A Philosophical Exploration of the Events of January 15, 1970 and the #EndSARS Protest in Nigeria

by

Frederick Ifeanyi Obananya, OP Dominican Institute, Ibadan, Nigeria.fredifeanyi21@gmail.com

“Protests have always been part of political development. Resistance has been an important part of getting heard. The interests of the people are downplayed at the peril of the ruling class. Consequently, oppression sparks off resistance.”

(Peniel Momoh)

January 15, 1970 will ever remain unforgettable to Nigerians. It was the day the Nigeria civil war, otherwise known as Nigerian-Biafran war, came to an end. With an under-rated perception of what was to come, each of the parties thought that the war would last for only a short time. A military man predicted that the war would be over in forty-eight hours; the Federal government assessed it would be over in two weeks; and the Eastern Governor assessed it would be over in three months, but none of these assessments was correct. The war lasted for almost three years (Akpan, 1976: 90). “At the end of the thirty-month war, Biafra was a vast smoldering rubble. The head count at the end of the war was perhaps three million dead, which was approximately 20 percent of the entire population… The cost in human lives made it one of the bloodiest wars in human history” (Achebe, 2012: 227). But what kept the Biafrans going despite the blockade, exhaustion of troops through hunger, and lack of machinery to match the Federal troops’ fleet of armoured vehicles, aircrafts, and sophisticated weapons?

In the subsequent sections, I shall juxtapose the events that led to the thirty-month long Nigerian-Biafran war with the recent “#EndSARS protests” and the event labeled the ‘Lekki Massacre’ of October 20, 2020. The importance of this is that though there may be some level of silence, the matter is yet to be successfully laid to rest. This is because a fatal suppression of protest leaves people with the impression that their survival is dependent on continued confrontation and resistance.

 

The Trigger of the War

The events that followed the January 15, 1966 coup led to the military takeover of governance in Nigeria. In place of “regions” the term “groups of provinces” was used with military governors in-charge of the provinces, and Major-General Aguiyi-Ironsi as the Supreme Commander of the Armed Forces and the Head of the Military Government. Akpan (1976) alludes, citing Abubakar Tuggar’s article in the New Nigeria, that many Northerners perceived the January 15, 1966 coup as an Igbo coup. This will lead to the killing of Igbos in the North on May 29.

‘The incidents of May 29th [which saw to the killing of many Igbos] caused a lot of concern to the Military Government, as they did to the people of Eastern Nigeria who demanded that justice be done, or they be allowed to fight it out with the North. [But Col. Ojukwu intervened] with personal assurances that ‘appropriate steps were being taken’ (Akpan, 1976: 31).

 But it did not take long before the events degenerated into chaos. “Northern officers carried out a revenge coup in which they killed Igbo officers and men in large numbers. If it had ended there, the matter might have been seen as a very tragic interlude in nation building, a horrendous tit for tat. But the Northerners turned on Igbo civilians living in the North and unleashed waves of brutal massacres….” (Achebe, 2012: 82). Sadly, the September/October massacres claimed the lives of many who returned to the North on the basis of Ojukwu’s assurances of safety (Akpan, 1976: 30).

…When we noticed that the federal government of Nigeria did not respond to our call to end the pogroms, we concluded that a government that failed to safeguard the lives of its citizens has no claim to their allegiance and must be ready to accept that the victims deserve the right to seek their safety in other ways – including secession (Achebe, 2012: 96). 

These killings, Achebe testifies, aroused discussions on the difficulties of coexisting, with some people calling for war. After a long period of futile negotiations between the eastern region and the federal military government, the governor of the eastern region, Col. Ojukwu declared the “sovereignty and independence of Biafra. It was (during) the early hours of Tuesday, May 30th, 1967” (Akpan, 1976: 84).

Following from the above, I would like to address the supposition that Ojukwu’s ambition, pride and self-ego; as well as his knowledge as a student of modern history, led to  his move for secession which culminated in a war. In his personal memoirs in 1969 titled: Reflections on the Nigerian Civil War: Facing the Future, Uwechue criticizes Ojukwu for his selfishness: “In Biafra two wars were fought simultaneously. The first was for the survival of the Igbos as a race. The second was for the survival of Ojukwu’s leadership. Ojukwu’s error, which proved fatal for millions of Igbos, was that he put the latter first.” The second statement will be debated for generations. As for the first statement, which in a way is linked to the second, Akpan(1976: xiii) argues that “if there had been no secession to induce the federal government to start the war, there would sooner or later have been civil or tribal war started by the Igbos. The difference would have been that such a war would not have been as serious…, would have been more easily contained, would have been less destructive, would have lasted only a short time…”

One of the major determinants of the war was the “obsessive tendency by both belligerents – Gowon and Ojukwu – to seek positions of strength and avoid looking weak throughout the conflict…. Some of Ojukwu’s and Gowon’s civilian advisers aggravated the crisis…. they massaged their egos and spurred them on to ever-escalating hostility” (Achebe, 2012: 96). It is important to interrogate what kept the Biafrans pushing despite the blockade, exhaustion of troops through hunger, and lack of armoured vehicles, aircrafts, and sophisticated weapons.

