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The youths need to remain relevant, must participate in politics – Ayo Obe

Reading Time: 19 minutes

Image Credits: REUTERS/Temilade Adelaja, Vanguard.

The events of the past few days suggest a political awakening, particularly among the youths. Even as the physical #EndSARS protests have died out, there is still a lot that the youth can do to be a relevant part of the Nigerian nation. Ayo Obe, civil rights campaigner and lawyer, gave us her insights. She also spoke copiously about police reform.

LM: Last night was what I will call a water shed. It has never happened before in our history.

Ayo Obe, civil rights activist

Ayo Obe: With due respect, I think it’s always important for us not to act as if because it now happened in Lagos to middle class people, that something strange is happening in Nigeria, that military violence is now unleashed on people, even state violence. This is how the other victims of this crime cry because when the Shi’ites were attacked in Kaduna, we were like “those people over there”. This has been our attitude quite frankly all along and we have been adopting that kind of attitude since. I chaired the civil society panel on police reforms in 2012. We went to six geopolitical zones of Nigeria and the Federal Capital Territory. The government had just set up a panel and we said this time we won’t just be sending a memo, we were going to do our own investigations, our own sittings, our own hearings and the point was at each stage of that hearing (this was 8 years ago) we had people come in to tell us harrowing tales of police brutality, police ineptitude, police insensitivity. The thing is most of the people who were victims were poor.  So, it’s not like police violence against Nigerians is a new thing. The thing is what’s happened between 2012 when we did our report and gave it to the then government is that the police have upped their target to the middle classes and the slightly more educated. Unfortunately for the police, that has coincided with an increase in the population of digital natives just like in the Black Lives Matter. It’s not like something new was happening with police brutality, it’s just that when the videos are there, it’s very hard to deny the actuality. The thing is we shouldn’t fall for the narrative “ah, this is something new”. The question is the fact that we are in a digital era where everybody has a phone in their hands to take pictures and document what is happening, whether that will make the difference because one can only smile at the way the government, um, the National Broadcasting Commission is referring to the broadcasting code, you know, warning the people because they are required not to disseminate news and information that could inflame the situation. That’s why you would hardly ever find any Nigerian broadcasting station until the government is able to get out its own response. What you would find is terrible mayhem and bloodshed is going on and by the time you hear about it on the NTA or the other, you will hear, “The President has Called for Calm.” Because by now, you know, the president is on board. It is interesting in one way in this digital era. It’s kind of “behind the times” let me put it like that.

LM: The Civil Society is ablaze with all the tension, all the excitement about all that has happened but there must be focus. What do you think they should focus on?

