‘Soro soke, ki o se idajo ododo, ba talaka ati alaini gba eto won’ (Speak up and judge fairly; defend the rights of the poor and needy)—Proverbs 31: 9
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!
However, it was not unexpected. The moment the peaceful character of the protests against abuse of power by personnel of the Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS)—a notorious unit of the Nigeria police that has been disbanded—was overrun by hoodlums and an assortment of rented thugs, the threat to national security became a clear and present danger. My fear from the beginning was how the federal government would respond to such a threat without bloodshed, given the mind set of our military should they be called upon to intervene. Knowing that at some point opportunistic criminals would exploit the protests for their own end, I advocated last week for the protesters to adopt a strategy that would take the conversation from the streets. If in advanced societies like the United States ‘Black Lives Matter’ protests could degenerate into looting, vandalism and arson, it was not so difficult to predict what would happen here.
Aside the bodybags that kept mounting, the Ekiti Attorney General and Justice Commissioner, Olawale Fapohunda, disclosed on Tuesday that no fewer than three girls were gang-raped by thugs who had hijacked the protest in the state. In Osun State, Governor Gboyega Oyetola who joined the protests in solidarity, escaped death by a whisker. On Monday morning in Benin, Edo State capital, police stations were burnt, prison inmates (numbering 1,993) were set free at two correctional facilities by hoodlums and several vehicles were damaged. The same day in Abuja, the Apo area descended into violence that led to the death of no fewer than five persons with scores left injured. On Tuesday in Lagos, a police station was razed with one killed and many injured. That forced the hand of Governor Babajide Sanwo-Olu who declared a curfew that started a train of events culminating in the Tuesday night tragic drama at the Lekki-Epe toll gate. With the orgy of violence, arson and destruction of yesterday in Lagos by hoodlums who were out of control, there is an urgent need for the federal government to restore law and order quickly by reining in all self-serving impulses. Banks are being looted, people are being robbed and maimed and there is a general climate of fear in many states across the country. It’s like anarchy has been let loose in Nigeria and this state of lawlessness cannot be allowed to continue.
Meanwhile, the unhelpful blame game has begun on the EndSARS protests. There will be time for that later and there is sufficient blame to go round. Our young people who protested the brutalities of SARS may have been naïve about possible hijack and the consequences, but they were well organised. They may also have appeared on the surface to be ‘leaderless’ but they were not. Leaders were not congregating at a physical venue but there were obviously chains of command with people on the streets responding to specific instructions conveyed digitally. Without anybody carrying Ghana-Must-Go bags or driving bullion vans around, money was being moved to offer legal support, pay for hospital bills, purchase food and drinks, hire bodyguards and generally provide essentials. The switch from go-fund-me accounts to difficult-to-track bitcoins was so seamless that it cannot be understood without the expertise available to organisers of the protests from Nigerians in the Diaspora.
The ‘Soro Soke’ catchphrase summed up their ingenuity. Simply interpreted, ‘Soro Soke’ in Yoruba means ‘speak louder’. Those who understand the language know that the embedded meaning is in the tone: usually a command laced with rebuke by the superior party in a conversation. When someone says ‘speak louder’ it is most often not because the person did not hear what you said; they are simply pretending not to have heard you. Three reasons account for this. One, the person may not like what you said. Two, the person may not believe you. Three, the person may be asking you to take a definite stand on the issue being discussed.
So, when our youths charge public officials to ‘Soro Soke’, they are invariably saying they are the superior party in this conversation and are demanding a positive stand from government on matters affecting them and their future.
Sadly, the federal government response was too slow in coming. President Muhammadu Buhari and Vice President Yemi Osinbajo impressed me with their initial disposition to handling the crisis. SARS was dissolved by the Inspector General of Police as demanded by the protesters, judicial investigations into incidents of police brutality were pledged along with that of reforming the force and a public apology was tendered by the vice president. But the dilly-dallying over the prosecution of 35 officers indicted by the Special Presidential Panel on SARS—whose report was submitted to the president in June last year—offered no comfort to the protesters that the federal government was serious. Exchanging files between the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) and the Office of the Attorney General of the Federation and issuing press statements not backed by concrete measures betrayed an abysmal lack of imagination. Amid all this, Governor Simon Lalong of Plateau State led a number of his Northern colleagues to visit the president and declared support for SARS after it had been dissolved. In a divided polity, and against the background of insinuation that the protests were targeted at President Buhari, the Lalong narrative only emboldened those who chose to malign the protesters and divide them along sectional lines.
