Abuja — President Muhammadu Buhari yesterday finally spoke on angry youths' protest of police brutality, urging them to end the demonstrations, which went violent after Tuesday's crackdown by the army at Lekki Tollgate, Lagos.
Incidentally, the president was spectacularly silent on the tollgate shooting incident that brought his government worldwide condemnation.
He had come under severe criticism for his silence on the #EndSARS protests, which had raged for 14 days, spreading from Lagos State to over a dozen others with attendant disruption of essential economic activities.
But Buhari eventually broke his silence in a nationwide broadcast that was preceded by a National Security Council meeting in Abuja.
Pleading with the youths to leave the streets, he assured them that he had heard their cry and that his administration would address their concerns.
He urged the protesters to resist the temptation of being used by "subversive elements" to cause chaos with the aim of truncating the country's democracy.
However, the president's silence on the Lekki Tollgate clampdown by soldiers was made up for by the National Security Adviser (NSA), Maj. Gen. Babagana Monguno (rtd), who said the federal government was looking into the incident.
The president said if the protesters failed to heed his call to leave the streets, they would be undermining national security and law and order, warning that his administration will under no circumstances tolerate any situation that could jeopardise national security.
He called on the international 1community, many of which had expressed concern about the ongoing development in Nigeria, to get their facts right before making hasty pronouncements.
The president promised to respect the democratic rights of all Nigerians, but warned that he would not fold his arms and allow some Nigerians impinge on the rights of others.
The president, who said he was pained by the losses in the course of the street agitations, noted that he had enjoined security agencies to protect the lives and property of all law-abiding citizens without doing harm to those they are meant to protect.
Buhari listed his efforts to alleviate poverty and asked Nigerian youths to key into the programmes.
He stated that apart from schemes to reduce unemployment and rescue 100 million Nigerians from lack in the next 10 years, he had directed the National Salaries, Income and Wages Commission to expedite action on finalising of the new salary structure of members of the Nigeria Police Force (NPF).
He said: "In the circumstances, I would like to appeal to protesters to note and take advantage of the various well-thought-out initiatives of this administration designed to make their lives better and more meaningful and resist the temptation of being used by some subversive elements to cause chaos with the aim of truncating our nascent democracy.
"For you to do otherwise will amount to undermining national security and the law and order situation. Under no circumstances will this be tolerated.
"I, therefore, call on our youths to discontinue the street protests and constructively engage the government in finding solutions. Your voice has been heard loud and clear and we are responding."
While paying tribute to police officers and men killed in the line of duty, he called on all Nigerians to go about their normal businesses and enjoined security agencies to protect them and their and property.
The president stated that the government had put in place measures and initiatives principally targeted at youths, women and the most vulnerable groups in the society.
"These included our broad plan to lift 100 million Nigerians out of poverty in the next 10 years; the creation of N75 billion National Youth Investment Fund to provide opportunities for the youths, and the Micro, Small and Medium Enterprises (MSME) Survival Fund," he said.
He reiterated that the federal government was paying three months salaries of the staff of 100,000 micro, small - and medium - enterprises; paying for the registration of 250,000 businesses at the Corporate Affairs Commission (CAC); giving a grant of N30,000 to N100,000 artisans; and guaranteeing market for the products of traders.
"These are in addition to many other initiatives such as Farmermoni, Tradermoni, Marketmoni, N-Power, N-Tech and N-Agro. No Nigerian government in the past has methodically and seriously approached poverty-alleviation like we have done," the president said.
Buhari warned those who he said have hijacked and misdirected the "initial, genuine and well-intended protest" of the youths against the excesses of some members of the now-disbanded Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS), to desist from their actions.
He recalled that on October 12, he had acknowledged the genuine concerns and agitations of members of the public on the excessive use of force by some members of SARS, stressing that the acceptance of the demands of the protesters must not be misconstrued as weakness.
He said: "The choice to demonstrate peacefully is a fundamental right of citizens as enshrined in section 40 of our constitution and other enactments; but this right to protest also imposes on the demonstrators the responsibility to respect the rights of other citizens, and the necessity to operate within the law.