Ayo Obe: Well, like I said, I’m not directly involved in any civil society organization here in Nigeria. I turn out for Bring Back our Girls. The Bring Back our Girls is a movement and on one of my WhatsApp groups when somebody said the government is to blame, that this is Sanwo-Olu’s handiwork, one of the members said, “No my dear sister, it is not his handiwork but all our handiwork. When we watched the atrocities and did nothing because we thought it didn’t concern us, is the reason it gravitated to this point. We are all to blame. We must as a people take responsibility and therefore be part of the solution”. This was the response of one of the members to the person who said it was Sanwo-Olu’s handiwork. Just as how the protesters were out saying, “Our parents have failed us…” and all that, and people will support them and say, “Yes, our generation has failed them.” I said to myself I don’t believe in all these. My late father was 15 years old and a schoolboy at Government College Ibadan. He ran away. So, when they were welcoming back Michael Imoudu from exile that the colonialists had sent him to, there was a huge reception. A crowd turned out to welcome him when he returned to Lagos and my dad sneaked out from the Government College and went to join the crowd to welcome him with his picture taken and my dad was back in school. Then the headmaster, who was a European, he saw the picture and recognized that this is Government College, Ibadan uniform and he knew it was my father, because at the age of 15, he was already a nationalist. So, he called him and asked, “Is this you?” Of course, my dad had to say yes. He didn’t punish him per se, but he said to him that there’s a time and place for everything. So, those people fought for independence in their day. We now came back to military dictatorship and fought for a return to civil rule, we are building on what they did. I don’t sit down and I mean, they could have done better; they could have done more but if they failed, it was our job to now take up hurdles and combat military dictatorship. We have done something getting the country to return to civilian rule. Now, it was up to the next generation, who, by the way, always say “When would these old people leave the stage? What are they still doing there? We are not too young to run.” And so on and so forth. There is nothing wrong with taking up the struggle but to keep on turning it into some kind of generational war is something I don’t subscribe to. My daughter went to the Lekki Toll Plaza to protest and saw all that was happening. The fact is to me, it feels a bit like the Me-Too movement. With regards to the Me-Too movement, a lot of people had been affected by the sexual harassment and they just kept quiet. It’s the same kind of harassment by the police. Once this #EndSARS movement started, we began to hear more and more stories from people who had also been affected. Thank God, that they were able to survive and come out of the police brutality, then go and lick their wounds in private. If they now speak out, they become like Me-Too. Once the few people who took the courage to speak out, the others began to speak up and say, “Me too. It happened to me too.” Same thing with the police brutality in Nigeria because the fact is people hardly would trust the police. I remember, must be about 15 or 20 years ago now, when I first read an email about someone who had been a victim of kidnapping in Nigeria, after they stopped kidnapping the expatriates, they now turned to Nigerians whereas the expatriates had their turn. To be kidnapped was always like a rest kill. You were relaxing and enjoying. They had their ‘man no be wood’ provision and everything but when the expatriates were no longer available for kidnapping… It happened in Aba. The perpetrators were no longer Niger Delta militants fighting for political reasons, they were now ordinary criminals and thugs. The victims were no longer cuddled, they were beaten regularly and when they would call their families for ransom, they would be maltreated some more. Eventually, this man’s people made an arrangement with the kidnappers and they told the man where his car is. When he got to where the car was, he saw that two feet away on the other side of the road, there was a police station. He wanted to go in and report, but he decided to drive off instead because he didn’t know who was there. By the time Aba became a place where they were kidnapping nurses for N10,000, it was the army that they sent in to deal with the kidnappers. So, the point is when you are a victim of police brutality… For example, one of the people that spoke up was the Ooni of Ife and people were saying why is he speaking now. Unless he can protect his daughter 24/7, how sure is he that she will be unharmed? They might say this is the Ooni’s daughter and kidnap her, so I can understand why people keep quiet. But as they say, every day is for the thief, one day for the owner, and the day for the owner has come.

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LM: There were a lot of stories from last night into today and eventually the Governor said, “no deaths recorded.” The army says they weren’t involved but there are video evidences that suggest otherwise.

Ayo Obe: No, the first casualty of war is truth. We all have these weapons of internet; I mean there’s a real internet war going on and that’s why people have been asked to document. I have a friend online; she is a very staunch supporter of the President. She is seeing people who were reported as dead now coming out to say they are not dead. There is this a picture of a shot from what is apparently a drama play of a blood-stained flag wrapped around a body and that has been debunked. That’s why I said you really can’t tell whether some of these have been planted so that they can be debunked and then you end up debunking the entire narrative. But fortunately, or unfortunately, the Governor has admitted that there was a shooting at Lekki toll gate. Because to me, this whole thing about three people were killed or 79 people were killed and all these numbers, let’s just make it a war about numbers. What’s the death toll now? It’s not really where the issue lies. Start with the fact that people were unarmed, they were protesting quite alright, they were defying a curfew quite alright.

LM: Technically, the curfew had not even come into effect.

