How many people died during the Lekki Toll Gate ‘shooting?’ Government has maintained that nobody died. But, armchair critics, social media influencers, some right activists, political foes and foreign organisations have insisted that there were corpes without providing evidence. Deputy Editor EMMANUEL OLADESU writes on the politics of the subsisting social media-fuelled propaganda about imaginary killings of Lagos protesters and its implications.
THE controversy over the #EndSARS protests in Lagos, which degenerated into arson and breakdown of law and order, is still raging.
Opinion is divided on the management of the aftermath of the legitimate protest that was hijacked by hoodlums, miscreants and other aggrieved youths.
To prevent anarchy, as manifested in the destruction of public facilities and attacks on policemen and stations by hoodlums, Lagos State government imposed a curfew. It was ignored by exulberant Lekki protesters, who were carried away by the carnivals and entertainment. The fun overwhelmed sense and logic. On account of their rigidity, the protests also heralded pandemonium and disorder.
To observers, while the protest underscored a fight for justice and an expression of human right, the protesters, in the exercise of human liberty, inadvertently violated the rights of other citizens; the highway was blocked, freedom of movement was tampered with and economic activities were disrupted.
As major roads were blocked in high brow Keki and Ikeja axis, the protects became characterised by madness, thereby creating discomfort for residents, including ailing elderly Nigerians who could no more access roads to the hospital, pregnant woman in labour, pupils who could not go to school and workers who were prevented from going to work.
As soldiers stormed the scene to disperse the demonstrators, there were, as the Army claimed before the Justice Doris Okwuobi Panel, shootings in the air.
According to Brig-Gen. Ahmed Taiwo, Commander of 81 Division, the alleged mass killing of defenceless protesters amounted to a cruel fabrication, stressing that blank bullets, and not live bullets, were fired into the sky.
On the night of September 20, there was no single print reporter on ground at Lekki, making social media quack journalists to fill the void. Blowing the shootings out of proportion, they cried foul about an unsubstantiated bloodletting and assaults on protesters.
The social media influencers also alleged that soldiers hurriedly packed the dead bodies to cover up the killings.
Some days later, those who were rumoured to have died during the shootings resurrected. They denied being dead. Up to now, there is no family in Nigeria that has complained about missing protesters or persons due to the dispersal by soldiers.
A month after the claims of massacre at Lekki Toll Gate by individuals, groups and foreign organisations, there is no evidence, making the allegations to pale into wild fabrication, sheer propaganda and outright falsehood.
Although these subjective claims are still being projected to dent the image of targeted public officials and political figures , they are likely to be sustained in public consciousness for a long time because of the perception of the generality of Nigerians, particularly Southerners, about the increasingly unpopular Buhari administration.
Lagos will not forget the month of October in a hurry. Youths converged on Lekki and Government Secretariat, Alausa, Ikeja for protest against police brutality; singing, dancing and decrying the overbearing attitudes of the Special Anti-Robbery Squard(SARS).
It was a well organised, peaceful protest. But, it was not a demonstration against the Lagos State government. Even, at the initial stage, regular policemen and public officials identified with the youths as they joined the march.
Also, Governor Babajide Sanwo-Olu stormed the protest grounds in the spirit of solidarity. Later, he visited President Muhammadu Buhari in Aso Villa, Abuja to table the five-point demands of the youths. In response, Police Inspector Abubakar Adamu disbanded the controversial SARS, the symbol of police brutality and high handedness. Sanwo-Olu also set up the Panel of Inquiry to investigate past allegations of infractions against the notorious and discredited police unit.
Despite meeting these core demands, appeals to the protesters to pull the break fell on deaf ears. The arrowheads of the ‘leaderless protests’ hid their identities and could not play a proper leadership role. Due to their lack of reasoning and strategy for moderation, the protests derailed. Little did the legitimate protesters guess that the protest would be hijacked by miscreants whose rampage resulted into murder and mayhem. Miscreants who had an axe to grind with the police capitalised on the demonstrations to unleash terror on security personnel. Curiously, the original protesters decided to defile the curfew imposed by the governor, who had identified with them and who had explained the motivation, which was to prevent the slide into anarchy.
Had the original protesters retraced their steps, government would have focused on the pseudo-protesters, the hoodlums who had an agenda to loot and destroy.
Major public facilities, including police stations, council secretariats, BRT buses, royal palaces, public hospitals, vehicle licensing offices and private concerns were blown up by arsonists hiding under the protests. No thought was spared by the partisan critics for the bereaved families of policemen who were killed by the irate mob in broad daylight.
