The Day The Devil Visited Lagos State
If the Lekki toll gate EndSARS protest scene was a trap on the night of the 20th of October, then the government walked right into it. The social media age has made all of us smartphone users journalists. The social media pages are our media outlets, and our friends/followers constitute our audience. We disseminate information to them, and they pass them on to other people connected to them. Every day, we document events we want people to see with our devices and share with the outside world.
If the Lekki toll gate had 1,000 protesters, on the night of the shooting, the government had almost a thousand journalists to contend with. The only thing that differs is the level of professionalism. Social media has given us power which we mostly use without any sense of responsibility. This is what citizen journalism is all about.
In the 21st century, in a metropolitan city like Lagos that accounts for the highest number of internet users in Nigeria (17 million), and also the heart of the Nigerian media; a questionable military operation can't take place without strong pieces of evidence flying around. The media will continue to box the government into a corner. The world knows the answer, but the answer is more of what a cheating Mathematics student arrived at by checking the back of the textbook. Now, the teacher demands he shows the workings of the answer. This is what the investigative process to unravel the riddle of the alleged killing at the Lekki toll gate looks like.
The world has been here before. It reminds me of the killing of the Saudi Arabian dissident, Jamal Khashoggi at the Saudi consulate in Turkey in October 2018. On paper, the Saudi hit squad had covered all tracks that could link them to the murder. It was supposed to be a case of a missing person that was never found. His fiancee, Hatice Cengiz, was well-stationed outside the consulate to raise an alarm if he never came out. He was killed, his body reportedly cut into pieces and then dissolved with an acid solution to erase any evidence.
The deed was done and sealed and all the mercenaries returned to base like nothing ever happened. But the Turkish government knew from day one because it was reportedly spying on the embassy. After waiting for the Saudis to provide answers as to Khashoggi's whereabouts, the Turkish government soon started releasing leaks into the media space to mount pressure on the Saudi Kingdom, till they claimed full responsibility, and used some persons as scapegoats to assuage global outrage. Almost two years after, the Nigerian government has found itself in that burdensome position, which the Saudis are yet to fully get out of.
I don't want to believe the Lekki Shooting incident was premeditated. The South-western region has a history of relative peace, the people detest blood and violence to a large extent. With the alleged manipulation of the CCTV footages and the strange blackout at the toll gate when the melee ensued, some persons appeared to have made provisions for leeways should the operation get out of hand. I strongly feel it was supposed to be a 'show of force' and not a 'clearance operation' as the protesters are not Boko Haram terrorists or bandits. The deployment of seven military trucks was aimed at breaking the protest and dampening the morale of the protesters.
Recall that the Lekki toll gate had become the power transformer that supplied energy to other protesters around Nigeria. The protesters were well-organized and coordinated in such a way that the best Nigerian leader could even be appointed at the scene to make decisive changes in the country. The fact that the international media covered their activities also energized them. The world was watching; all the protesters were like change agents who wanted to be a part of the history of the 'New Nigeria'.
Lagos started boiling in the afternoon of the 20th of October. Hoodlums hijacked the protests and security formations were attacked with some policemen and protesters brutally losing their lives. The state government declared a 24-hour curfew for 4pm of the same day, but later extended to 9pm. The protesters dared the government by continuing with their activities at the toll gate, which was reportedly losing millions of naira per day due to their occupation. When a picture of the protesters congregating at the protest ground went viral in the evening of that fateful day, I knew the battle line had been drawn. Other celebrities supporting the EndSARS movement also sensed danger and stayed away.
The military stepped in and it was a totally wrong move. This is not only about their ability to deal with civil disobedience. It was about the mood of the time. Fear had left most of the protesters. It was as if they forgot the harmful nature of live ammunition. For example, last week at the Ikeja Along area of Lagos State, commercial motorcyclists were seen chasing away Lagos Task Force officials who were heavily armed. Some people are not scared to die anymore because bad governance and economic hardship are already killing them every moment of their lives. The bullets will only make a certain death faster. Everybody is ready to bell the cat unlike what was obtainable in the past.
The commonest video of the Lekki Shooting by the army was when a group of soldiers shot into the air sporadically but the protesters stood their grounds like warriors chanting 'EndSARS!' I will draw some conclusions from that singular scene.
This is what I think happened. The soldiers must have expected them to disperse and scamper for safety like the average civilians will do in the event of the tension of gunshots.
