21st October 2020
“In such a regime, I say you died a good death if your life had inspired someone to come forward and shoot your murderer in the chest – without asking to be paid.”
“Infamy, O Infamy”
Yesterday, I tried to put some historical context to the #EndSARS protests. About the same time as I was writing some pictures came in from the Lekki Toll Gate where hundreds of protesters had been camping peacefully for a few days. They were of operatives in ‘high vis’ jackets, ostensibly from Lagos State, dismantling the security cameras. The reasons for this were soon to become painfully clear. Only a couple of hours earlier Lagos State had proclaimed a curfew commencing at 4 pm and not long after dark, about the time I posted my Blog, state sponsored thugs and ‘agents provocateurs’ started causing some commotion. This gave unnamed security forces including the army an excuse to start shooting indiscriminately. Within a few minutes’ gruesome pictures and videos of protesters with bullet wounds lying in blood stained corridors started flooding in.
In those few minutes the actions of either Lagos State Government and/or the Federal Government (both are currently denying involvement) had turned a largely peaceful protest into something we know not what. They kicked open the cellar door and there are deep dark steps leading down with no flicker of light apparent and no sign of how far down they lead. There will now be accusations and counter accusations, government propaganda and fake news as the situation unfolds. As can only be expected different elements of the army are blaming each other and talking of ‘rogue forces’, which is nonsense because what ever happened the President is Head of the Armed forces and he should resign. There is still only the most superficial coverage in the western media. I will attempt to provide some analysis based on conversations, Whatsapp messages and social media sources I can trust that I hope will provide some understanding, particularly for those that do not have their own insights.
The everyday oppression of Lagos life
Yesterday’s blog tried to show that while #EndSARS seemed to be a reaction to a specific event; it is in fact a response to a long history of police brutality. For those that have never been to Nigeria or just made fleeting business trips to the semi-sanity of the middle class enclaves of Ikoyi, Victoria Island ‘VI” and parts of Lekki it is hard to describe the intensity of life in ‘the mainland’ and the disparity of wealth. Even in the high brow areas there are shanty villages tucked under road bridges for shelter or down side roads. There are only three bridge routes from the mainland into Ikoyi and two from Lekki (which are tolled) and at morning rush hours the traffic queues (‘Go Slows’) can stretch for a kilometre from bottlenecks. The working day for someone living in one of the poorer areas but employed, say, as a security guard or a clerk in a bank in VI will probably start between 4 and 5 am. It is likely he or she will live in ‘face me, face you’ accommodation – so called because of the density of the people squeezed together. The family might have two rooms if they were lucky but will share cooking and washing facilities with several other families. This quite often means sharing a toilet and a tap to wash under with 15 or 20 other people. There is almost certainly very little electric power unless they have a ‘pass my neighbour’ – a small generator that might run a fridge or a cooking ring and a couple of lights, so called as few families can actually afford them and having one would be like ‘beating the Joneses’. After battling to get ready there might well be a ‘trek’ to a bus stop. Buses have improved marginally since ‘Bus Rapid Transit’ or ‘BRT’ routes were introduced a few years ago but they are insufficient for the numbers and still more expensive than the traditional informal yellow Molues and Danfos. It might take an hour to actually board a bus, so squeezed in that passengers are virtually sitting on each other’s laps for a journey that can take two hours. That process is repeated on the return journey and most workers would not get home until probably 9 pm. It has occasionally taken me six hours to get from the island to a destination in Ikeja or Ilupeju. During the rainy season, as an expatriate or middle class Nigerian, we too might be stuck long hours in the inevitable go-slows staring out from our air-conditioned comfort at long lines of bedraggled people waiting passively in the downpour for their bus. In certain places workers who actually have cars stop and pick up passengers to share the cost of transport. As they pull up, small crowds of people carrying bags or briefcases, sometimes holding them over their heads like umbrellas sprint down the road to grab the last space in one of these vehicles.
Yet, amazingly, looking out from my sheltered position or, because working for Guinness I had the fortune to spend many hours in local bars, I saw amazingly little bitterness or anger and absolutely no self-pity. What I did see was dignity and, incredibly (maybe not in the worst rain) laughter. The longer I lived in Nigeria and travelled around, the more respect and affection I developed for a people who could laugh and smile where the rest of us would be suicidal and in despair. Yet this strength, this coping mechanism if you like, is also part of the collective weakness that has allowed a corrupt and desperately dysfunction political elite to prosper supported by a brutal security apparatus. It is this passivity that frustrates activists for change and inspired Fela to write in his exasperation with his fellow Nigerians such songs as his 1977 ‘Shuffering and Shmilling’.
“You Africans, please listen to me as Africans
And you non-Africans, listen to me with open mind
Suffer, suffer, suffer, suffer, suffer
Suffer for world
Na your fault be that
Me I say: na your fault be that
Suffering and smiling! (Chorus)………
Every day my people dey inside bus
Every day my people dey inside bus
Forty-nine sitting, ninety-nine standing
Them go pack themselves in like sardine
Them dey faint, them dey wake like cock
Them go reach house, water no dey
Them go reach bed, power no dey
Them go reach road, go-slow go come
Them go reach road, police go slap
Them go reach road, army go whip
Them go look pocket, money no dey
Them go reach work, query (*) ready
Every day na the same thing
Every day na the same thing
Suffering and Smiling!”
