If my column today comes across as nebulous, it is because that is a reflection of my state of mind today.
I confess this is a difficult one to write. It is made difficult by the fact that it is hard to understand what is happening in this country or what exactly the endgame is. Agendas, where they existed, if they existed, have been pushed too far. Now my country is awash with blood and noxious smoke. All of these sadness, anger, heartbreak and deaths could have been avoided by a few soothing words, a few pats on the back and some slaps here and there.
Something happened in Lekki. Even if the president, by refusing to address it, is pretending it didn’t. And to my chagrin, Facebook is trying to censor any kind of expression, even of sadness (see screengrab) expressed over the incident at the Lekki Tollgate.
Besides Facebook scrambling through timelines, trying to erase the fact that Tuesday night happened and censoring peoples’ right to express grief over the state of their country, the incredible attempt by both the military and Governor Babajide Sanwo-Olu of Lagos is puzzling. The former called it fake news, ala Trump. The latter said there are no records of fatalities.
None of them though is denying that something dubious happened at Lekki Tollgate. That CCTV cameras were bizarrely uninstalled and the lights were turned off. And for some very weird reason, the protesters, who had no guns, decided to start shooting themselves in the dark. Their hatred for the Nigerian government is that intense that they could do that to themselves.
Since Tuesday night, the violence that has been captured on video, of unarmed Nigerians being shot at close range, in cold blood by soldiers and police authorities in the streets of Lagos, this time in broad daylight, of the policeman lynched by a mob somewhere and his corpse burnt, all make for horrific viewing.
They are reminders that sadly, as Nigerians, we are good at many things. And are very bad at everything else. That our failure to understand that there is a difference between a protest and a riot, as much as there is a difference between crowd control and brutal tyrannical suppression of free expression.
The truth is that the country has been in dire straits for a while. Boko Haram in the northeast, bandits in the northwest. Severe acute communal violence in the northcentral, occasioned by kidnappings. It has been challenging navigating the land corridor between the political and military headquarters of the country on account of kidnappings that even military generals scramble for train tickets with ordinary civilians. Kaduna and Abuja are not that far apart. Then in the South, SARS, herdsmen, cults and other terrors that constitute life in this country.
The fact that Nigerians have been complaining for a while and have been greeted by a silence bothering on disregard by the government is telling. Their whispers were not heard. So,they decided to shout.
Yes, the government scrapped SARS and promised reforms. Yes, these reforms would take time and yes, these protests should have ended a while ago. But one can understand the mistrust of the protesters for the police, who are entrusted to reform themselves. (If the hyena has a cure for stooling, shouldn’t it have cured itself first).
If protesters had been engaged and the assurance needed have been given, Lekki and its aftermath, the riots, the arson, the looting and the resultant extra-judicial killings by security operatives, would not have happened.
These protests might have been remembered as the moment Nigerians found a common ground and a common voice to explore the art of political pressure. After all, it is through the fire of conflicts and disagreements that the best ideas are formed. And conflict here does not have to entail killing anyone.
The fact that some persons and groups decided to sponsor thugs, and convinced these thugs that this was an ethnic or regional thing, not a Nigerian one is self-serving.
The fact that police vehicles were seen, photographed and caught on video, conveying these thugs and deploying them to attack protesters is exactly the reason why the protests did not end when they should. Because the police through the sheer force of habit find incredible ways to sustain the eternal flame of mistrust they have lighted in peoples’ heart.
There is nothing courageous or brave or even assertive of the government’s response, these mindless killing of its citizens. It was an action motivated by fear and desperation. The fear of people finding a voice, of recognising the power in their voices, of people coming together to make demands on the governments they elected.
What happened to other lawful means of dispersing protesters? What happened to water cannons and rubber bullets? What happened to our value for human life? Oh, wait, we never had that. Isn’t that why the protests started in the first place?
It is this fear that gave rise to the panicky introduction of thugs with a regional motive into the narrative. It is this fear that will sadly undermine the chances of this country uniting.
The last few days have brought out the best and the worst in us. Seeing people gloating over the killings of protesters is a low moment, for me. Perhaps for humanity as well.
The death of every human diminishes me. How it excites other people is something I will never understand. Perhaps when the dust and the smoke settle and the debris and corpses are cleared, we may find that not only Nigerians died this week. That perhaps in many, many hearts, Nigeria died that night at a tollgate in Lekki.