"As a democratic government, we listened to, and carefully evaluated the five-point demands of the protesters. And, having accepted them, we immediately scrapped SARS, and put measures in place to address the other demands of our youth.
"On approving the termination of SARS, I already made it clear that it was in line with our commitment to the implementation of extensive police reforms.
"Sadly, the promptness with which we have acted seemed to have been misconstrued as a sign of weakness and twisted by some for their selfish unpatriotic interest," Buhari said.
He added that this has led to the loss of human lives, acts of sexual violence, invasion of two major correctional facilities and freeing of convicts as well as the destruction of public and private property.
The president lamented the vandalism of the palace of the Oba of Lagos, Rilwan Akiolu, while the "so-called protesters" had further invaded an international airport and disrupted the travel plans of fellow Nigerians and visitors.
"I am indeed deeply pained that innocent lives have been lost. These tragedies are uncalled for and unnecessary. Certainly, there is no way whatsoever to connect these bad acts to legitimate expression of grievance of the youth of our country.
"The spreading of deliberate falsehood and misinformation through the social media in particular, that this government is oblivious to the pains and plight of its citizens is a ploy to mislead the unwary within and outside Nigeria into unfair judgment and disruptive behaviour," he stated.
According to him, both his deeds and words have shown how committed his administration has been to the wellbeing and the welfare of citizens, even with the steadily dwindling revenues, and the added responsibilities and restrictions due to the coronavirus pandemic.
On the welfare of police personnel, he stated that the National Salaries, Income and Wages Commission has been directed to expedite action on the finalisation of the new salary structure of members of the police as well as the review of the emoluments of other paramilitary services.
In addition, Buhari explained that in order to underscore the importance of education in preparing youths for the future, his administration has also come up with a new salary structure and other incentives for teachers.
He reaffirmed the federal government's commitment to preserving the unity of the country, saying that he will continue to improve good governance and the democratic process through sustained engagement.
Buhari said: "We shall continue to ensure that liberty and freedom, as well as the fundamental rights of all citizens are protected. But remember that the government also has the obligation to protect lives and properties, as well as the right of citizens to go about their daily businesses freely and protected from acts of violence."
He advised the international community to intimate themselves with the happenings in the country before taking positions and rushing to judgment.
"To our neighbours in particular, and members of the international community, many of whom have expressed concern about the ongoing development in Nigeria, we thank you and urge you all to seek to know all the facts available before taking a position or rushing to judgment and making hasty pronouncements," he stated.
The president thanked state governors, traditional and religious leaders, who have appealed for calm and restraint, as well as youth leaders who have restrained their followers from taking the law into their hands.
"This government respects and will continue to respect all the democratic rights and civil liberties of the people, but it will not allow anybody or groups to disrupt the peace of our nation," he warned.
FG Can't Act on Conjectures on Lekki Incident, Says NSA
The National Security Adviser (NSA), Monguno, said yesterday that the federal government has begun an investigation into the incident at Lekki Tollgate, where soldiers fired live bullets to disperse protesters.
According to him, the government has not taken any action on the incident because it needs to have all the facts.
He spoke against the backdrop of criticisms that have trailed the shooting and the clarification by Lagos State Governor, Mr. Babajide Sanwo-Olu, that he knew nothing about the deployment of soldiers to disperse the protesters.
Monguno, who was fielding questions from journalists, explained that the security agencies will need to have concrete evidence about what happened.
Although details are sketchy on who ordered the attack and how many persons were killed, Monguno said the security agencies were not taking the issue lightly.
He added that the federal government is taking its time to ensure that the right thing is done.
He said: "The government is looking at the incident that happened about 48 hours ago. We can't deal or act on conjectures, suppositions and so on.
"We need to verify things first. But the government is not oblivious of the fact that certain things had happened and also the possibility that actual facts could be distorted by either party."
Monguno assured the people that the matter will not be swept under the carpet as the Muhammadu Buhari-led administration will take necessary action.
"So, the government is going to look at that before coming up with something, but definitely, the government is not treating this issue lightly," he said.