Ayo Obe: To me, whether or not it had come to effect because the Governor had announced it for 4 o’clock, he gave a very short deadline. I even was answering Ms. Abudu when she was saying why didn’t he announce it when people were already in their homes because I knew that my law clerk had not reached home on Monday night until almost midnight. Then they tell you, “By the way, you can’t come out again.” That will not be good. The Governor could have said “with effect from 9pm” when announcing the curfew but he started off by making that mistake of saying 4pm. I was in my office because I had to prepare some documents for filing and my partner was in the office and he was talking to me as I was filing but I couldn’t really hear what he was saying. Then he gathered up the papers and hurried off because he lives in Ikeja. It was when I came out that the office security guard was telling me that there is a curfew and I said no wonder my partner was off in a hurry. Of course he didn’t get far because by the time I got home, he was still stuck at Ilubirin. The point is I expect that people who were obviously trying to go home will not be harassed by the police, and they weren’t.

LM: So, are you incensed? Are you mortified? How do you feel?

Ayo Obe: I mean, there’s this feeling of anger, disappointment, um yea. The dominant feelings are anger, disappointment and sorrow. As we speak, rioting and looting is going on. People who are small business owners are having their places of business looted. I spoke to a cousin of mine at Abraham Adesanya Estate and he said they were out all night defending the gate because Abraham Adesanya Estate belongs to Lagos State. So, if you want to go in and target Lagos State, forgetting that it’s ordinary people like you who live there. Even the story that the protesters were going to attack Victoria Garden City because the Vice President lives there. The Vice President lives there but he is certainly not there now. His family may be there but how are you going to know which house is his? There are times when politically motivated mobs could be very specific about what they do. For example, this was a long time ago when the government rigged the election in Ondo state in 1983, people went and attacked those who were perceived as complicit, but they didn’t attack randomly and wantonly. They attacked specific houses. Same thing with the Otokoto in Imo state, Owerri. People didn’t just go round burning houses, they were specific about their targets. This is not that kind of route.

LM: Won’t you say that they are anarchists?

Ayo Obe: No. It’s like my saying, Bring Back our Girls is a movement. It’s not something you sign up to and say I’m now joining. We say we are having a sit out every Saturday in Lagos, now we are online mainly but we have a sit out at midday and if you turn up, then you are supporting the movement. The same thing with people who are protesting against police brutality. In terms of those who are organizing or supporting the protest against police brutality, in terms of logistics, they have not been infiltrated. There are two aspects here, one is that there are so many credible reports, particularly in Abuja, that some people paid thugs to go and attack anti-SARS protesters and the same thing happened in Lagos as well. People were actually sponsored to go and attack the protesters. Some say that it’s not like they were given the buses, but they chased the passengers and took over the buses. Just like I say, in every casualty of war, there is truth. But it’s also an inevitable fact when there is mayhem on the street, area boys are going to come out and capitalize on it. That’s what they do, they don’t have to be invited to Third Mainland Bridge when they know Third Mainland Bridge is blocked. They don’t have to be invited to mount roadblocks in Surulere and block all the roads. They will turn up and do what they do. We are coming out from several months of lockdown, Corona this, anti-Corona that, and in the end, the people who are very hungry have not necessarily been given the answers. I found it amusing that the Speaker of the House said, “I’m not going to sign the budget.” And I wonder where the money is coming from. I don’t know if you know the other meaning of the acronym SARS – Senators and Reps Salaries. The fact that they are paid obscenely huge amounts of money compared to what they expect the average Nigerian to get by on. It’s very easy to be sitting there and saying we are going to ban this and ban that, and we won’t sign the budget. What are you giving up?

