Opinion

Lekki “massacre”: Military rightly deployed but used weapons wrongly

By Jiti Ogunye

At the climax of the End SARS protest, on the 20th October, 2020, soldiers, on invitation , were deployed in Lagos State, for the purpose of conducting an “internal security operation” in line with the provisions of Section 217 (1)(c) of the Constitution of Nigeria, to aid civil authorities to restore law and order that had broken down. For a number of days thereafter, they helped restore peace to many parts of Lagos, including Fagba and Computer Village, Ikeja, to the admiration of many. On one occasion, on the 22nd of October, 2020, they were the ones, who, paradoxically dissuaded the police from shooting at potentially violent protesters and prospective looters at Kodesoh Street Ikeja, abutting the Computer Village, Ikeja Lagos. On the 21st and 22nd of October, many persons in besieged communities where lives were in grave dangers were using the social media to appeal to soldiers to come to their neighborhood and save the situation. Iju- Fagba axis , where the crisis assumed an ethnic dimension somewhat, was a case in point.

On other occasions in Mushin and elsewhere in Lagos, they were seen on video , using tact and diplomacy to defuse very high tension , urging hundreds of young people who had massed up on the streets to go home. Yet, in another footage , obtained outside Lagos , two soldiers were seen offering “ technical advice “ to the multitudes who were harvesting “palliatives” that were allegedly kept away from the end consumers by politicians. As a matter of fact , one of the two soldiers was heard giving safety tips to the evacuators, telling them how they should peacefully and orderly cart away warehoused items, without sustaining injuries.

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Of course, in some of the video footages in circulation during the crisis, some soldiers engaged in violation of right of some arrested “rioters”, “ hoodlums” and “ looters” to the dignity of human person by subjecting them to inhuman or degrading treatment, like “horse-whipping, frog-jumping, making the “ captives” to lie on hard road surface and face the sun, or being forced to lie in a puddle.

On all these occasions, save the exceptions of subjecting the “ captured “ to inhuman and degrading treatment as aforesaid, the soldiers were armed with their military rifles . But they did not use them. They waived the flag of peace. Not of surrender. They abandoned the barrel of the gun and embraced the weapon of dialogue. They achieved the objective of “their mission” without engaging in a shooting spree or causing unnecessary bloodshed.

The point must thus be made that from a law and order restoration, and state and governance perspectives, the armed forces could be deployed to help keep the peace or restore order when there is civil unrest or internal insurrection. The Constitution permits it. And exigency may dictate it.

This point cannot be overemphasized because in the post “Lekki Tollgate Massacre “ analysis, some persons have been asking the questions why the military had to be deployed in the first place; and whether those who invited them didn’t realize that they would kill anyway. Many have posited that since soldiers are not trained for crowd control , protest management or riots dispersal, and since they are not usually armed with tear gas canisters , rubber bullets, water canons, tasers and truncheons, they should not have been deployed, knowing fully well that they could use their weapons – rifles – to maim or kill.

The answers to these posers and counters to the opinions stated above have been answered. Deployed soldiers in Lagos State did not shoot, injure and kill everywhere they went.

We must, therefore, make a distinction between deployment of soldiers on the 20th October to help enforce curfew and restore order that had broken down, and the shootings at Lekki Toll Gate resulting in injuries and alleged killings. In our view, the State rightly could justify the deployment of soldiers across Lagos State on the 20th of October. Arterial roads in Lagos, including the Lagos -Ibadan Expressway, totally had been barricaded from the 19th October. Toughies had set up money extorting points on the Expressway. Some police stations had been set ablaze and burnt. A state of public emergency was creeping in. Under those circumstances, a decision understandably had to be made between being politically correct and doing nothing, thereby allowing the situation to degenerate; and being statesmanly and protective of lives and property and possibly incurring uninformed public censure and courting disapproval of the electorates

During the 2015 General Elections, for example, while we and others argued against deployment of soldiers to participate in the conduct of elections by providing security, the then head of the national human rights commission disagreed with us by insisting that without the deployment of soldiers, he would not personally participate in the election , as a voter, because without troops deployment, he would not feel safe to participate.

Many Nigerians whose lives were in danger during the religious, sharia related riots that rocked Northern Nigeria in the pre- Boko Haram War era can testify to the fact that during those upheavals, military barracks were usually besieged by civilians fleeing their settlements for reason of safety. On those occasions , military barracks in the religious ( socio-economic ? ) riots axis became the people’s sanctuary and survival fortress.

The Lekki Toll Gate shootings ( by soldiers and policemen) leading to injuries and deaths were unjustified. Unarmed protesters must never be shot at or terrorized with shootings resulting in stampede, injuries or death. That act is condemnable and we hereby, again, condemn it.

A war could rightly be declared, and yet may bring about wrong outcomes, including unintended war crimes.

A pervasive misconception about the use of force or gun by a private citizen or the military needs to be cleared. The law allows the use of force or weapon ( licensed or authorized) to kill an assailant in self defence or in defence of property. Section 33 of the Constitution guarantees the right to life.
Section 33 ( 2) of the Constitution then luminously and instructively provides as follows :

“ A person shall not be regarded as having been deprived of his life in contravention of this section, if he dies as a result of the use , to such extent and in such circumstances as are permitted by law, of such force as is reasonably necessary-

(a)for the defence of any person from unlawful violence or for the defence of property;

(b) in order to effect a lawful arrest or to prevent the escape of a person lawfully detained; or

(C) for the purpose of suppressing a riot, insurrection or mutiny.”