PDP: Broadcast Lacking Empathy Test, Portrays Disconnected President
The Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) has described the presidential address on the protests rocking the nation, as disappointing and completely disconnected from the realities of the tragic occurrences in the country in the last two weeks.
The party, however, appealed to Nigerians, particularly the youth, to remain calm and allow a return to normal life in the collective quest for peaceful co-existence.
The PDP, in a statement by the National Publicity Secretary of the party, Mr. Kola Ologbondiyan, said: "Mr. President's address, in the face of the turmoil witnessed, the unrests as well as the killing of young Nigerians, is to say the least, depressing and failing in empathy test.
"Our party and, indeed, all lovers of peace in our country, were shocked that Mr. President glossed over the immediate trigger of violent protests - the widely condemned killing at the Lekki Tollgate by security operatives, a situation which created a global concern and drew the attention of the world to the abuse of human rights going on in our country under his watch.
"Painfully too, Mr. President, as the Commander-in-Chief, was silent on the demand by Nigerians for enquires into the involvement of the military in the gruesome killing.
"It failed to address the trepidations, the pervading hopelessness, the drifting towards anarchy and provided no concrete steps on how to arrest the situation and rein in bandits, hoodlums and vandals that were let loose to unleash violence on peaceful protesters and innocent Nigerians."
The party said Nigerians had expected that the president would provide the leadership for overhauling the security architecture to meet the demands of professionalism and respect for rules of engagement.
The party said Buhari failed to use the opportunity to further heal wounds and inspire hope by outlining a roadmap to open up the economy in a manner that would enable the youths to pursue their productive goals as well as address the issue of pervading hunger in the land.
However, the PDP directed that its flag in all party offices across the nation be flown at half-mast for a period of one week, beginning from today in honour of the Lekki Tollgate victims.
Buhari's Speech Not Presidential, Says Afenifere
The pan Yoruba socio-cultural group, Afenifere, has described Buhari's speech as not presidential, and expressed concern about the threat in his national broadcast.
Its spokesman, Mr. Yinka Odumakin, told THISDAY that it was surprising that the president never mentioned of the reported military killings on Tuesday night at the Lekki Tollgate in Lagos.
The group said: "The speech was full of sound and fury. For the president to be issuing warnings and threats at this period is the height of wickedness. For him not to say a word, on Lekki massacre, is the height of hard-heartedness. He didn't show any sign of a democratic president but a military dictator."
US Seeks Probe of Alleged Excessive Use of Force
Meanwhile, the United States has condemned the use of excessive force by the military against unarmed demonstrators in the ongoing EndSARS protests.
The US Secretary of State, Mr. Michael Pompeo, in a statement issued yesterday, asked the federal government to hold those responsible accountable.
The International Criminal Court (ICC), also confirmed receiving reports of crimes during the protests in Nigeria, adding that it is monitoring developments in the country.
He said the rights to peaceful assembly and freedom of expression are essential human rights and core democratic principle.
Pompeo, therefore, admonished the security services to show maximum restraint and respect fundamental rights.
He also urged the demonstrators to remain peaceful.
The statement titled, 'Ongoing protests in Nigeria', read in part, "we welcome an immediate investigation into any use of excessive force by members of the security forces. Those involved should be held to account in accordance with Nigerian law.
"The right to peaceful assembly and freedom of expression are essential human rights and core democratic principles.
"We call on the security services to show maximum restraint and respect fundamental rights and for demonstrators to remain peaceful. We extend our condolences to the victims of the violence and their families."
We're Monitoring Events in Nigeria, Says ICC
The International Criminal Court (ICC), has said it has received reports of crimes during the protests in Nigeria, adding that it is monitoring events in the country.
ICC Prosecutor, Ms. Fatou Bensouda, made this known in a statement posted on the Twitter handle of the organisation.
She stated that the court is monitoring developments from the protests in Nigeria.
"My office has been closely following the events around the current protests in Nigeria and the reaction of Nigeria's law enforcement and security agencies.
"Any loss of life and injury is concerning. We have received information alleging crimes and are keeping a close eye on developments, in case violence escalates and any indications arise that Rome Statute crimes may have been committed.
"I call for calm and restraint," she tweeted.