For the record, there have been several cases of extra-judicial killings by the police in the North. On 23rd March 2018, SARS operatives opened fire on a relaxation spot in Dorowa, near the School of Health Technology, Zawan, Jos south local government area, killing a man and injuring others in one of several extra-judicial killings in the same state Lalong claims to govern. On 14th March 2018 in Ganaja village, Ajaokuta local government area of Kogi state, a SARS operative killed a livestock seller identified as Ibrahim Ali. The SARS man had knocked down a girl with his motorcycle and his refusal to take her to hospital drew an angry crowd. In the process, he called for reinforcement and when his colleagues arrived in a Toyota Hilux van, he drew an AK 47 rifle and began shooting indiscriminately. That was how Ali lost his life with many others injured.
On 28th July 2016, a 42-year-old patent medicine dealer in Kano named Tochukwu Iro was shot in the thigh by SARS operatives near Kano Pillars Stadium. His alleged offence was that he did not stop when asked to. Although these trigger happy policemen were forced to rush Iro to the Murtala Mohammed Specialist Hospital in a tricycle, their victim did not survive. Just last month, in an incident described by Governor Aminu Tambuwal’s spokesman, Muhammad Bello, as “unfortunate, inhuman and condemnable,” a man was shot dead by a police officer right in the palace of the Sultan of Sokoto. The story was that some young boys were fighting over money and the only way this errant policeman knew to restore order was to kill one. An eye witness reportedly told the Caliphate Post: “I saw when two boys were fighting [over the money] and the mobile police knelt, cocked his gun and aimed directly at one [Aminu Abdurrahaman, believed to be 18 years-old] shot him, saying to himself in Hausa language ‘ba dan iska ka ke ba?’ (‘such an obstinate boy’), then he left.” The Police Sergeant involved has since been arrested. In June this year in Adamawa state, a commercial motorcyclist, Arabo Dauda was killed by police at a checkpoint in Mahia town allegedly for his refusal to give a N100 bribe. In September 2017 in Yobe, a SARS operative shot at a vehicle in Damaturu, the state capital, killing a 14-year old boy, Faruk Olaruwajo.
I can go on to list police atrocities in the 19 northern states Lalong claimed to have spoken for but I think I have made my point. So, whatever may be our misgivings about the refusal of the protesters to respect the rights of other citizens who reside within the Lekki axis or those who needed to access airport road in Abuja last weekend, what they embarked on was a national protest against injustice being perpetrated by bad eggs in the police who consider themselves above the law. I am delighted that the federal government recognises that, even if they were not expeditious enough in dealing with the crisis prior to it gettng out of hand.
It is clear from what has transpired in the past two weeks that when our young people say ‘Soro Soke’, they are not only speaking about sacking degenerate police officers, they are demanding a better justice administration. And they are seeking equity in the running of a country where the defining ethos seems to be that the wisdom of Solomon has a correlation with the age of Methuselah. It is only in Nigeria that when you hear that a young man has been appointed to an official position, he must be in his late forties or fifties! Our political parties even appoint grandfathers as their youth leaders! Yet, according to estimates by the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), Nigeria has a predominantly young population with about 60 percent of the citizens under 35 while only about 3 percent of our population is above 65 years of age.
Having risen to be editor of a national newspaper in my thirties, when I became presidential spokesman at 41, I considered it an insult to be categorised among the youth. But it was also not lost on me that I was one of the youngest persons holding a senior position in the federal government at the time. And this in a nation where military officers were heads of state, governors and federal ministers in their thirties and professionals were appointed federal permanent secretaries in their twenties. What goes for young people today goes for women who have practically been excluded from crucial decision making in all spheres. If they are unmarried, they are discriminated against and if they are married, the situation is even worse because of the obsession with ‘state of origin’, which practically renders them ‘stateless’.
These are conversations we must have but in the interim, President Buhari needs to address the nation to condole the families who lost loved ones (including in the police) and give the people hope. A society where public officials (which military leaders are) do not feel they can be held accountable for the life of a citizen, or any life at all is doomed, because impunity will reign. As during the Kaduna killings by the army in December 2015, it is difficult for the president to escape the accusation that what took place in Lekki on Tuesday had his explicit or implicit nod. And the only way to debunk this inference is by bringing to justice those who pulled the triggers on defenceless protesters, especially in Lekki, and those who gave the command.
As I once argued on this page, a tear for the distressed, a sigh of contrition in moments of mistakes, one heartfelt utterance of genuine grief when people are hurting are leadership attributes—it is not about taking all tidings with equal indifference. Nigeria is bleeding right now. Only the president can heal that wound by bringing to a halt what is fast becoming a descent into anarchy.