Thus, all the “ hoodlums” who engaged in the burning of public and private property in Lagos, including the High Court in Igbosere Lagos, BRT buses, the Lagos State Art theatre, etc rightly, lawfully and constitutionally could have been shot and killed , while perpetrating their dastardly acts, especially if they were armed. Similarly, the prisoners attempting to escape from Ikoyi Prisons could have been lawfully killed. And the Policemen whose stations were invaded and set ablaze and threatened with death could have killed their assailants. This is the prescription of the law . Of course, the issue of proportionality comes into play. There must be an equilibrium between the invading force and resisting force in determining the reasonableness of the resisting force, especially when death occurs.

We draw attention to justified killing of a human being in defence of life and property because unlike in the United States , for example, there is no 2nd Amendment right of the citizens to bear arms. In Nigeria, the right of the citizens to carry weapons ( guns) , save cases of licensed gun carriers and local hunters using locally fabricated guns to hunt for games , is surrendered to the State. The State, therefore , possesses good reasons to exercise that right , properly, on behalf of the citizens, when their rights to life and property are in grave danger.

There are many lessons to learn from the EndSARS protests , the Lekki Toll Gate incident of October 20, and its aftermath.

First, the police is under equipped. They are improperly armed with guns to quell demonstrations, protests and riots. No tear gas , water canons, batons , truncheons, rubber bullets etc. Once , they are confronted by a massive crowd, they start shooting live weapons. When overwhelmed by the crowd, they bolt away. Urgent police reforms are needed . The police system must be restructured. Evidently, the Federal Government cannot centrally provide for the police. States in the Federation must be allowed to have their police services , under a law of general application that shall provide a national guideline for the structure, composition and powers of each police service in every state . States must take responsibility for the police services, equipping and strengthening them. A unitary police is a disaster for a Federal Nigeria.

Second, the military is unsuitable, in a democracy, to be used to put down demonstrations, protest or civil unrest. In case of an armed and organized insurrection against the government or where there is an armed opposition group waging a campaign to topple the government, the military may be activated to pacify the opposition and save the established order from collapse. But the military must not be used to disperse peaceful demonstrators or protesters.

There is reason for the Nigerian people to be averse to “ invitation “ to the military to help restore order. We can all recall that in the First Republic , following the use of the military in internal security operations, the military was eventually “ invited” by the civilians to come and take over power, after the killings of civilian leaders of the Republic on January 15, 1966. Of course, Major General Aguiyi Ironsi “ accepted “ that invitation. The rest is history.

Nigeria, currently, is facing a battle of survival and continuity as an indissoluble entity. This is a fact. In these circumstances, many may simplistically conclude that the military should and must be resorted to in order to keep Nigeria intact. Yet, the fact that the Nigerian Armed Forces, which ordinarily ought to be preoccupied with the task of protecting Nigeria from external threats, attacks or sustained armed aggression or invasion, have, in the past fifteen years ( Niger Delta armed conflict and the onset of Boko Haram War in 2009 ), been enmeshed, not only in seemingly intractable internal security operations but also in a grueling war, without recording any swift or sweet victory, must tell us all, rulers and the ruled, that Nigeria is facing an existential crisis.

The military cannot realistically be the force that will keep Nigeria from breaking down and falling apart. The collective will and desire of our peoples-across their ethnic and nationality divides, socio-economic interests, class divisions, religious groupings and political pursuits- are the force that can keep us in peace, harmony and development.

And the military cannot sustainably be the force to prevent Nigeria from further descending into the abyss of violent criminality. In the prevailing circumstances, no matter how vast and extensive the internal security operations of the military are, rampant violent crimes across the country may not be curbed. Kidnappings, armed robbery, terrorism, horrific sexual offences, cult group violence, murders, etc are on the rise. Many military officers and men have become victims of this pervasive violence and state of insecurity in our country.

In October, 2020, a well decorated army colonel, a medical doctor and consultant , SB Onifade was reportedly killed by bandits who kidnapped him along Abuja- Kaduna Expressway, after the payment of the demanded ten million naira ransom. On September 3, 2018, Rtd. Major-General Idris Alkali was declared missing. He was abducted and gruesomely murdered. His body was later recovered in Plateau State in October , 2018 and he was buried in Abuja, FCT on November 3rd, 2018. In December, 2018, Air Chief Marshal Alex Badeh ( Rtd.) was killed allegedly by bandits along Keffi -Abuja Road, while returning from his farm. A Deputy Commissioner of Police was, in no too distant past, kidnapped in Zamfara State. And currently, twelve Assistant Superintendents of Police are said to be held by kidnappers while intense negotiations for ransom payment and release are ongoing. The officers and men in uniform are not immune to the menace of insecurity in the land.

In this dire situation, government and governance must be reinvented, the Nigerian State must be reconfigured. The security, law enforcement and criminal justice administration in Nigeria must be reworked. More importantly, the socio-economic and political system of Nigeria must be rearranged. Equity, justice and fairness must be made to reign. Equal opportunities must be guaranteed to all. The business of politics must be taken seriously while the politics as business mindset must be jettisoned. Want, poverty, misery, diseases and illiteracy must be tackled. And corrupt practices must be genuinely fought, while those found to be engaged in corrupt practices must be brought to justice.

There are other lessons, including how to organize a protest that will not be hijacked by “ hoodlums “ whose nefarious activities taint the protest culture and cause. But those lessons are to be taken together in the closet , with my “ fellow revolutionaries “.

A better Nigeria is possible in our lifetime.

Mr Ogunye is a lawyer, and human rights activist

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