, amplifying voices, enabling fundraising, and allowing campaigns like this bypass bureaucratic obstacles and bottlenecks. Think about how much of what we have seen in recent weeks would not have been possible twenty years ago.
5. HISTORICAL ANTECEDENTS. Every generation believes it is doing something that has never been done before. There is a saddening element to seeing people dismiss the activism that paved the way for where we are as a nation today. The democracy that we enjoy today, imperfect as it is, was made possible (“powered”, as our favourite brands like to say these days), by the sweat, blood and sacrifice of those who came before us. People faced up to military regimes, lost limb, livelihood and life, fled to exile, to snatch a fragile democracy out of the jaws of anarchy. [Never mind that the biggest beneficiaries of revolutionary action are often not the revolutionaries themselves — the people most primed to benefit are almost always the most organised ones. Life doth reward the organised; it is not under any obligation to reward the ‘organiser’].
Never ever fall for the lie that the present generation is doing something previous generations never did. What might have changed is the tools available (mobile phones and the Internet), not the determination to bring about changed circumstances or the courage to take on a generation-defining mission.
6. ANGER CAN BE GOOD. Anger, properly channelled and managed, has its uses. It was an eruption of justifiable anger by the young people of Nigeria that set in motion the chain of events that made police brutality the most important issue in Nigeria in October 2020.
There’s a Nigerian saying along the lines of “No matter how hot your anger is, it cannot cook yams.” True, on the face of it. But anger can set in motion the process for getting the yam cooked, by disrupting the inertia that has kept it uncooked.
I recently found out that Chief Awolowo’s decision to launch a television station in Ibadan — the first TV station in Africa — was borne out of anger at being denied access to the federally-controlled Nigeria Broadcasting Service (NBS) — a radio service, by the way. It happened in 1953, shortly after Chief Anthony Enahoro moved (in February 1953) a motion for self-government in Nigeria in 1956. Parliamentary representatives from Northern Region opposed the motion, leading to a face-off between North and South. One thing led to another, and Action Group members walked out of Parliament and resigned from Cabinet.
In response, the Governor of Nigeria, John Macpherson, was said to have gone on the NBS to criticize the Action Group. Chief Awolowo naturally expected to be given the right of response on the same platform, but was denied it. This anger and frustration would lead to an insistence, at the Constitutional Conference of July/August 1953, that broadcasting be moved from the exclusive legislative list to the concurrent list — which would break the federal monopoly and allow the regional governments also establish broadcasting services. The Nigerian Broadcasting Act of 1956 followed. On the 31st of October 1959, the Western Nigeria Television Service commenced operations, months ahead of its radio service. That’s just one example of how anger leads to change.
7. PROGRESS. So what’s the way forward? It goes back to Number 1 — here lies a chance to seize hold of the gaping opportunity for true police reform opened up by the ENDSARS protests. But the journey ahead will be long and winding, with none of the natural visibility or optical impact of a street protest. Street protests have their place, they are good for highlighting issues, bringing much-needed focus and a sense of urgency, and extracting quick-wins. In the case of ENDSARS, the street protests compelled the Federal Government to dissolve SARS, and State Governments to set up Judicial Panels of Inquiry.
As far as protest outcomes go, these were substantial wins — let no one say that the protests failed to achieve. The last major protests in Nigeria were the Occupy Nigeria protests, which forced the then Federal Government to review a fuel price increase, as well as set up Panels of Inquiry into allegations of oil sector corruption. In addition, SURE-P was set up. These were, within that context, admirable short- and medium-term wins. But no one would/should have harboured any delusion that the protests by themselves would have secured the stated goal of greater oil sector transparency: The Petroleum Industry Bill (PIB) is still in the process of seeing the light of day. The conclusion and publication of the first-ever audit of the NNPC only happened in 2020, more than four decades after the Corporation was founded, and eight years after the Occupy Nigeria protests. NEITI’s Beneficial Ownership Portal was launched in December 2019. Other efforts are in the works.
That long-term work was never going to happen on the streets. The awareness starts on the streets, but the work proper takes place in meeting rooms and legislative chambers and government offices. Here is a chance to convert the righteous anger that led people into the streets, into meaningful reform action on the ground.
8. Here are my thoughts on how:
a. Focus on the Judicial Panels of Inquiry established by the States. Pay attention to their work. Lagos’ kicked off work today, with quite a bit of attention on the proceedings. I hope the interest never wanes. It might seem like things are slow — and you can tell that lots of people who have never seen this kind of Panel at work sound frustrated; looks like some were expecting lots of orders and instant convictions and assorted judicial fireworks — but the real work of change often looks exactly as unspectacular as this.
b. Put increased pressure on State Governments and Governors to be more serious about the work of prosecuting erring law enforcement agents. Assault, torture and murder are State crimes, prosecutable under the Criminal/Penal Code of a State, by the State Attorney General. Erring law enforcement personnel have no immunity from criminal prosecution.
c. Find ways to engage with the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC), the Police Service Commission (PSC), and the Nigeria Police Trust Fund. They are extremely important to the reform work ahead. For example, the Presidential Panel on Police Reform established by President Buhari has five Technical Sub-Committees that require a decent amount of technical expertise in the following areas and more: Human Resources & Capacity Building, Infrastructure & Logistics, Technology, Financing, and so on. There are opportunities for engagement in this regard.
Full List of the Technical Sub-Committees:
Training, Capacity and Re-orientation
Logistics: Infrastructure, Communications and Technology
Arrest, Detention, and Investigations
Regulations, Oversight and Accountability
Financing, Welfare and Partnerships
d. The National Assembly is key to this conversation. First on account of their oversight responsibilities on the Police Force and other public sector stakeholders, and secondly because as the law-making arm of the Federal Government they are the ones who can ensure that any necessary amendments are made to existing laws. Perhaps we need to strengthen the independence and the powers of the PSC, or amend the Police Act, or even the Constitution (in which case this requires the concurrence of 24 of the 36 State Houses of Assembly). The anger that Nigeria’s regional governments felt about the federal monopoly on broadcasting in the 1950s led to constitutional change that then led to on-the-ground change. We must never under-estimate the importance of legal/legislative reform.
e. Maintain the scrutiny on the Nigeria Police Force (NPF), as they launch the SARS-successor Unit — SWAT. Insist on the Force developing a publicly available code of conduct for SWAT (and the entire Force, actually), and ensuring that this Code is used in training
f. Independent tracking of reports and cases of Police brutality on the one hand, and the investigation and prosecution of Police brutality (by Police authorities and State Governments) on the other hand. CSOs need to start paying attention to these cases, and following up.
g. Develop publicity materials and campaigns in multiple languages aimed at educating the public on their rights when confronted by the Police. The IG of Police has definitively announced that the Police — the defunct SARS, SWAT, or any other Unit — have NO right whatsoever to stop anyone on the streets to look through their phones or laptops. Phones and laptops are private property, period. In any case, you don’t fight cybercrime at checkpoints or using stop-and-search. Remember, Hushpuppi was not arrested at a checkpoint!