In a country blighted by heightened insecurity, where people routinely die in their scores, even when there is no concrete reason for them to die, it was quite convenient to gloss over the recent death of a protester, fatally shot by Nigerian police officers. It is a bitter irony that while his compatriots were being brutally and gratuitously attacked by crazed and spiteful xenophobes in South Africa, he had to die in Nigeria protesting against the same obnoxious culture of xenophobia.
This raises questions about the manner of policing in the country that readily results in the loss of lives, especially in confrontations between the police and the civilian population. Does it mean that Nigerians do not have the right to disagree with the government on issues and show it publicly? Why is it that each time Nigerians react against any government action or policy, they are taken as enemies of the government, who should be brutalised or even killed?
There has been a long history of highhandedness by security agents when Nigerian citizens decide to march over any issue of interest. No matter how peaceful the protest, the security agents, not limited to the police, come out armed to the teeth to ensure that the protest is brutally put down. Initially, the excuse was that Nigerians needed police permit to carry out public protests, until the court eventually upheld the people’s right to protest without the permission of the police. Yet, nothing has changed.
Needless to say, the brutal crackdowns have always been bloody. Right back to the days of vibrant student unionism, when students street protests were common, it had always been so. Very few would forget the case of Kunle Adepeju, the University of Ibadan undergraduate student, who was killed during a demonstration in 1971. The same fate would befall Akintunde Ojo of the University of Lagos, in 1978, among several others killed that year and after.
In the larger society, the story has not been different, especially during those heady military dictatorship days. In one unique incident, soldiers were brought into Lagos to crush the June 12, 1993 election annulment demonstrations. When soldiers in the convoy of the late Sani Abacha ran into a crowd of protesters, they opened fire and reportedly killed over 100 Nigerians on Lagos streets.
If, however, this had been the tradition during the military era, why should such a crude and barbaric culture continue to flourish under elected civilian governments? For example, two students were feared dead when students of the Federal University, Oye Ekiti, carried out a protest last week. On the same day, reports also claimed that over a dozen were slain during street marches by the Islamic Movement of Nigeria in some cities. As usual, the police denied the report.
Perhaps security agents in Nigeria should undergo a retraining process to reorient them towards modern crowd control techniques that do not result in the loss of lives. If the police have been watching closely, the unfolding events in Hong Kong, for example, it would be obvious to them that demonstrators could be professionally and safely contained, even when they turn violent and unruly. The Hong Kong protests, which have drawn millions to the streets, started in June and are still not showing signs of abating.
What started as a protest against a controversial bill that would have paved the way for the extradition of those accused of crime to mainland China and Taiwan has turned into a pro-democracy march. The sponsors of the bill had claimed that it was meant to preserve Hong Kong from becoming a haven for fugitives. But the people of the autonomous Chinese city, under the “One Country, Two Systems” policy, believe that acceding to the passage of such a bill would further limit basic freedoms. Besides, they believe the Chinese legal system cannot be trusted, having turned up with a 99.9 per cent conviction rate of those accused in 2015, according to a report by THE SUN of London.
After months of demonstration, they have not only succeeded in forcing the government to back down on the bill, they are now calling for the resignation of Carrie Lam, the Chief Executive and highest placed government official of Hong Kong, in addition to some far-reaching electoral reforms. So, apart from exercising their fundamental rights to protest and driving home the point that power, though kept in trust, actually belongs to the people, it is interesting to note that no demonstrator has died from police bullets. While four people have been reported dead from months of demonstration, they have all been attributed to suicide.
Despite the fact that the protests have sometimes degenerated to the extent of protesters occupying the airport, sacking the parliament and using metal barricades to charge at the police, the latter have only fought back, using tear gas and pepper spray to keep demonstrators at bay. Only in the most severe cases have they employed rubber bullets; but nobody has fired live bullets at the demonstrators. Similarly, during the G20 meeting of 2017 in Hamburg, Germany, the police used pepper spray and water cannons to disperse demonstrators who went to the extent of setting cars ablaze.
Nigeria should by now be tired of killing her own citizens and start doing things the way other civilised countries do. If the Hong Kong demonstrations had been here in Nigeria, the body count would perhaps have matched that of Boko Haram by now. Instead of investing only in guns, the police should start equipping the riot police unit for deployment during public demonstrations. They should not only be appropriately armed with water cannon, tear gas and pepper spray, but should also be kitted with helmets with visors and riot shields. They should be combat-ready, but not armed with AK-47 rifles. They do not have to be overly aggressive as this may further aggravate tension. On the whole, the government must learn to dwell with demonstrations as they are part of the fundamental human rights of citizens.