“When the army announced last week that beginning Tuesday it would commence ‘Operation Crocodile Smile’—not against Boko Haram insurgents in the North-east but rather across the country “to identify, track, and counter negative propaganda in the social media and across cyberspace”—it was obvious to discerning Nigerians that EndSARS protesters were their target. It was also clear that the intervention would not end well. Crocodiles don’t smile. When the big reptile opens its mouth, it is not a friendly gesture; it is to kill and destroy. And that was exactly what happened at the Lekki-Epe toll gate in Lagos on Tuesday night following what appeared to be a well-orchestrated attack under the cover of darkness. The exact number of lives lost in that tragic incident as well as in other cities (where criminals have hijacked the civil protests) in the past one week remain a matter of speculation. But no one will dispute the fact that what we are now experiencing is a national calamity. The irony to the Lekki tragedy is that you can be shot by soldiers while protesting extra-judicial killings by the police!”—From EndSARS to Bloodbath, 22 October 2020
“That a blood-stained flag is being used to symbolize what happened at Lekki tollgate on the night of 20th October 2020 is a sad commentary on our country. The story behind it is that when soldiers arrived the scene, protesters took a knee, waved the Nigerian Flag, and began singing the National Anthem. The shots that reportedly followed stained the flag. In these days of alternative facts, nobody can be sure that exactly was what happened. But it really doesn’t matter. To feel safe and secure in your own country is a basic right. The EndSARS protests resulted from the denial of those rights by agents of state. To be shot by soldiers (with or without a flag) while protesting is a stain on the conscience of any nation.” —Lekki and the Bloodstained Flag, 29 October 2020
In the wee hours of Wednesday, 21 October 2020, according to the Judicial Panel of Inquiry set up by the Lagos State Government to probe the EndSARS protest, “three trucks with brushes underneath were brought to the Lekki Toll Gate… to clean up the scene of bloodstains and other evidence.” It was a futile exercise. Blood is a peculiar (some would say spiritual) fluid that often exacts revenge. Particularly when spilled unjustly. That is perhaps the only way to explain why it would take a panel set up by government to return a verdict that indicts authorities and vindicates the claim by the protesters as to what transpired that fateful night.
We must commend the Lagos panel for staying the course. Two reports were submitted, one regarding police brutality cases and the other, findings on the investigation into the shooting incident at Lekki tollgate. The challenge now is for the Lagos State government to conclude the process to allow justice to be served for the victims and culprits. Chaired by Doris Okuwobi, a retired Judge of the Lagos State High Court, with Babajide Boye as Secretary, panel members include Ebun-Olu Adegboruwa, SAN, Taiwo Lakanu, a retired Deputy Inspector General of Police (DIG), Patience Patrick-Udoh, ‘Segun Awosanya, Oluwatoyin Odusanya, Lucas Koyejo and Majekodunmi Oluwaseun. In all, 48 victims were identified by the panel. Eleven were confirmed dead, four said to be missing but presumed dead while 24 sustained gunshot injuries.
Governor Babajide Sanwo-Olu has constituted a White Paper committee and we await their conclusion on the shooting incident and several far-reaching recommendations made by the panel on extra-judicial killings and torture by the police. But the greater burden lies with the federal government. In the wake of the tragedy, a number of officials were fixated as to whether any shooting even occurred. That unfortunate debate has now been laid to rest. But as I also stated last year, even before the panel counted the body bags, the scars inflicted in the hearts of many of our young people will be lasting. This is a tragedy that goes even deeper than scars inflicted by bullets. And it is something we must deal with.
When in April this year an American police officer, Derek Chauvin was convicted for the murder of George Floyd, President Joe Biden described it as a ‘too rare’ step to deliver “basic accountability” for Black Americans who had for decades endured police brutality. “It was a murder in full light of day, and it ripped the blinders off for the whole world to see,” said Biden in a national broadcast. “This can be a giant step forward in the march toward justice in America.”