The people of Biafra perceived the war as a fight for survival. The brutal killings in the northern part of the country, the silence of the government and her inadequate response to the killings and, now, the brutal raids unleashed by Nigerian Air Force made the people believe that their survival is dependent on continued resistance. The raids and the total blockade had some effect on the people.  As (Akpan, 1976: 108) noted, “Because of the raids, mothers decided to send their sons to fight, and girls to help in whatever way they could. Those with money [gave for purchase of] …aircrafts and weapons. It was the activities of the Federal plane [raids] which won most sympathy and support in the world for Biafra”.

 

Levels of (Dis)agreement to the Fight against Fatal Brutal Suppression

After the many killings in the northern part of the country, many Igbos fled home to the east. Many of those that returned, including some families whose relatives were sent home maimed or killed, embittered by the glaring atrocities committed against them, sought to protest. Obviously, there were two poles: (a.) those who were totally for, and (b.) those who were totally against. Majority of those who were for the protest were those who had returned from the north and/or those who lost their loved ones. While on the other pole, majority of which were non-Igbos in the eastern region, who though not wanting to be dominated and exploited by others “believed that their greatest chance and scope lay in the context of Nigeria as one country” (Akpan, 1976: xvi). In between these two poles were intermediaries who tendered to either of the poles. However, there were those who were neither interested nor involved in the protest. Hence, there were five basic positions: (a.) those totally for, (b.) those partially for, (c.) those partially against, (d.) those totally against and (e.) neutral parties: those who were neither interested nor involved.

But the war shows to some degree that there was some level of agreement between these five groups. The opposition amongst the two poles was not so strong, if not the war would not have lasted as long as it did. For the war to have endured, it signals that people switched positions at some point. There must have been some movement away from one pole towards the other – evidently, from total rejection to partial rejection to partial acceptance and to full acceptance. It was not as if there was a total endorsement of war or secession, but the brutal killings and suppression launched by the Nigerian Air force raids induced the people towards forming a high-level coalition against their common enemy, Nigeria. And the people came to the belief that their survival was dependent on continued resistance. The brutal killings and suppression launched by the military raids also made some neutral non-involved populace (and nations) become interested and involved in the war. The experience of Count von Rosen, a humanitarian pilot flying relief in the Biafran area “is representative of the majority of people who came to Biafra and returned to their countries as ardent sympathizers of the Biafran plight” (Akpan, 1976: 108).

The crisis which erupted in the north and the consequent secession protest of the eastern region may not have degenerated into a war situation where it not for the killings that was adopted to intervene in the disagreement between the people, and thus induced them towards a fight for survival. Young boys, intellectuals and professionals in large numbers sought for enlistment in the Biafran army and offered to contribute their expertise in the struggle for survival. “All those who offered to fight and avenge the killings of 1966 were regarded as heroes, whose names would be immortalized in the history of Biafra” (Akpan, 1976: 89). Hence, martyrdom became the order of the day as many were ready to offer themselves so that the young and the next generation can live to behold the future of their dreams.

(The above representations show the causal effect of a fatal suppression of the demand for some perceived right)

In sum, a fatal attempt by the military to suppress the secession protest only ended up fueling the protest as it induced the people, who were partly and those who were fully not in support of the fight, towards the belief that the fight was for survival. Hence, it follows that the Nigerian civil war was an intensified protest by people, made to believe that their survival is dependent on continued resistance. The avoidance of fatalities resulting from the brutal suppression would have deescalated the tensions and prevented the war, with more focus on the pursuit of national interest and preservation of the country’s unity through dialogue and purposeful leadership.

 The #EndSARS Protest and the Nigerian Civil War: A Correlation

In the early month of October, 2020, the Nigerian youths “ramped up widespread protests – online and offline” which lasted for several weeks demanding for an end to police brutality (Yomi, 2020). A lot of concerned Nigerians joined the youths in their demands for the disbandment of the Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS)[1] – a special taskforce of the Nigerian Police Force – and the reformation of the Nigerian Police Force. As the protests progressed, the demand for an end to bad governance became topical among the protesting youths. This was

…a demand which addresses the need to redress the state’s arrogant allocation of ‘ubiquity, omniscience and omnipotence’ to itself, its institutions and its functionaries. This entails demanding accountability of leaders to Nigerian citizens to whom the power of sovereignty ultimately belongs. The nationwide protests by the Nigerian youths thus demonstrates a weariness about being citizens without sovereignty (Obananya, 2020).