Salute to The Paystack Founders
If you paid attention to what some of the officers who served in the dissolved Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS) have been saying, the only conclusion to draw is that a profile exists of people they were conditioned to see as potential criminals: Young men who can drive a car of N7 million (roughly $15,000) as well as those whose work revolves around computers, sport dreadlocks and ‘dress anyhow’. The problem here is that this sort of profile fits Shola Akinlade and Ezra Olubi, the young founders of Paystack. The Nigerian company has now merged with Stripe, (an American financial services and software payment giant) in a deal worth over $200 million (N74 billion). The duo started in their twenties. One was sporting dreadlocks. They worked with their laptops. And they mostly wore Jeans and T-shirts. If they appeared at a police check point manned by operatives of the dissolved SARS, driving a Mercedes Benz, it would take the grace of God for them to live to share their experience.
It is indeed a sign of the times we are in that the people in government—who are ever eager to latch on to the success stories of Nigerians, especially on the international stage—could not appreciate what the Paystack deal symbolises. Even those who would make the BBNaija winner a role model for our young people failed to see a genuine success story right under their nose.Yet, this is the biggest story out of Nigeria in a long while. The same computer that ‘Hushpuppi’ and confederates were using to perpetrate their nefarious activities that sullied our global image was what Akinade and Olubi used to build a platform that serves over 17,000 businesses, processes over 15 percent of all online payments in Nigeria today and makes us an African giant in the tech world. It is made sweeter by the fact that the duo graduated from a Nigerian (Babcock) University.
For the Paystack duo, the journey to stardom began in 2015 (just five years ago) when they set out to build a payment platform in Nigeria focused on digital infrastructure that could cut across the continent. That is one thing about our young entrepreneurs. They look beyond the shores of our country to the emerging African market. With its acquisition—as part of Stripe’s international expansion plans on the back of a $600 million funding round in April—the deal will see both companies continue to operate independently. Which means that Paystack is leading the way for others not only in Nigeria but across the continent.
I salute Akinlade and Olubi and urge those in authority to celebrate them because they represent the endless possibilities that abound within our environment and the resourcefulness of our young people. Besides, nobody needs to buy them houses or cars, these are luxuries they can afford by dint of their ingenuity. My 2016 ‘Platform Nigeria’ lecture, ‘From Luggage Economy to Knowledge Economy: Which Way Nigeria?’ was essentially an ode to the resourcefulness of this emerging generation of Nigerian techpreneurs. In that presentation, I defined luggage economy as “one that follows the normal curve of ‘heavy’ industrialisation and cargo based international trade. It is a model whose developmental impact depends on a trickle down flow and the provision of conventional employment” before I added: “There is a limit to how that model can make billionaires of citizens not born into wealth or who do not have access to illicit funds.”
On the other hand, Knowledge economy—that the duo of Akinlade and Olubi have proved with Paystack—places emphasis on the power of human imagination to use knowhow and know why to create business opportunities through new entrepreneurship models. In this new economy, our young men and women (regardless of their social background) with proficiency in IT, basic engineering or entrepreneurship can break through all known barriers to emerge very quickly with a product or service that the mass market wants. In the process, they achieve in a few years what the purveyors of the luggage economy could not achieve in so many years both in terms of aggregate capital accumulation and net contribution to the GDP, I reasoned.
In that presentation, I also mentioned young Nigerians who are developing solutions and apps capable of generating income and huge employment in all sectors of our economy, from transportation, to civic engagement, healthcare, sports and agriculture. Examples of the growing ecosystem that I cited include Paga, Andela, BudgIT, Efiko, Mamalette, Autobox, Truppr, Agribiz4Africa, ReelFruit, Wecyclers Corporation, IROKO TV, Tech-Her, MAX NG, Hotels NG etc. I also highlighted the efforts of Bosun Tijani, Femi Longe, Iyinola Aboyeji, Tayo Oviosu, Gossy Nkanwoke, Chioma Agwuegbo, Mark Essien, Bankole Cardoso, Bilkiss Adebiyi-Abiola, Jason Njoku, Affiong Williams, Fatima Oyia Ademoh, Adetayo Bamiduro, Chinedu Azodoh, Kunle Afolayan and others.
What these young men and women are doing in the tech world, others are doing in arts and literature (Tomi Adeyemi was just listed as one of the 100 most influential persons in the world in 2020 by TIME magazine at age 26), music, sports, Nollywood and other fields of human endeavour. We must do everything we can to encourage this generation. And when they demand of us to ‘Soro Soke’, it is in our collective interest to accede to that request. Not with bullets but listening ears!
You can follow me on my Twitter handle, @Olusegunverdict and on www.olusegunadeniyi.com