There is a lesson the authorities in Nigeria can take from that tragic incident which also sparked national outrage, and this can be the moment. Aside from taking responsibility, the message Biden sent out was that a law enforcement badge should not insulate anybody from the repercussions of naked abuse of power that cheapens human life. The only culture permissible in a democracy is one that respects the freedom and rights of the citizenry. What we have been dealing with over the years is a tradition of abuse by agents of state that encouraged the excesses of the now-disbanded Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS) whose personnel resembled licensed thugs. It was the resistance of our young people to that culture of abuse that led us to where we are.
It is sad that our collective psyche has become so numb that sanctity of life does not seem to mean much any longer in Nigeria. To change that narrative, we must not accept cover-ups or half measures in dealing with these reports. Those found culpable for the shooting by soldiers at Lekki tollgate as well as human rights violations by the police should be apprehended, prosecuted, and made to face the full weight of the law. That is the only way to appease the memory of the victims and their surviving relations and to reassure Nigerians that this is a new day.
Islam, Christianity, and Yorubaland
The claim by a young engineer, Sikiru Adebowale, that he was denied a job by the late promoter of the collapsed 21-storey building at Ikoyi, Femi Osibona on account of being a Muslim, has been weaponised by the Muslim Rights Council (MURIC) Director, Prof Ishaq Akintola. To him, it is evidence of “the sufferings of Yoruba Muslims under their overbearing and selfish Christian overlords who want all political offices, all civil service vacancies, all teaching jobs, all construction works, etc. for Christians and Christians alone.” Taking a cue from MURIC, other commentators have joined to denigrate the Yoruba people on what they consider religious intolerance, based on a false construct.
Yoruba people have never claimed exceptionalism when it comes to religious tolerance. Although I find the 2013 journal article, ‘The management of religious diversity in West Africa: The exceptionalism of the Wolof and Yoruba in the post-independence period’ by Dr Irene Osemeka of the University of Lagos, quite fascinating. The dominant view, which is true, is that in Yorubaland, religion is not a predisposing factor when it comes to politics, business, or social interactions because there is hardly any family without adherents of both faiths. For instance, there is still a generation in my village who would not know me until somebody reminds them that I am ‘omo Muni’ (Munirat’s son) because that is my late mother’s birth name as a Muslim before she became Felicia after marrying my father.
Although Osibona is no longer here to defend himself, I do not doubt the ‘testimony’ of Adebowale on the rejection that saved him from death in the collapsed building. But context is also important. It is possible that as at the time the interaction took place, Osibona might be playing to an audience, especially since Adebowale did not disclose the people who witnessed the drama. But I am sure of one thing. On that same day that Adebowale was denied the job, if Alhaji Femi Okunnu (or Osibona’s friend, the Oluwo of Iwo) had sent two engineers who were Muslims, they probably would have been employed, even if it meant sacking some Christians to accommodate them! That is the way our elites work.
This is not to say there is no tension or competition between Muslims and Christians in Yorubaland. There are buried issues which explain the manner Adebowale was quickly absorbed by another company promoted by a Muslim. In recent years, there has been a controversy around the wearing of Hijab and some Islamic leaders have complained about Muslims being marginalised in terms of appointments in a particular Southwest state. I am also aware of the damage that might have been done to the psyche of Muslims who attended Christian Mission schools many decades ago and were conscripted into practices they considered alien to their own faith. These are issues that we should not gloss over and we can have meaningful conversations around them to facilitate better accommodation in Yorubaland.
