How To Ruin A Democracy: Why We Must Pay Attention To What’s Happening In Nigeria

Shayera Dark
·6 min read

In Lagos, Nigeria, on the evening of October 20, men in military uniform reportedly fired live rounds at peaceful protesters demanding an end to police brutality; at least 12 people were killed, and many others injured.

Lagos is the economic capital of the country, and the shooting happened at the tollgate bordering the upscale neighborhood of Lekki, punctuating two weeks of multi-city demonstrations aiming to disband the Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS). Young Nigerians criticized the rogue police unit for preying on them, especially those with dreadlocks, tattoos, laptops, flashy cars, and iPhones.

Before shots rang out, eyewitnesses claimed security cameras were disconnected along with the large electronic billboard that provided light to the area, suggesting a premeditated move by the government to conceal evidence.

While details of what transpired in Lekki remains unclear, what’s evident is that the massacre followed a long, disturbing pattern of human rights abuses committed by the Nigerian government against unarmed civilians, that dates back many decades, and is notable because perpetrators of these crimes are, in some cases, still celebrated today.

Starting in 1967, Nigerians endured a 30-month-long civil war that saw over one million dead; during this period, the Nigerian military singled out men and boys in the town of Asaba for execution. The rampage barely pricked the nation’s conscience as Murtala Muhammed, the soldier who led the murderous campaign known as the Asaba Massacre, not only had his likeness memorialized on a banknote, but also had the country’s largest airport named for him after his death.

In 1977, the military regime of Olusegun Obasanjo violently persecuted Afrobeat musician Fela Kuti for mocking soldiers, claiming they executed orders mindlessly like zombies. One-thousand soldiers stormed Kuti’s compound, throwing his mother, an anti-colonial activist, from a window. Days later, she succumbed to her injuries. The musician’s house was burned and civilians at the scene were beaten for the crime of bearing witness. For its part, the government denied knowledge of the event, alleging an “unknown soldier” committed the deed. And just like the Asaba Massacre, justice eluded the victims.

To be sure, acts of brutality aren’t only perpetrated by military heads of state; civilian presidents have presided over them, too. In 1999, Obasanjo, this time as a civilian president, ordered the army into the southern town of Odi, where they razed homes and killed residents, following a clash with gangsters that left several policemen dead. Under the pretext of maintaining national security, soldiers have murdered villagers on suspicion of being Boko Haram insurgents, and opened fire on Shiite Muslims and secessionists for staging peaceful protests. According to Amnesty International, soldiers killed at least 150 secessionists between 2015 and 2016 under President Muhammadu Buhari’s watch. Asked in an interview with Aljazeera to view a clip of the brutal crackdown, he declined the offer with a chilling nonchalance.

For decades, hostility has been the government’s response to peaceful dissent. But sixty years after independence, it’s time the ruling class learned to engage citizens without resorting to batons and bullets.

To Nigerians familiar with his military dictatorship in the mid-’80s — which was notorious for human rights abuses, muzzling press freedoms, and executions for non-capital offences — Buhari’s use of lethal force to suppress unarmed protesters wasn’t surprising. If anything, it demonstrated that the “converted democrat,” as he’d branded himself during his 2015 presidential bid, was a nominal convert at best, and a closet dictator at worst.

One year after his re-election, Buhari has removed any remaining illusions Nigerians may hold about him, thanks to his cold-blooded clampdown in Lagos of #EndSARS protesters, the majority of whom were in their twenties and thirties. Buhari’s clampdown also extended to media outlets through a directive issued by the Nigerian Broadcasting Corporation, warning them not to “embarrass individuals, organizations, government or cause disaffection, incite to panic or rift in the society at large.” To that end, the military has denied any involvement in the deadly assault on demonstrators, stamping screenshots of news headlines reporting the incident with “fake news” on its Twitter page.

In addition, a communique tweeted from its account days before the shooting, announced the commencement of a “cyberspace warfare exercise designed to identify, track and counter negative propaganda.” The aggressive posturing suggested a government reckoning with the far-reaching ramifications of the #EndSARS protests beyond a call to curb police brutality. Without the enabling environment fostered by poor governance and the approval of the ruling class, SARS wouldn’t have operated with impunity for as long as it did.

In one glaring example, a former commanding officer of a SARS unit served as special assistant to a state governor until recently when allegations of his savagery became public. In another, Nigerian-born Kaycee Madu, one of Canada’s ministers of justice, declared his support for the #EndSARS movement, revealing he petitioned the National Assembly, Nigeria’s bicameral legislature, to investigate the 2013 police killing of his cousin but received no response. These fault lines explain why as the #EndSARS protests gained momentum, the hashtags #EndNASS and #EndBadGoveranceInNigeria trended online as Nigerians registered their frustrations with their grossly inept but exorbitantly paid legislatives.

Embodying the spirit of the protest is the 21-year-old woman featured in a viral interview. In it, she decried Nigeria’s crumbling infrastructure and substandard educational system, but not before directly addressing President Buhari. “We just started [protesting]. We will still tackle Buhari,” she said into the camera amid cheers from fellow demonstrators. “We will embarrass you; international disgrace, that’s what [Nigerian rulers] like.” It’s through this prism the Nigerian government viewed the #EndSARS protest and sought to quell it by first announcing the dissolution of SARS, then allegedly siccing thugs on peaceful protesters, imposing curfews before finally cracking down with military action.

Although the president disbanded SARS on October 11, protesters refused to disperse, sensing the pronouncement was a charade. After all, the same police unit had already been scrapped three times in the last couple of years only to resurrect like a nine-headed hydra once again.

Also, the gaping trust-deficit between the government and the governed makes citizens less inclined to believe elected government officials, who have an annoying habit of telling but not showing. For instance, one can make grand statements about fighting corruption without providing a detailed plan showing how, but any attempts at probing the issue or demanding accountability is summarily dismissed. For far too long, Nigerians allowed politicians to simply profess things into existence.

This mentality coupled with his military background explains President Buhari’s dogmatic disposition to the unwavering demands of protesters, whom he assumed would believe he had scrapped SARS without any tangible evidence apart from his words, words Nigerians have since learned to take with a pinch of salt.

For decades, hostility has been the government’s response to peaceful dissent. But sixty years after independence, it’s time the ruling class learned to engage citizens without resorting to batons and bullets.

Democracy demands it.

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