Up to now, many police uniforms, guns and ammunition carted away by the miscreants have not been recovered. In some parts of Lagos, the hoodlums still terrorise innocent citizens. Police reluctance to go back to work is a fallout of the onslaught against them. According to observers, these portend grave security challenges for the state.
However, more worrisome is the impact of orchestrated prevarication that has not fizzled out. According to Lagos State All Progressives Congress (APC), the allegation of shooting, without a proof of bloodletting, is now being exploited by political opponents to dent the image of the ruling party and the government it midwifed. Seye Oladejo, publicity secretary of the party, said the plot, which is devoid of logic, has failed.
According to observers, the baseline, indeed the vehicle for spreading rumour and fake news, is the social media, with its contrasting roles as weapon of mass mobilisation and destruction.
Shortly after the dispersal of the protesters, Catherine Udeh DJ Switch, artiste and social media user, claimed to have authentic evidence of mass killings.
In her controversial nine-minute video posted on her verified Instagram account, she alleged that protesters carried 15 dead bodies and dropped them at the feet of soldiers, who threw the dead bodies in their vans.
“When I was doing the live video, seven had died. After my phone died, we had 15,” she said.
Udeh, as her claim suggested, demonstrated an unprecedented feminist bravery and boldness by not running away when bullets were flying at night, but assisted in evacuating the injured, removing live bullets from their bodies after tying the national flags around their bullet-ridden legs, and counting the corpes without entertaining the fear of being hit by bullets. Many doubt if her submission could pass a test of validity.
But, there was no follow-up to the self-imposed patriotic duty and act of heroism as she refused to tender her evidence before the panel. Irked by her disappearance at a time the country anxiously waited for her to shed light on her claims, Information and Culture Minister Alhaji Lai Mohammed berated her for a shortfall n patriotism. “Surprisingly, instead of presenting whatever evidence she may have to the judicial panel, she chose to escape from the country under the pretext that her life was in danger’, he fumed.
Also hanging is the CNN report on the #EndSARS protests. According to CNN, there was shooting, and hence, and killing. Its reporters were not on ground in Lekki. Thus, it arrived at its shooting and killing theory through a video it obtained from sources. The CNN report contradicted the report of BBC reporter at the scene, who reported that soldiers shot “sporadically into the air,”and not at protesters. But, the CNN has stood by its report.
To the Federal Government, the CNN report was full of sensationalism and disinformation, adding that the international news organisation relied on fake video and unverified third hand information.
A Coalition of Civil Society For Human Rights and Good Governance Africa (CSHRGGA) was also taken aback by the CNN report, which it aptly described as “fake, repulsive, and a concocted piece of deliberate falsehood by an otherwise reputable international cable network.”
A statement jointly signed on behalf of the group by Prof. Bankole Amuda, Prof Uzodima Anakwe, Balarabe Hassan Ningi, and Grace Osaze, agreed with the Army that no protester was killed as only blank ammunition were used by soldiers.
The coalition rumour peddlers against deliberate attempts to undermine Nigeria’s sovereignty. It also called on the Federal Government to remain firm and apply the full weight of the law against local and foreign saboteurs.
According to the group, the CNN only relied on fake videos posted on the Internet by enemies of the state, to draw a conclusion of a massacre.
Lagos APC Chairman Alhaji Tunde Balogun said Governor Sanwo-Olu deserved commendation for the handling of the protest in Lagos, saying he could not have done better.
A security expert, Ikechukwu Mba said: “The reports were more speculative and no panel can rely on speculations if it wants to do a good job.”
He added: “From the look of things, I think the CNN report seems over exaggerated. It is over exaggerated because the issue of human life is not something you do and erase evidence. The moment somebody is shut down, some people will run away, others will see the corpse on the ground. But in all honesty, I don’t think that up to 15 families can come up boldly and claim that their own was killed in the Lekki saga.”
But, Oladejo said the CNN report could throw spanner in the works of the judicial panel.
In his view, the CNN report was a ‘piece of fiction’ fuelled by rumours, adding that it contrasted sharply with the balanced reportage by the BBC.
Oladejo stressed: “While the BBC had correspondents on ground for professional and ethical coverage, the CNN put its controversial reports together a month after the incident relying on eye witnesses, rumours and the deployment of technology from the comfort of their London studio.
“While the technology could capture the military deployment and the purported shooting, it couldn’t show us the alleged carting away of the victims by military. It also remains a mystery that we didn’t see a blood soaked Lekki toll gate after the incident. The series of resurrections of hitherto announced dead victims was conveniently left out just like the fluctuating number of fatalities.”