With the benefit of hindsight, the people took to the streets because while the return to civilian rule revived the expectation of mitigating the overdose of nepotism, tribalism, corruption and suppression in Nigeria under the military, the reverse was the case. This played out through the country’s youths demand for accountability to the citizens to whom the power of sovereignty belongs, 60 years after its independence. Many Nigerians came out for the protests, irrespective of religio-ethnic affiliations in the quest to redress the problem of bad governance. But just like in 1966, the efforts became another missed opportunity. The pursuit of national interest and preservation through dialogue and purposeful leadership would have defused the protest; but Nigeria unleashed its military might on unarmed civilians. Some reports of the events support the claim that soldiers opened live ammunitions on unarmed peaceful protesters, at Lekki and Alausa, while they waved the Nigerian flag and chanted the National anthem.

Amnesty International, upon its investigations, described the action of the Nigerian Army as a deliberate act of extra judicial killing. This conclusion was based upon reports that shortly before the shootings, “CCTV cameras at the Lekki toll gate, where #EndSARS protesters had been camped for two weeks, were removed by government officials and the electricity was cut – a clear attempt to hide evidence. As in previous cases documented by Amnesty International, some of those killed and injured at both [Lekki and Alausa] grounds were allegedly taken away by the military.”

The military intervention at Lekki and Alausa came after a sudden imposition of curfew by the Lagos State Government, following the infiltration of thugs into peaceful EndSARS protest locations. Though those who sponsored the thugs have not been disclosed, Pulse News had earlier predicted the hijack of the protests in its report when it wrote: “Sources say there are plans to disrupt the peaceful and massively attended protests across Nigeria [which has lasted more than one week], using brigands and miscreants.”[2]  . Five days to the Lekki incident, The Guardian Newspaper on October 15, 2020 reported an initial incident in Alausa in this report:

Armed thugs attacked protesters in Alausa area of Ikeja in Lagos State. The scene of the attack was close to Lagos Government secretariat, Lagos State House of Assembly, governor’s office and a police station. Although eyewitnesses said the attackers came in Bus Mass Transit (BRT) buses that belong to the Lagos State Government, authorities of Lagos Bus Services Limited said the thugs were transported to the scene of the attack in yellow buses. The thugs were seen with sticks, cutlasses, and daggers attacking the peaceful protesters while policemen stood by. ‘Alausa is where the government house is. Supposedly one of the safest places in Lagos State. If this is allowed to happen, someone should have lost their job by now. This is happening in very close proximity to the Governor’s office! are you telling me the Governor isn’t safe?’ Kiki Mordi, a journalist tweeted.[3]

Though there may have been a period of farcical peace following the suppression of the protests, the publications made by the CNN[4] about the killings at Lekki has resonated with some members of the public who opine that the killings had indeed taken place. The rumour about a second wave of protests and Government’s threat not to allow a repeat of the protest due to the vandalization, looting and killings that followed, are indices of the looming intractable conflict.

The extent at which the Judicial Panel of Inquiry inaugurated by the Lagos State[5] is able to deliver justice in its examination of the Lekki toll gate incident of October 20, 2020 would have significant implications for the future of peace in Nigeria. This is because a fatal suppression of protests deescalates the levels of tension in a group to some degree of inclusion; however, a significant number are left with the impression that their survival is dependent on continued confrontation and resistance.

The use of military might to suppress protests, and by extension the right to peaceful assembly and association which is enshrined in Section 40 of the 1999 Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria (as amended) – but on which Sections 45 permits restriction in the interest of defence, public safety, public order, public morality or public health or to protect the freedom and rights of other persons – is a misinterpretation and misunderstanding of protests as unwarranted and unjustifiable opposition. Protests remains a viable mechanism for pushing for legitimate causes, especially in contexts where they are denied. But this testimonial for a proposed view also implies a testimonial against an opposed view. Thus, a protest is considerably a patriotic act, especially when it posits appropriate values and negates the inappropriate values for the interest of the citizenry.

To prevent the possibility for the resurgence of the #ENDSARS protests, the government must investigate and ensure justice for the victims of the killings at Lekki toll gate, and address the issues of policing and bad governance as raised by the protesters. The Nigerian state and her politicians should take a cue from the fate of past tyrannical systems, which, in their greediness to immortalize themselves and for absolute control, would often inject into themselves the virus of self-destruction; eventually becoming the captive of the horde they created.

