The Metropolitan Archbishop Emeritus of the Abuja Catholic Diocese, John Cardinal Onaiyekan, in this exclusive interview, told Daily Trust why Nigerians don’t trust the government. He also spoke on the #EndSARS protest and the violence that followed, as well as other issues.
This is the first time Nigeria is witnessing this kind of protest initiated by the youth on a particular issue, what is your take?
It is now clear that the #EndSARS protest was only an entry point to a wider range of issues. This is why the protest continued even when the government disbanded the SARS.
It demonstrates that government should have a way of feeling the pulse of the country and not wait for things to get out of hand before effective actions are taken.
Not too long ago, some of us raised the alarm that there was a lot of tension in the land and that many Nigerians were not happy with the situation in the country.
Of course there are few people who are happy with the status quo, those who are enjoying the present situation.
By and large, there is a generalised discontent. We have said that government should recognise this and do something to avoid crisis. But, did the government recognise that or they simply thought that those of us raising the alarm were only crying wolf where there was none?
What we can say about this demonstration is that these children seem to have succeeded where the elders, religious leaders, leaders of thought and even political leaders have failed, namely, to make the president say clearly that they have the right to protest. For me, it is a step in the right direction. It requires courage and humility to say that.
Secondly, their cries have been heard, loud and clear. Instructively, instead of hearing our voices when we complained, we were considered people who didn’t like this administration, or that maybe we were influenced by the opposition.
But no one can accuse these young boys and girls of wanting to take over power. This means that the truth has come out.
Normally, young people don’t come out like that. They grumble and complain, but this kind of demonstration is something government must take seriously.
The protest was believed to have been hijacked by hoodlums and other political interests; does this mean that the youth did not factor this in before executing their plan? Also, there were reports that those who hijacked the protest were the unseen hands that propelled it; what do you say to this?
There are lots of allegations and counter-allegations, but how come a movement that appeared quite spontaneous and peaceful, with the youth in their numbers, suddenly became violent?
Violence has different meanings. When youths in large numbers occupied roads across the country, keeping vehicles from moving for hours, even days, though peaceful, there was a force in it. The question is: How come a peaceful demonstration, after more than 10 days, began to be infiltrated by other youths who claimed to disagree with what was happening. But in democracy, we should not be surprised that there could be other youths who would take a different view of the protest.
One would have expected that the other youths would also organise their own peaceful protest like the first youths. But what we have seen is that these other youths are now called hoodlums. It is a way of saying that someone’s hoodlums are another person’s protesters.
We noticed that they did not come with peaceful intentions; they came with whatever weapons available to them. And there were reports that their intention was not to confront the protest but to disband it. This is where the problem came.
This is why some believed that some people must have planned it to find a way to stop what was happening. Some even said the government was somehow behind it. But all that can only be clarified if there were a proper investigation into what happened.
We must say that a major turning point came that Tuesday night. What is certain is that certain individuals wearing military uniform did shoot guns. Whether they shot at people or not, how many people were killed. Whether they were sent by the government or not, or they were the so-called hoodlums who dressed as soldiers and armed themselves, we are hoping that government would take the situation seriously. It deserves a serious investigation.
It was that singular event that turned a peaceful movement into a violent protest. This, therefore, gave room for all kinds of other characters to come in, destroying and looting shops. Those who wanted to steal took advantage of that situation, and there was a generalised chaos.
I don’t think the youths expected this to happen. They would not have put this into their calculation, especially that they were going on for days without issues, and Mr President openly said they had the right to protest. That means they should have been protected while exercising their rights.
We don’t know what actually happened in Lagos and later spread to other states. No matter how much we sympathise with the original intention of the protest, we have reservations when people’s properties and government infrastructures that belong to all of us are destroyed. Nobody should do that.
Right now, there is tension in the land and government is in a dilemma. They would do nothing now, hoping that it would fizzle out or they would take measures to prevent the situation from degenerating into violence and chaos.
What measures are we going to take? This is why I said the government is in a dilemma.
If you sent armed policemen to stop the looting and violence, you need force to achieve it. Unfortunately, government finds it difficult to distinguish between peaceful protesters and those looting and destroying properties.
There was jailbreak in Edo State, while other attempts in other parts of the country were foiled. Also, it is believed in some quarters that the protest has an international dimension aimed at destabilising the country; what is your take on this?
The jailbreak is a proof that the protest was infiltrated by criminal elements. Who would be interested in breaking jails if not criminals? So there were criminals around who decided to do that.
However, when you have a violent revolution and there are efforts to topple the government, jails are generally also targeted. This is because the action is against a dictatorial regime that has probably clamped down on many people and jailed them.
It is important to know that everyone in jail is not a criminal. I say this because I have visited prisons and seen that many people are not supposed to be there. That is a fact. I think all of us, including the government, should see this jailbreak in the same vein as those who went breaking into offices and destroying properties.
I think government would handle it with care.
The deployment of soldiers and other special armed security agents, apart from the police, has raised the fear of military intervention in civil matters and its consequences; what is the way forward?
Both the police and the army are under the control of the command-in-chief, the government in power. If the police left the streets and allowed hoodlums to destroy properties and attack innocent people, then there is something wrong. It means there is abdication of responsibility.
It is the job of the police to maintain internal law and order; therefore, bringing in soldiers should be when policemen can be seen to be incapable of handling the situation. Generally, that happens when violence is being perpetrated by people who are equally armed like the soldiers. Have we reached that stage? I don’t know.
Some say it is ridiculous that soldiers who are supposed to be busy in the North-East are spending their time running after children.
The way forward is: We pray that government would have the wisdom, courage and will to do the things they have not done before, in such a way that the youth and the rest of Nigerians would begin to trust them to protect their interests. There’s lack of trust because government has made several promises they failed to fulfill. Whether the government wants to hear it or not, Nigerians don’t trust them.