As life gradually returns to normal after a tumultuous week of looting, arson, wanton destruction and death that followed the #EndSARS protests, many Nigerians are counting their losses. In Lagos, hoodlums attacked public and private facilities two weeks ago and burnt Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) buses in their terminals in Oyingbo and Berger Yards. Many commuters were stranded for days. The available commercial buses took advantage of the opportunity to make super profits. They increased their fares, heaping further misery on the life of passengers, many of whom were already groaning from the cost of the curfew imposed by the Lagos State government to stem the tide of violence that engulfed the city.
The pains of the commuters in Lagos pales in comparison with those of private individuals and companies whose goods were damaged and mercilessly looted and those whose properties were damaged or set ablaze by hoodlums whose actions have little or nothing to do with the need to reform the Nigerian Police. It was disheartening to watch several video clips posted on social media, showing our youths and adults in large numbers brazenly making away with other people’s properties. Warehouses were forced open and emptied while some shops saw air conditioners, doors and windows removed and taken away after people looted all the goods. The lack of empathy and intent on wilful theft by thousands of Nigerians was not just about hunger. There is social depravity and anger all over the country.
Then the dead. Maybe the dead are not even casualties. John Pepper Clark, the legendary poet who died some weeks ago in his famous poem ‘The Casualties’ stated that ‘The Casualties are not only those who are dead. They are well out of it.’
Therefore, it is incontestable that the most significant casualties of the recent crisis were those who lost their loved ones in the fray. From people whose breadwinners were felled by aimed and stray bullets of law enforcement agencies to police officers and other security personnel killed by hardened criminals masquerading as angry protesters, the reverberation of the recent events will echo in some families and communities for years and decades to come. Some are stuck with a sense of grief as they lost sons, daughters, relatives, friends, the bereaved who would be further traumatised by the Nigerian tragedy.
As the country takes stock of the losses of #EndSARS, all must learn many lessons. It should be re-stated that the grievances of those who asked that SARS be scrapped, and the Nigerian Police reformed were genuine and germane. Their modus operandi in showing their anger and disgust at the system in the form of peaceful protests was spot on. But there are other areas where perhaps they did not get it right.
Firstly, the perceived lack of centralised leadership will always pose a problem. Some reports indicate that some people, mostly social media influencers, were regarded as the informal leaders of the movement. These people reportedly held no formal positions and the implication will always be that they would not have the authority to direct and supervise the protesters, giving room for a cacophony of scattergun pronouncements and approaches that would always bring a problem to the movement. When the Lagos State government imposed a curfew on the state after the burning of a police station and killing of some policemen, reports show that some of the leaders of the protest asked the protesters to heed to government directive and go home. In contrast, others asked them to continue in the streets. So, it was apparent that there was no leader whose word carried some substantial degree of authority and this was a severe minus to the #EndSARS protest movement.
The protesters’ demands were clear from the beginning. They wanted the government to scrap the Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS). When the Inspector-General of Police announced that SARS had been scrapped, they demanded that the President must address them. The President obliged, and they presented a five-point demand. The government accepted all their demands, and they remained in the streets. Some of them were demanding that the salary of federal legislators be reviewed downwards, some were asking that the IG of Police should resign and others went as far as suggesting that President Muhammadu Buhari should step down.
At this time, it became unclear what those on the streets were looking for, and this gave the room for hoodlums to take advantage of the situation to perpetrate looting, arson, mayhem and destruction. Understandably, the protesters were wary of the government move to scrap SARS as similar pronouncements in the past had been fruitless, and things remained the same. But the fact of the matter is that genuine reforms of the Nigeria Police cannot happen overnight. It would be difficult to wholly reform the Nigeria Police while the protesters were still on the streets.
It was challenging to differentiate the peaceful #EndSARS protesters from the hoodlums who were intent on looting, mayhem and destruction. Flooding the protests with food and drinks meant that hoodlums would always see the venue of the rally as an arena for free food and drinks with attendant consequences. The organisers failed to come up with a strategy to prevent the infiltration of the peaceful movement by subversive elements, and this proved costly, destructive and deadly.
Fake news and misinformation probably doomed the #EndSARS protests more than any other thing. The incident at Lekki Toll Gate in the night of Tuesday, October 21st 2020 was calamitous. If the reports that soldiers used live bullets on protesters are true, then there cannot be any justification for it. The protesters themselves who were intent on violating the curfew imposed by the state government to quell an orgy of death and destruction that have visited the state earlier in the day did not also cover themselves in glory.
However, it is becoming increasingly clear that, even though the Lagos State government has confirmed fatalities resulting from the incident, the use of hashtags like #LekkiGenocide and #LekkiMassacre, gave the impression that security agents have killed hundreds of protesters. This seeming misrepresentation resulted to insane carnage in Lagos and other parts of the country, leading to loss of hundreds of lives, destruction of properties worth trillions of naira, as well as severe economic devastation as many states in the country, imposed curfews. This representation was as virulent as they were destructive.
On the side of the government, there are far too many gaps in the current internal security strategy. The extensive involvement of the military in internal security is defective. It has created permanent psychology of siege. Historically, evidence has proved over time that Nigerian soldiers may not be well trained in dealing with civic matters. Some of their interventions in civil conflicts has often led to high handedness, dehumanisation, serious injuries, permanent disabilities and extrajudicial killings.
It is still the duty of the Police as a civil force to secure a democratic society. We should increase the human resources strength and upgrade the training and doctrine of the Nigerian Police to bring it in line with the needs of modern democratic society.
Similarly, the equipment of the police needs upgrading. Civil Police armed with assault rifles is an offshoot of military era mentality. We need a pistol based weapon system except for the riot and special police units which may have rifles. The Police should have rubber bullets and water cannons, for use to quell civil unrests. Besides, they should know the rules of engagement as it regards to peaceful protesters and rioters.
The Department of State Security (DSS) should work more in providing intelligence to the Police. The present orientation of the DSS with emphasis on state security needs to be reviewed. The DSS needs to be more proactive than reactive. They should function like the FBI(Federal Bureau of Investigations) in the US, helping the police with more specialised investigative and intelligence capabilities.
Of course, there is the urgent need for community-based policing and comprehensive national disarmament programme to reduce and decommission the quantum of small arms in circulation.
The resulting looting, arson and destruction that followed the largely peaceful #EndSARS protests call for an establishment of a special security unit that may come in the form of the United States National Guard. The US National Guard is composed primarily of traditional Guardsmen — civilians who serve their country, state and community on a part-time basis. They serve the governor of the state to augment civilian authorities in times of emergency. Riot control, firefighting, snow removal, security, flood control, water purification, search and rescue, medical support and transportation are just examples of what this support might be. They serve to augment the active military when federalised by the President. In this role, they support or perform military operations.
Being partly civilians, a special security unit established in the form of the US National Guard will perform better in engaging the population than the army. There would also be some form of state police that can be used by the state authorities to solve local problems. The part-time nature of their work will help conserve the state resources, and in peaceful times, they can be used for special assignments.
We should not discard the lessons of the #EndSARS movement. Nigeria must rise from the ashes of #EndSARS with a better police force, a better system of managing internal protests and better internal security architecture for the whole country.