President Muhammadu Buhari has continued to stay mute amid the chaos in several parts of Nigeria and widespread criticisms as protests against police brutality turned violent after state security forces used lethal force against demonstrators and hoodlums exploited the situation.
Although the president’s aides have released statements on his behalf and other officials including Vice President Yemi Osinbajo have quoted him as taking positions on the protest, many Nigerians have questioned the president’s decision not to address the country at this trying time.
“It is unfortunate,” said Nnamdi Obasi, senior advisor at the International Crisis Group. “At the inception of his administration he gave the impression that he would lead from the front… but his leadership is missing at this defining moment.”
The #EndSARS protests, spearheaded by young Nigerians pushing against bad policing, started two weeks ago and have become widespread national demonstrations, especially in the country’s capital, Abuja, and the southern part of Abuja.
The protests have gained support from international figures, including sporting and entertainment celebrities. But they started taking a violent turn after hoodlums started attacking the protesters in Lagos and Abuja. And days after the protests started, the police were still brutalising the protesters.
The government then made some concessions, including announcing dissolution of the notorious SARS unit and constitution of judicial panels by a number of states to investigate police abuses during the protests. But protests continued, largely grounding Lagos, Abuja and Benin City, apparently due to a trust crisis.
Nigerian soldiers opened gunfire on unarmed protesters at Lekki toll gate, one of the key protest sites in Lagos, on Wednesday. Casualty level remains uncertain but several Nigerians who followed an Instagram livestream of the shooting said they watched as bullets hit civilians.
Also, Amnesty International said it “received credible but disturbing evidence of excessive use of force occasioning deaths of protesters at Lekki toll gate in Lagos.”
Lagos State Governor said the “forces beyond” his control ordered the shooting, which has now triggered unprecedented mob attacks on public assets, private businesses and media houses in Lagos State.
“Lagos has gone bunkers,” Abiola Mohammed, a Lagos resident told PREMIUM TIMES by phone Wednesday evening. “Several police stations were set on fire.” Ms Mohammmed, a private sector employee, specifically mentioned Onipanu and Makinde police stations.
The police said at least 10 police stations in Lagos have been attacked.
The Lagos headquarters of Television Continental and The Nation newspapers, two media companies owned by APC chieftain, Bola Tinubu, were set ablaze on Wednesday and their respective staff members, including journalists, sustained injuries.
In Abuja on Monday and Tuesday, ragged hoodlums, many of them seen in videos to be controlled by well-dressed persons suspected to be state agents, unleashed violence razing several vehicles and killing at least three persons at Dutse Alhaji and Apo parts of the capital. In one video, the hoodlums were captured as they were destroying vehicles with sticks late night around the headquarters of the Central Bank of Nigeria.
Curfews have been imposed by governors in states such as Lagos, Plateau, Ondo, Ekiti, Osun and Edo, where two prisons were broken in controversial circumstances amid the protests.
There has not been a curfew in Oyo State but a yet-to-ascertained number of persons were killed in the state on Tuesday. These fatalities were different from the ones recorded in Ogbomoso, northern Oyo State, in the early days of the protests.
However, as the country burns, Mr Buhari has refused to address the nation, leaving citizens to face uncertainties amid rising fears.
Former American Secretary of State, Hilary Clinton, has called on Mr Buhari and the military in Nigeria to end the crackdown on citizens. Also, the Democratic candidate in the coming U.S, presidential election, Joe Biden, has condemned the state-linked violence in Nigeria, urging authorities in his country to take actions.
The United Nations has also called for an end to attacks on protesters.
“I am worried as Nigerian, there should not be a reason the president should delay his address to the nation,” said Adewale Yagboyaju, political science professor at the University of Ibadan. “Doing so (addressing the nation without delay) may help assuage and reassure the people. It is hardly possible to fault the demands of the protesters.”
The lecturer, however, said perhaps the presidency is still gathering information “because a president should not speak just for the sake of it.” But even so, he said, “it has to be quick as delay may be dangerous.”
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Presidential spokespersons, Femi Adesina and Garba Shehu, could not be reached for comment on this report. Both men did not return calls and text messages sent to them.
Mr Obasi, the ICG advisor, said the current turbulence represents a defining moment in the administration of Mr Buhari but regretted “his leadership is missing.”
“He should step out and address the people, especially the young people and show empathy with the people for the losses. He should give strong assurances,” said Mr Obasi.
The Nigerian military has not taken responsibility for the Lekki shooting but its officers, who asked not to be named, said that the violent incident has unsettled the army command chain. A commanding officer leading the 65 Battalion, Bonny Camp in Lagos, was said to have led the shooting but his source of authority to do so remains unclear.
It was not the first time the Nigerian security forces would use lethal force against civilians. Shia members of the Islamic Movement of Nigeria have been repeatedly attacked with gunfire by Nigerian forces.