A troubling move by the Major General Muhammadu Buhari (retd.) regime to quell the raging civil protests by Nigerian youths against police brutality may further fuel the two-week stretch of civil unrest instead of de-escalating it. Citing nebulous threats against the state by “subversive elements, terrorists and cybercriminals,” the Nigerian Army deployed soldiers to the streets of Abuja on Monday and Tuesday. Soldiers were also reportedly seen in Ado-Ekiti, the Ekiti State capital and a few other places in the country.
In the heat of the #EndSARS protests by youths venting their grievances against police atrocities, this is provocative and unnecessary. Shortly after an intimidating threat to the protesting youths, the Nigerian Army announced ‘Operation Crocodile Smile VI’, stating that the nationwide military operation was not against #EndSARS protesters. That is the height of deception. The coincidence is too striking to ignore. Over the past two weeks, Nigerian youths have been protesting against police brutality, using the #EndSARS hashtag. It is a just cause in a democracy. Undoubtedly, the military’s moves are an apparent bid to suppress the protests. This is a dangerous and an unwarranted assault on democracy by the Chief of Army Staff, Tukur Buratai. Buratai might be fixated on ingratiating himself with the Buhari regime, but at the end of the day, the deployment will curtail the democratic culture, which stands on the cherished principle of “government of the people, by the people, for the people.”
Rightly, the President admitted “it is important to allow the younger generation to exercise the freedom to protest,” but cautioned that such protests must be in a peaceful manner. The regime has also started taking some remedial measures in addressing the youth’s demands. What is required is the continued engagement of the leadership with the people. The Senate has requested Buhari to address the nation immediately and set up a judicial panel of enquiry made up of eminent Nigerians that would be respected by the youth to identify the notorious SARS officers and ensure their arrest and prosecution. He should do so immediately.
But in all of this, the military must be kept at bay. Despite 21 years of the Fourth Republic, the militarisation of the country’s weak institutions is all too evident. The military is involved in joint security operations with the civil security agencies in more than 33 of the 36 states. This is wrong, damaging and undemocratic. Soldiers are heavily deployed for elections, which is the job of the police. Soldiers routinely man roadblocks, direct traffic and interfere in civil and land disputes. All this has put national existence at the mercy of the military. It should change, with the military specifically restricted to the fight against Islamist insurgency in the North-East. This newspaper has consistently been warning about the involvement of the military in the civil security process. Indeed, this is one major reason the policing system should be decentralised and devolved.
Soldiers are trained for war, and Nigerians youths are only expressing their minds peacefully as youths are doing in other parts of the world. A United States Army staff sergeant said, “My troops are not trained in crowd control tactics, they are trained to meet and defeat with deadly force any enemy of the US who is attacking us. My troops do not have the mindset to just allow someone to throw things at them.”
Nigerian soldiers must refuse to fire at unarmed protesters. The use of live ammunition against unarmed persons who pose no danger to anyone is unlawful. Protests should be controlled by the police using non-lethal force such as teargas, rubber bullets and water cannons. It is egregious and ignorant for the Army to insert itself in a civilian, democratic exercise of civic rights; and label itself the defender of democracy, peace and unity. Peaceful protest is a fundamental right deriving from the rights of assembly and association. Profiling protesting youths as “trouble makers, subversive elements, anti-democratic and agents of disunity” reveals a troubling mindset of the military jackboot culture, a hangover of the era of military dictatorship.
The protagonists of the military crackdown should be reminded that it was the deployment of soldiers and brutal police squads that provoked and transformed the protests against the rigging of the Western Region elections in 1965 into the ‘Operation Wetie’ riots. This later resulted in the collapse of the First Republic. Similarly, experience from the Arab Spring — in Tunisia, Syria, Libya — demonstrates how iron-fisted military atrocities can turn peaceful protests into unstoppable revolutions. His usual deployment of troops to slaughter civilian protesters ended in the downfall of Omar al-Bashir’s 30-year dictatorship in Sudan.
Now, the youth are simply saying “enough is enough,” this country is broken, headed for ruin as it is extremely badly run. As revolutionary Franz Fanon once predicted, the youth seem to be discovering their historical mission and seeking ways to fulfil it. This is the time for extensive reforms across all sectors and a productive engagement with the people. In a democratic, pluralistic setting where the most critical segments – youths, nationalities and economic classes – are aggrieved and aggressive, cannons, assault rifles, tanks and tear gas will only escalate the crisis of modernisation. Where hunger stalks the land, where a bag of rice sells for N25,000 and the minimum wage is N30,000 per month, where youth unemployment is 34.9 per cent, where states are impoverished and severe inequalities and insecurity persist, the most critical input is to roll out reforms not tanks.
For the protesting youths, it should be mentioned again that #EndSARS is definitely a long road to change and reform. Establishing a working democracy should be the overall objective of Nigerian youths, not how to truncate it. As Conversation, an online publication rightly states, “The social movement led by Martin Luther King Jr. in the US, for instance, didn’t achieve civil rights in a single boycott. Waves of different movements over decades, using varied protest tactics, and the art of compromise, brought change incrementally. Push, negotiate, make a deal – repeated as a pattern for victory.” Rallies, protests and marches are all guaranteed and protected by the Constitution. What the Constitution does not protect and tolerate is the anarchist culture of rioting, destruction of property, looting of stores and even attacking innocent people. The youth who engage in these are not protesters, but criminals and their violence is undermining the legitimate protest by the cultured youth. Martin Luther once said, “Nonviolence is a powerful and just weapon, which cuts without wounding and ennobles the man who wields it.”
But Buhari will do better to take this counsel from a US National Guard non-commissioned officer who said during the Black Lives Matter protests: “Using the military to put down protests and supplement the botched efforts of the police to control these protests, particularly through unlawful uses of force, will only further inflame the protests. This is escalation, not de-escalation. Embroiling the military due to the inaction and failings of the police only serves to conflate the two, and would put both military members and civilians at greater risk. Cracking down with authoritarianism does nothing but further politicise the military and erode the trust the public has in us. There is no winning in this scenario.”
Truly, there is no winning. And the responsibility for issuing these unlawful orders and for their lethal consequences rest with the President and the Chief of Army Staff.