Ultimately, the best antidote to ‘protest’ is dialogue and purposeful leadership. The Nigerian state must neither wait for protests to escalate nor be reminded by international observers of its duty to the people, bearing in mind that the power of sovereignty belongs to the people The experience of the Nigeria Civil War shows that the use of brutal methods to manage conflicts trigger continued resistance. Let the memory of January 15, 1970 be a lesson for all. For as Stanton (2020) concludes, “For those who doubt there is any direction in history, our common humanity is enough to give meaning to our cause. To those of us who know that history is not some directionless accident, this is our calling and our destiny”.

References

Achebe, Chinua (2012) There was a Country: A Personal History of Biafra. London: Penguin Group.

Adejumo Kabir (November 9, 2020) #EndSARS: See the States that have set up Panels of Inquiry so far. Premium Times. Retrieved from https://www.premiumtimesng.com/news/top-news/425275-endsars-see-the-states-that-have-set-up-panels-of-inquiry-so-far.html

Akpan, N. U. (1976) The Struggle for Secession 1966-1970: A Personal Account of the Nigerian Civil War. London: The Garden City Press Limited.

Busari, Stephanie et al (2020, November 24) Analysis of CCTV Footage from Lekki Toll Gate raises New Questions about Shooting. CNN News. Retrieved from (https://edition.cnn.com/2020/11/24/africa/nigeria-shooting-lekki-toll-gate-cctv-analysis-intl/index.html)

Madiebo, Alexander (1980) The Nigerian Revolution and the Biafran War. Enugu: Fourth Dimension Publishing Co., Ltd.

Momoh, Peniel (2020). “A Projection for Equity in Nigeria’s Democracy through a Retrospective Lens of Protest and Power in Classical Antiquity” in The West African Transitional Justice Centre from https://watjcentre.org/a-projection-for-equity-in-nigerias-democracy-through-a-retrospective-lens-of-protest-and-power-in-classical-antiquity/php accessed on December 1, 2020.

Obananya, Frederick Ifeanyi (2020). “Citizens without Sovereignty: An Evaluation of the Philosophy behind the #Endsars Campaign in Response to Anthony Ayotunde Olayoku” in The West African Transitional Justice Centre from https://watjcentre.org/citizens-without-sovereignty-an-evaluation-of-the-philosophy-behind-the-endsars-campaign-in-response-to-anthony-ayotunde-olayoku/php accessed on October 14, 2020.

Olayoku, Anthony Ayotude (2020).  The #EndSars Campaign and Reimaging the Nigerian Police Force” in The West African Transitional Justice Centre from https://watjcentre.org/the-endsars-campaign-and-reimaging-the-nigerian-police-force/php on October 14, 2020.

Stanton, Gregory H. (2020) “The Ten Stages of Genocide” in Genocide Watch from https://www.genocidewatch.com/tenstages  accessed on December 2, 2020.

Uwechue, Raph (2004) Reflections on the Nigerian Civil War: Facing the Future. Bloomington, IN: Trafford Publishing quoted in Achebe, Chinua (2012) There was a Country: A Personal History of Biafra. London: Penguin Group.

Yomi, Kazeem (2020), “How a Youth-led Digital Movement is driving Nigeria’s Largest Protest in a Decade” in Quartz African form https://qz.com/africa/1916319/how-nigerians-use-social-media-to-organize-endsars-protests/ accessed on October 20,/2020.

[1] “Reported incidents in the media have shown that the perception of SARS has shifted from an arm of the NPF focused on security to preying on innocent Nigerian youths that are extorted with unsubstantiated allegations of criminality” (Olayoku, 2020).

[2] (https://www.pulse.ng/news/local/lagos-thugs-attack-endsars-protesters-in-alausa/fvddl8s)

[3] https://guardian.ng/news/armed-thugs-attack-endsars-protesters-in-lagos/

[4] “It was supposed to be the key piece of evidence. But when it came, the Lagos State government’s security camera footage of the Lekki toll gate shooting did not capture everything. The footage corroborates the timings CNN reported for the gunshots fired by the army. It also shows soldiers approaching protesters and firing shots. What is perhaps most notable is what’s missing. At 6:47 p.m., the moment when CNN has video of the army appearing to fire directly at protesters, the surveillance camera pans away from the area… The surveillance footage once again raises questions about the investigation into what happened at the Lekki toll gate protest — and why surveillance video from the evening does not provide a more complete picture. In the aftermath of CNN’s investigation, the United States and the United Kingdom have called on Nigeria to ensure that its investigation is free and fair”  Busari, Stephanie et al (2020, https://edition.cnn.com/2020/11/24/africa/nigeria-shooting-lekki-toll-gate-cctv-analysis-intl/index.html)

[5] According to Kabir’s (2020) “One of the concessions agreed by the government during the protest against police brutality in various parts of Nigeria in October was the setting up of judicial panels of inquiry by state governments into cases of alleged violations of human rights by the Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS) and other units of the police. So far, 26 states have set up their judicial panels.”