I fought for democracy and since then I’ve only tried to involve myself in single issues campaigns and obviously, no one knew that Bring Back our Girls will be going on 6 years later. The principle remains the same that when you achieve something, you declare victory and you move on. But the #EndSARS protesters do not want to follow that route. They do not want to declare victory and stand down because let’s look at what the Inspector General of Police said. I mean, if you talk about a political gear, the Inspector General of Police, what was his rush to come and tell us that he is setting up SWAT? He immediately provided the reasons why the protesters would not stand down. It was absolutely unnecessary because even if you don’t have a special unit yet, at least you have police officers who will be expected to go out when armed robbers are on the streets. So, if you now think that the smart thing to do is to reassure people like, “Don’t worry, we are not going to leave you to armed robbers. We are setting up something else.” I don’t know, that’s the best I can think of to explain the whole thing. I mean, it’s not like we haven’t seen it before. We have seen it before now when they said we are banning SARS and setting up FSARS. We have been caught in this game before, as it happens, the SWAT teams are already there and then maybe the IG felt this is something new that we are setting up and then he automatically provided the fuel that made the protesters say, “We have heard this before and we are not falling for this again.” I mean, even though I have said that my preference is declare victory and get out; then, if you know that you have not achieved full victory, that’s why they remained in place. It’s really unfortunate and I hope the President… I mean, I’m not one of those who thinks he should be on the television all the time but this is the time he should come out and, with due respect to the Inspector-General of Police, aren’t they supposed to retire him? I think it’s next year. But I don’t think the president should have said, “IG, come up with a 5-year plan”. We are already at the time when the service chiefs ought to have retired, but the president is refusing to retire them. He extended their time in office beyond the time when they should have retired. So, it becomes very concerning when he starts asking the IG to, you know, and as usual, the given way to answering the people’s demands comes that bit too late. When I was appointed to the Police Service Commission in 2001, within a couple of months of being inaugurated, the police went on strike. Obasanjo did not hesitate as he sacked the then Inspector General of Police, who was Musiliu Smith, and replaced him with Tafa Balogun at the time. But here is our president, clinging to somebody who is obviously past their serve date, past their youthfulness, to me that’s a problem.

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LM: And we are suffering for it right now.

Ayo Obe: Yea. To everything else, the blueprint of police reform in Nigeria is not just that the Civil Society panel produced the reports. I had given the report to Ike Ekweremadu in 2012 because he came out saying “state police and all.” So, if I had seen him, I would have asked him, “The police report we gave to you, what did you do with it?” Because if he had read it, he would have seen that we were not totally against state police but the problem we have in Nigeria is that the president has operational control of the police, which is wrong. So, if the state governors are also looking to have their own operational control, then the mistake we have at the federal level needs to be corrected, not repeated. We need to have a national discussion on this. When the APC was to come into power, they had transition team and I remember giving them our report. I came down to Abuja to give the same report to the APC committee on security which was headed by Governor Rotimi Amaechi. So, they also had it. It’s not like the blueprint for police reform is not there, but at every stage, the government will pick what suits it and throw the rest away.

LM: So, do they really read these things?

Ayo Obe: They had another set up under Parry Osayande, past head of the Police Service Commission because after the Police Service Commission which I was in, our term ended in 2006, we had Chief Simon Okeke as our chairman. He was a PDP member, but his profession was Estate Surveyor. But after him, every single head of the Police Service Commission has been a retired officer. That’s not the kind of oversight that would work because the people are already steeped in the traditions of the police. If you see the way that the police are trained, the way they are brought up, at every point, we set up a system of communication for the police and after we had left, Parry Osayande said it was an act of indiscipline for any police officer to communicate to the Police Service Commission. So, as far as he was concerned, it was only for non-police officers to communicate, which was his mentality because he was a former police officer.

LM: So, what you are advocating is for the police to be independent, basically.

Ayo Obe: The President usually appoints the Inspector General of Police. Once he has been appointed, the operational control should be with the Inspector General. The President can direct the policy. We discussed all that, even the job of the inspector general of police. It’s not the president looking for loyalty. It’s not a matter of just picking anybody. If somebody is going to come, there should be an application that everyone can apply  and the Police Service Commission should be able to screen the applicant and he should have a five-year plan to say, “This is what I’m going to do for five years and then when the Senate has screened him, they now ascertain his competence and then he is now appointed the Inspector General of Police. When we were in the Police Service Commission, they were to appoint somebody as Inspector General and we in the Police Service Commission, told our chairman that these are the problems with this person. So, when the chairman went for a meeting with the National Police Council, he raised that objection and even though the President can overrule him and say “I’ll do what I want”, he told us to stand this down and look into the matter properly. Unfortunately, our term was about to come to an end.

