In the evening of Tuesday, October 20, a detachment of the Nigerian Military was despatched to suppress and or bring an end to a two-week long protest at the Lekki Toll Gate of Lagos. Protesters had camped at the location as part of the #EndSARS protest that had gripped the nation since the beginning of the month. The protest, led by youths and peaceful all through, had spread across the country and beyond.
Reports of the military intervention painted a forceful quelling of the protests. A live streaming of it was available courtesy of the Instagram Live broadcast of one of the protesters. Evidence abound of gunshots being fired at the location. Deaths were reported. Many ended up in hospital.
Surprisingly, attempts have continued to be made at rewriting the events of that unfortunate incident. One of these is the article of one Mijinyawa Bashir, which appeared in the Opinion Section of Premium Times on 25th October, 2020. In it, he argued that though gunshots were fired, injuries amd death resulted from "a stampede". He went further to argue that the whole reporting of the incident was a "big tissue of lies aimed at discrediting the government".
His piece is not the only one out there. Social media is filled with many piling on with requests for the names of victims, their families, addresses etc. Even the Nigerian Army has denied that soldiers were deployed to the location. Reading them, one might be tempted to believe that nothing happened at the Lekki Toll Gate on that fateful day. Or that what happened was a play in the park, like the military went there with kids' gloves and were happily sharing "pure water" and COVID palliatives.
Anyone who knows anything about Nigeria and its congenital disdain for data knows to be wary of numbers during moments of civil disturbance. And even if there is some consensus, these normally take a lot of time to materialise.
How many people died during the Nigerian Civil War? The numbers vary from 250,000 to 2.5 million people. In between those 2 numbers, take your pick depending on which book you read up.
How many people died during the June 12 crisis? Who knows? Have we ever counted the cost, in lives, of the annulment of the elections of that day, the protests that followed and the violent repression of same? This writer was on Ikorodu Road, Lagos, several times during those dark days when the Army went on a shooting spree with tanks and automatic weapons. Not a few were killed. We have neither names nor numbers till date.
The city of Kano has a long history of riots. Mostly religious. Who knows what the numbers are from any and every one of them? Or from the various riots that Kaduna has witnessed? Or indeed in such places as Jos, Ife, Udi and Zaki-Biam, where multiple carnage have occurred, some of them by our military forces?
How many citizens have we lost to the Boko Haram insurgency? Do we know? Have we ever gone to town asking for names of the dead? Or whether they are victims of gunshots, bombs or "stampede"? Do we not all share collective outrage at the unceasing loss of innocent lives?
Given our history, why are many now looking to adorn the events of Tuesday night with borrowed robes? Or that what happened is straight from the manual on crowd management? We already know that soldiers were deployed. We know that the place that was hitherto well lit was suddenly bathed in darkness. We know that gunshots were fired. We know that many ended up in hospital and that deaths occurred. All these should concentrate our minds, not the numbers or whether it was from stampede or gunshots. One injury is bad enough. One death from a peaceful protest is a death too many.
We need to be careful what foundations we lay for the future of this country. Is this what we want to leave for our children? A nation that cannot collectively display outrage at egregious behaviour? A nation where citizens are asked to sweat the small stuff and leave bigger matters unattended?
Let there be no doubt. What happened at the Lekki Toll Gate is condemnable. And we should all be collectively ashamed by it. Our youths were peacefully protesting and seeking cover from the coercive forces of our nation. They did so under our colours and with faith in the words of our anthem. That they came to harm in such circumstance is to our eternal shame. This is the bottomline.
That the government comes out looking bad from the incident is its own fault. It was our government that deployed soldiers to quell a peaceful protest of youths who were acting within the confines of the law. The youths had not breached a curfew - which was still 2 hours from taking effect when they were shot at and violently dispersed. Attempting to move the narrative in the direction of some nameless "enemies of government or Nigeria" is needless propaganda. We ought to be better than this.
Nigeria should apologise to its youths and start the remedial work of regaining their trust. It's the least we should all be demanding!
Chris Adetayo, a public and international affairs commentator, writes from Lagos.