Then I think the soldiers became a bit desperate and overzealous by lowering their arms at 'irregular intervals' while shooting to make a statement. At least the sight of blood and casualties will break the spirit of protesters and instil fear in them. I don't want to believe the soldiers permanently aimed at them and shot throughout the operation. If they did, it would have been a repeat of the Shiite Massacre in Kaduna in 2015, where about 348 people died of bullets, bought with taxpayers' money. The unconventional style of the operation was why the incident remains a mystery and has propped up conflicting accounts.
Remember the soldiers were up against citizen journalists. The protesters simply brought out their digital devices connected to the internet and started reporting the shooting. In the heat of the operation, the fatalities could have been exaggerated intentionally or otherwise. The protesters had their receipts. They made away with bullet shells and uploaded graphic images on social media. Their waiting audience took the baton from there and spread it around like wildfire. An already bad situation was made worse. Those who called the shots must have instantly wished they never did. They are presently on survival mode. International bodies/personalities like Amnesty International, Hillary Clinton, CNN and other credible right groups started reacting.
The next step was to manage the damage and debunk the claims of the protesters who already had a headstart advantage. The damage control strategies of the government were not only confusing, but they were inefficient. The army at first wanted to distance itself from such seeming rogue operation. It claimed its operatives were never at the tollgate even in the face of overwhelming evidence. Then it claimed it only went there with blank bullets and refreshments. Then the latest claim is that the soldiers had a combination of blank and live ammunition after a compelling investigation by CNN. Lagos State is guilty of the same lack of strategy. During the shooting, Gboyega Akosile, a spokesman for the governor, Babajide Sanwoolu went on Twitter to feign ignorance.
"There have been reports of shooting at the Lekki Toll Plaza," he said.
"The State Government has ordered an investigation into the incident," he later added. His boss was later discovered to have invited the army.
With my little knowledge of crisis management, it is very easy to know the guilty party. In the event of a controversy, the oppressor is always late to the party. This bores down to confusion about the viable strategy to adopt. It took the Nigerian government several hours to come out with a workable or tenable narrative about the Lekki Shooting. This naturally happens when you are guilty. There is always some sort of scepticism about the step to take to avoid a counter-attack. The usual approach is to allow the victim to go first and then you counter the narratives. It is as dangerous as taking a stroll on a minefield.
By the time the government gained momentum in the race, the protesters were already close to the finishing line. The only missing puzzle is the actual casualty rate. 'How many people died at the Lekki tollgate?' is the rhetorical question on the lips of people. The fact that the coroner in Lagos State has given an open invitation to families of dead victims to come to make identifications at the mortuary, lends credence to the alleged massacre. I am trying carefully to avoid the usage of the term, 'massacre'.
As the Lagos judicial panel presses on, the show of shame will continue. If there will ever be a victory, it will be a pyrrhic one. The Nigerian government is fast losing trust which is the basis of which the Social Contract came about. People submitted their individual powers to the Leviathans who make up the government so that they could exercise them on their behalf.
I doubt if justice will ever be served. Many mysteries are yet to be unravelled in the Nigerian state. Who killed Funsho Williams and Bola Ige? What about the billion van scandal of 2019?
The answers depend on who you ask. We hope the Lekki Shooting will not end that way. The only leeway the government has is to take to scapegoating. Label the move a rogue operation and present sacrificial lambs to face the full wrath of the law. This will at least buy the government some respect internationally. It is a hard route Saudi Arabia was forced to take, although in a very opaque manner.
It is very easy for those who have no connections with the victims of the shooting to tell Nigerians to move on. One of the victims named Meshack Esanibi, has been carrying bullets in his body for a month now. He is worried as he is immersed in distress and pains.
Victor Sunday Ibanga, and Wisdom Okon - two handsome and promising young boys have remained missing since the Lekki Shooting incident. Other families are praying to at least, see the corpses of their loved ones to find closure.
We love small wins, and always sacrifice the big wins for the small ones, due to the ease of doing that. If the perpetrators are not brought to book, the event will repeat itself in future, and this time around, you might be the subject of the matter.
While the drama unfolds, one can only imagine the pains and agony of the victims and their loved ones. As the popular actor, Ajirebi Kayode Olasehinde self-styled 'Pa James' of the Papa Ajasco sitcom always said back in the days, 'it was a bad day satan drank water'. A direct translation of the Yoruba saying, 'Ọjọ́ burúkú èṣu gbomi mu'.
This time around, I feel 'the day the devil visited Lagos State' is more appropriate as a description for the 20th of October, 2020.
As a Christian, I pray the victims and their families find peace and healing. We can only hope for the best.
Written By Osayimwen Osahon George, A media practitioner and the Director of Communications at the HOL Foundation.