• Tuesday, May 28, 2024
businessday logo

BusinessDay

Lekki shootings: Can Buhari handle a real people’s revolt?

BUHARI-1

The peaceful #EndSARS protests turned bloody on 20 October when soldiers opened fire on protesters at the Lekki Tollgate in Lagos, killing at least 12 people. After that incident, the protests, which had been widely praised for being peaceful, became violent as hoodlums took to the streets, unleashing widespread violence and looting.

For a country that is not used to such public demonstrations, the incident was shocking and frightening. But president Buhari’s handling of protests was too pugilistic and incendiary that one must wonder how he would deal with a real people’s revolt.

Truth is, Nigeria has not had a real people’s revolt, although all its ingredients are present in this country. People’s revolts are usually triggered by economic and social deprivations, by a perception of economic injustice in which vast wealth is concentrated in the hands of the few and poverty and misery are the fate of the vast majority, and, of course, by political instability and governmental tyranny, including police brutality.

The peasants’ revolt in England in 1381 was fed by the economic and social upheaval of the period. The Peasants’ Revolt was such a history-defining moment in history that academics have widely studied it. The People’s Revolt in the US after the Civil War was an uprising against a corrupt political system and the social and economic injustices it bred. That revolt too has been a subject of widespread academic study. Then, of course, there was the Arab Spring, a series of anti-government protests that spread across much of the Arab world in the early 2010, sparked by oppressive regimes and a low standard of living!

Unlike the #EndSARS protests, which were originally peaceful, the English Peasants’ Revolt, the American People’s Revolt and the Arab Spring uprising were intended to have maximum impacts, and thus were violent. Indeed, the recent #BlackLivesMatter protests were intentionally violent in some parts of the US, with widespread looting.

President Buhari should be seeking to build a national consensus on how to transform Nigeria’s governance system to remove the structural obstacles that have long hindered its progress. But he is viscerally opposed to engaging Nigerians and forging common grounds

But there is a difference between how civilised democracies respond to protests, even when they are anarchic, and the way authoritarian regimes deal with them. In civilised democracies, the police are so well trained and equipped that they can handle violent protests without a gunshot, without killing anyone.

A few years ago, I attended a police training exercise in the UK, in which police officers simulated a violent protest. Some members of the public were recruited to act as violent protesters, throwing fireballs and sharp objects at the police officers. But officer was calm under pressure, professionally tackling the violent protesters without using a gun. Of course, that requires sophisticated equipment that enables anti-riot police to handle violent protests without endangering their own lives. Of course, in real life, if a protester uses a gun, that’s an armed rebellion, and the police must respond appropriately in self-defence!

All the above is, however, not the norm or the practice in an authoritarian state, where police and soldiers can open fire on peaceful protesters. Whereas, in civilised democracies, police and the military (who are rarely involved in public protests) protect peaceful protesters, in authoritarian regimes, they brutally suppress them.

Yet, even in an authoritarian regime, police and military can still behave professionally. For instance, during the Arab Spring, the Egyptian military refused to attack the protesters even when the beleaguered President Hosni Mubarak apparently ordered them to do so. The Egyptian military are well-liked by most Egyptians because they are viewed as protectors and friends of the people.

But here not in Nigeria! The Lekki shootings, which some activists have dubbed “Lekki massacre”, is such a huge embarrassment and disgrace to this country. As the London Times editorial titled “Riots in Lagos” said: “No state can claim to be acting fairly and democratically if its police or armed forces use torture or kill with impunity.”

That, precisely, was what the soldiers did to peaceful protesters in the Lekki shootings. The circumstances of the shootings were particularly appalling. The soldiers allegedly opened fire on the protesters as they sang the national anthem and waved the national flag!

One of the protesters told the Financial Times: “First they started shooting in the air, so we said, keep sitting on the floor, wave your flags, sing the national anthem, they are military, they won’t shoot you if you are waiving a Nigerian flag. Then they started shooting into the crowd.” According to Amnesty International, at least 12 people were killed.

But who ordered the shootings? Babajide Sanwo-Olu, the Lagos state governor, said he took responsibility for the incident. Fair enough, but he is not the President and Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces. President Muhammadu Buhari is. But the president did not even mention the shootings in the 10-minute speech he gave on 22 October after staying silent and incommunicado for two days after the incident. The speech was so out-of-touch and incongruent with the mood of the nation that virtually everyone condemned it.

Indeed, so off-key and vacuous was the speech that the renowned US-based Nigerian writer, Chimamanda Adichie, wrote an alternative speech titled “The address President Buhari could have given.” It was, indeed, the speech President Buhari ought to have given. It ticked all the boxes: empathetic, emollient and full of restitutive measures. “As commander-in-chief of the Armed Forces, the ultimate responsibility is mine”, Adichie wrote, putting words in Buhari’s mouth.

But that was not what President Buhari said in his speech after the Lekki shootings. Rather, like every speech he has given after a crisis, Buhari started and ended the speech with warnings. “I must warn those …”, he began, and concluded with “Under no circumstances will this be tolerated.” He was referring to those he said wanted to “truncate our nascent democracy” and “undermine national security.”

President Buhari said his decision to dissolve SARS had “been misconstrued as a sign of weakness.” By corollary, the subsequent brutal crackdown must be construed as a sign of strength. The Financial Times reminded us recently in a profile article on President Buhari that he fought in the Nigerian Civil War, participated in every military coup, including the one that brought him to power in December 1983 and ruled as a military dictator.

So, General Buhari has always been a hardman; and hardmen often regard negotiation or dialogue as a sign of weakness. Tough soldiers don’t negotiate, they give orders! Adichie recently said that “Buhari acts like engaging Nigerians is beneath him.” Well, she is right!

You can tell from Buhari’s attitude to political reform or restructuring. Last week, he warned that “Nigeria’s unity was won at great cost” and shouldn’t be jeopardised. Of course, he was referring to the Civil War. But Nigeria’s unity cannot be won by war. It must be won by negotiations. True unity comes through a negotiated settlement, not through one side being victorious in a civil war. Which is why most countries that fought a civil war, negotiated a post-war settlement.

President Buhari should be seeking to build a national consensus on how to transform Nigeria’s governance system to remove the structural obstacles that have long hindered its progress. But he is viscerally opposed to engaging Nigerians and forging common grounds.

Yet Nigeria, a tension-and-crisis-prone country, needs a leader that can manage its diversity well; a leader that can engage Nigerians, talk with them, and facilitate national dialogue and negotiation. That’s the only way to forge national unity and douse the embers of ethnic, tribal or religious divisions.

Sadly, President Buhari, very aloof and taciturn, does not believe in communicative action; rather, he likes to give orders and issue threats. He probably sees nothing wrong with the Lekki shootings: soldiers must tackle relentlessly those “undermining national security”. But if there is a people’s revolt in Nigeria, how many people would soldiers kill?