However, as Simon Kolawole rightly pointed out in his last Sunday column, ‘Yoruba Muslims and Fifth Columnists’, until the Pentecostal Fellowship of Nigeria (PFN) campaigned for a ‘Christian’ to succeed Governor Babatunde Raji Fashola, SAN in Lagos in 2015, the politics of religion was largely muffled. Simon cited several examples to buttress the spirit of accommodation that have for decades defined political interactions in Yorubaland, including the emergence in 1999 of a certain Bola Ahmed Tinubu as the candidate of the Alliance for Democracy (AD). Although Simon concluded quite correctly that the Afenifere leaders who were predominantly Christians supported Tinubu, a Muslim, against Funsho Williams, a Christian, there is an important detail he missed. Five persons decided that outcome and by implication the governorship of Lagos in 1999. They were Abraham Adesanya, Solanke Onasanya, Olanihun Ajayi, Ganiyu Olawale Dawodu (all now of blessed memory) and Ayo Adebanjo. As it would happen, Dawodu, the only Muslim among them, was the one who backed Williams while the ‘Ijebu Mafia’ quartet (all Christians) supported Tinubu!
I do not mind a healthy debate on the place of religion in Yorubaland and it is an issue that many scholars have interrogated. One of Nigeria’s foremost historians, the late Professor Isaac Akinjogbin, once argued that religion never defined Yoruba ethnic identity and inter-personal relationships essentially because there is no family tree that is purely Christian or Muslim. In his 2015 Nigeria National Order of Merit (NNOM) lecture, ‘Bonds, Boundaries, and Bondage of Faith’, Harvard Professor, Jacob Olupona explored what he described as apparent contradiction in the Nigerian faith traditions, using the Yoruba worldview to explain his thesis.
Son of an Anglican priest, Olupona told a story that only Yoruba people can relate with. “In the early 1960s in my father’s church, the entire local community rejoiced and celebrated when the first Imam made the Hajj (pilgrimage to Mecca), because it was considered an honour to have the first ‘Alhaji’ in their community. The Imam’s extended family, mainly Christians, wanted to have a thanksgiving service in the Anglican church in celebration of this community honour. While this may seem incongruous to modern Nigerian sensibilities, this culturally pluralistic community—and indeed this was the case in many other locales in Yorubaland—saw the various religious systems as alternative traditions, to the extent that a devotee of one felt free to consult another. The traditions engaged each other in meaningful, intellectual conversation and practical exchange, underscoring the cultural capital they represent for us.”
When Olupona and I spoke on phone yesterday and I told him what I was writing on, he said he had followed the debate but does not think it merits the attention many people give it. “I would have been very worried if some of what I read were coming from highly respected Yoruba Muslim scholars like Prof Ishaq Oloyede, Deremi Abubakar or Amidu Sani. That would have disturbed me greatly. I am not worried about MURIC.”
But I am worried about MURIC. Prof. Akintola presents himself as the voice of Islam in Yorubaland, at least within the public/intellectual space. It cannot be an accident that we only began to hear of him after the death of the former Secretary General of the Nigerian Supreme Council for Islamic Affairs (NSCIA), Dr AbdulLateef Oladimeji Adegbite. If that is the vacuum Akintola wants to fill, then he needs to be more broad-minded. The legacy of the Seriki Musulumi and Baba Adini of Egbaland was a lifetime of promoting peace and harmony in Yorubaland and across Nigeria while standing for his faith. When Adegbite died in October 2012, I dedicated my column to him.
As I wrote in that piece, even when he had no hesitancy in proclaiming his Islamic faith for which he had no apology, Adegbite was not a man who would engage in loud professions of superior righteousness. “But he earned the respect of many, including Christians like me, because he was honest, honourable and respected the rights of other people. This is being attested to by those who served with him in the inter religious council. The late Secretary General of the Nigerian Supreme Council for Islamic Affairs was a man of strong convictions. Yet he did not make merchandise of his religion, and his public interventions were usually devoid of the hypocrisy so commonly resorted to by many charlatans who play the politics of religion to command attention in our country.”
That piece, (https://www.thisdaylive.com/index.php/2012/10/04/abdullateef-oladimeji-adegbite-1933-2012/) will serve Prof Akintola and others who think like him in Yorubaland—whether they profess Christianity or Islam.