Nigeria: Lekki Toll Gate Violence - How Do We Heal and Rebuild?

29 October 2020

IT has been about a week since 'unknown' soldiers reportedly opened fire on unarmed peaceful protesters sitting at the Lekki Toll Gate singing the National Anthem. On that day, the country was put in a state of shock and utter disbelief.

Reminiscent of the 2015 Shiite massacre in Zaria, the 2016 killing of pro-Biafra protesters in Onitsha and the Odi massacre of 1999, the violence unleashed against the peaceful #EndSARS protesters at the Lekki Toll Gate sent chills down the spine of Nigerians and indeed the international community.

Differently from these earlier killings listed however, there was no religious, ethnic or tribal leaning or armed agitation that could characterise the commingling of people who sat behind the toll gate that evening.

They were a group of people united in heart and purpose with undying love in their hearts for their country and the only wrong they did that day was to love their country enough to demand positive change. Yet they were killed in cold blood. Nigerians relived Zaria and Onitsha and Odi again.

All night on Tuesday October 20, the country could not sleep. People kept vigil online with those at the toll gate; their brothers and sisters who were barricaded at the toll gate and prevented by the men who shot at them from getting medical help. It was one of the longest nights of the country's history, with neither the country's nor the city's leadership anywhere to be found. There was anger, sadness, weeping, sorrow, hate, angst, surprise and in many cases a potpourri of these emotions.

The state governor, Babajide Sanwo-Olu, would the next morning later pay a visit to the hospitals of some of the injured from the incident, do a few photo ops and deny culpability or knowledge of the circumstances surrounding the event of that night. He would go ahead to deny the death of any person in the shooting.

He would in doing this, further stoke the embers of disgust, anger and disappointment at the leadership of the state, since hundreds of thousands of Nigerians had witnessed at least one person die via a social media live feed the day prior. The day following the shooting, mayhem was unleashed across the state. People would take to the streets despite the 24-hour curfew in the state.

They would burn police stations, a TV station believed to be owned by a political godfather as well as the palace of the Oba of Lagos, the High Court complex, City Hall, bank buildings, several mass transit buses, amongst others. They will also vandalise and loot from various places.

The destruction that followed Tuesday night's events was organic, very much like the peaceful protest itself, but this time lacking the restraint, knowledge, peacefulness, tact and desire to build that the peaceful protest was characterized by. This time, it was powered by blind rage and nothing more. Unfortunately for everyone, property worth billions, maybe even trillions, were destroyed.

Lagos became a ghost city, with most police stations abandoned and streets empty, and only the chaotic sound of destruction being heard. Private property and estates were not left out in the mayhem and the security operatives guarding them were an easy target. Many fled, others went into hiding. For the second time that week, residents of Lagos were distraught.

A similitude of calm was beginning to return to the city when President Muhammadu Buhari stepped out of hiding to address his citizens, about 48 hours after the Lekki shooting. Rather than comfort, the 10 minutes reading from the President tore up any wounds that were previously healing, as nowhere in it did it attempt to recognise the event of Tuesday. Reactions have continued to trail this insensitivity.

Gladly, a healing process has started in Lagos. The damage has been assessed, cleaning of the city is ongoing, small businesses that were victims of the mayhem are being provided support, free grief and post-traumatic stress counselling is being offered and donations are being made to support the bereaved. The beauty of all of this healing is that the peaceful protesters are significantly involved in the healing of their city, in spite of everything.

Yet let neither Governor Sanwo-Olu nor President Buhari be fooled into thinking that any real healing or rebuilding can happen without properly acknowledging the unlawful violence unleashed against the peaceful protesters at Lekki or elsewhere and without responsibility being borne by someone for what happened and justice being served. The healing cannot just be for property and the streets, there must be healing for lives too.

The rebuilding cannot just be for structures, it has to be for the bereaved who lost people in the violence. It is unfortunate that the Odi, Zaria and Onitsha massacres by the Nigerian military have till date not had anyone prosecuted for them- a testimony to the culture of no consequence that we operate in Nigeria, particularly for those wielding political power.

This time, things have to be different though. The evolution of the Nigerian state from an "off the mic" state of affairs to a place where people are urged to speak up and accountability is demanded must start with accountability for the Lekki Toll Gate violence, and if it will not be volunteered, it must be demanded.

This healing has to be comprehensive and holistic, if not wounds will fester, become septic and may lead to more serious complications. Government, both at state and federal levels, should ensure people get the healing and closure they require- and beyond that, that the approach to governance changes to one that is all-inclusive, transparent and whose impact is felt at the grassroot.


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