On top of the anxiety and stress of this way off life there is constant, usually petty but occasionally extreme violence perpetrated in a matter of fact way across the country. To say there is no control over the police and other security organisations is no exaggeration. Google any of the major Human Rights organisations and read the litany of serious abuse. Here is just a selection I grabbed from Amnesty International’s review of Nigeria in 2019 …………
“Little progress was made in securing accountability for human rights violations and abuses committed by security forces …… Security forces banned lawful assembly in some states, including Lagos and Rivers, and in some cases, they violently disrupted peaceful protests, such as the IMN protests in Abuja. …… On 22 July, 11 protestors, a Deputy Commissioner of Police and a reporter for Channels Television were killed when police opened fire on IMN protestors during their procession in Abuja. Scores were injured and many arrested when officials from the Nigeria Police violently disrupted the protest, which was largely peaceful. ………. In 2019, there were reports of unlawful arrests, physical abuse, sexual violence, verbal abuse and financial extortion of over 100 women in the Federal Capital Territory (FCT) by the Nigeria Police …….. Torture and other ill-treatment remain pervasive within the Nigerian criminal justice system. The Nigeria Police especially the Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS), the military and the State Security Service (SSS) continue to subject detainees to torture and other ill-treatment. ….. security agencies are yet to account for about 600 members of the IMN whose whereabouts remained unknown since December 2015 when at least 60 IMN members were killed in Kaduna state…. Nigerian prisons remain overcrowded. About seventy per cent of inmates are awaiting trial. Some of the inmates have been awaiting trial for as long as 5 years …….. “ (**)
Any numbers reported by international bodies are serious under estimates because of the burden of proof and the lack of Nigerian government transparency at every level.
I could write a blog every day for a week with instances of police and security force abuse, harassment and even brutality that I have witnessed personally even though most excesses would happen away from the prying eyes of a potentially awkward ‘oyinbo’ witness. Without overdoing it, a couple might just illustrate to anyone who might be considering that it is all hearsay or exaggerated.
I think the first direct incident I saw was on maybe my second or third visit – it was during Buhari’s military dictatorship 1983 to 1985. His ‘War Against Indiscipline’ or ‘WAI’ gave security forces particular ‘carte blanche’. In those days the International Airport was intensely unpleasant and the number of control points before you even got to Departures was seriously stressful. On a Friday several flights all left about the same time, close to midnight and as there were no lounges the departures area was always crowded with long queues in front of the final check at the entrance to the finger and gates. I was in one of three lines for various flights as I waited for my British Caledonian flight (long before the days of BA). One of the other flights was Alitalia that was due to leave some time before mine. As we stood a soldier suddenly announced instead of three queues there should only be two and that members of a particular queue should join the back of the others. Several Italians panicked as their flight was first and started remonstrating that they might miss it. Without any warning the soldier hit one of the Italians in the stomach with his rifle butt. As he went down he hit him several times on the head. At this point soldier colleagues picked him up, dazed and dizzy, dragged him to the back of our queue and dropped him on the floor. Needless to say, the rest of us stared at the floor and I heard somebody mutter ‘bloody fool, should have kept his mouth shut.’
Roll forward twenty-five years, three military and four civilian dispensations (depending if you count Ernest Shonekan’s 1993 aberration) later, I was running a consumer good company that Nigerians would just know as ‘Cowbell’. Our brands were sold all over the country and as a matter of pride I liked to travel around meeting customers and geeing up the local teams. The trouble was, in several parts of the country security was deteriorating and kidnapping, prevalent in the Delta region but now more widespread, was rife. Over the years I had gone from needing no ‘protection’ to maybe a couple of police buy by around 2013/4 my Nigerian colleagues were nervous and insisted that traveling to the East required an proper escort. I was reticent, given I had the experience of having lived in the notorious town of Aba for two years but believed in taking sensible local advice. The trouble is, the local MOPOL were compromised. In the end, my colleagues arranged for an escort of SSS operatives (the State security Service – a cross between MI5 and Diplomatic Protection). Traveling around with these guys was an education. We spent several days touring and visiting markets and apart from having to explain to them that my customers and consumers were not a threat to be intimidated, they were very professional. The only place they got agitated in was Warri – probably fair enough. On trips I always ate and drunk with my team (they knew I liked a glass of Guinness after day in the trade) and after a couple of nights I persuaded the SSS guys to join us. When they opened up it was fascinating. I learnt that their escort had been approved because the area commander of the Anambra MOPOL had been proven to be colluding with kidnappers. He was quite likely involved in the abduction, torture and possible murder of many Nigerians. He was caught when his bank account no was given up by an arrested kidnapper and then when his Cash Machine card was cancelled he actually turned up at a branch who alerted the SSS and he was arrested. Only then was it realised that the ring leader has been a police commander.! I also learnt that it was easier when arresting kidnapping to shoot them all because that was less paper work than handing them over to the police who would just be bribed to release them. These guys had been trained by top international forces, particularly the Israelis, and were impressive but they just had a different view of life. They believed they were on a moral crusade and that they had the right to use extra judicial murder as an everyday tool.
These are the people that the #EndsSARS protesters are taking on but who have to be defeated before Nigeria can move forward.
This Blog has been longer than intended. Please feel free to comment. In fact Please do share your thoughts. Before I leave you with Fela’s ‘Shuffering and Shmilling’ …… let me explain that I felt like writing this while drinking Nigerian Guinness, eating Nigerian food and gisting with Nigerians so thanks to ‘Executive Mama Put’ – my sista Nky – at Pitanga for hosting me. If you are anywhere near West London please check her out. http://www.pitangalondon.com/
FELA, PLEASE CONTINUE ………. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Y–5IlljO78
* A ‘Query’ is the start of the workplace disciplinary process – for being late!