LM: Do you think that with this awakening, young people or Nigerians rather, are aware of the rights and responsibilities now or they are beginning to be aware?

Ayo Obe: I think they are aware of their rights now. I have been involved in human rights activities since the 1980s. Nigerians know their rights. During the military regime under Abacha, my Executive Director at the time was locked up without trial under Decree 2 and eventually he was released after more than a year. He was arrested after Obasanjo, after the phantom coup of 1995 and they were locked up, he and two others. After he was released, he went to Germany and there were lots of Nigerians claiming asylum in Germany due to the military dictatorship. So, when my ED was ready to go back to Nigeria, they kept asking him “how is it that you are going back after you had been arrested and all. Why are you ready to go?” So, he said he has an organization behind him, and he knows that if anything happens to him, his organization will fight for him. So, it’s not like people don’t know their rights, they are just not organized about their rights so that’s why when you have escaped from the police brutality, you go home and lick your wounds in private.

LM: Is it that there are no civil society organizations to take up the grievances of people?

Ayo Obe: Well, there are civil society groups but because of…I don’t even know how to put it. I mean at the Civil Liberties Organisation, we used to have police projects and we not only worked with the police but we also tried to provide assistance to people. So there are a lot of groups that do that. The Nigerian Bar Association does that. There is a network on police reform in Nigeria and I was actually on the board of CLEEN Foundation, that’s the Centre for Law Enforcement for Education. I joined the board because they wanted to assist me to make something from my time at the Police Service Commission. So, there are a lot of groups but in the face of police intransigence, you won’t serve the Inspector General of Police your documents. Even to serve your documents is a problem and it’s the same police you rely on to enforce your orders. Then, I think, of course, the police always resisted the Police Service Commission having its own investigation department, which I think is necessary. Most of the offences the police are accused of are state offences. They shouldn’t be expecting someone else to do it for them, I mean, they have Attorneys-General, they have Directors of Public Prosecution. They should be able to proceed on any prosecution without waiting on orders. I mean, the Attorney-General cannot come and start prosecuting someone for murder in a state court. The Police Service Commission were to have more of the independent capacity to investigate, then the state’s Directors of Public Prosecution could work and bring the necessary prosecutions. Like I said, I fought for democracy and I think that if our young people have the idea that to become a politician means to become a corrupt sell-out, then that says more about the people that we have let into these offices. I was so amused hearing president Obama saying, “Telling people that your votes don’t count or cannot be counted, is the easiest form of votes supression.” The fact is INEC has been improving their performance and they will continue to improve. I mean, I’m somebody ready to see shades of grey. I was on a radio programme and Banky W came up during the last elections. He was running for a seat in Lekki and only about 50,000 voted. He said the winning margin was small but that there were over 200,000 people – registered voters mind you – who didn’t come out to vote. We keep saying to the youths, “You are in the majority. You don’t need to wait for anyone. You are in the majority.”

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LM: Exactly. Over 70% of the population are youths.

Ayo Obe: Exactly. So, you don’t need to tell somebody, “Let us run”. I always point out to people that the first Speaker of the House, Salisu Buhari, in our republic wasn’t sacked because he didn’t have a degree from Toronto but he was sacked because he wasn’t old enough to be elected to the House of Reps. He spoke up and ran for a seat there until they asked him how old he was. So, people shouldn’t wait for somebody to tell them when to run. I think it will be useful because I observed the elections in Kenya. There were specific seats reserved for women but I’m not sure if they had seats reserved for young people, but I do remember the ballot box that was reserved for women. I think you can do that to get people to be used to the idea. It doesn’t stop women and young people from contesting for seats from the men. But we need to stop this monopoly where 60-year-olds come in and say, “I’m speaking for the youths.”

LM: Exactly. You would accept our constitution is flawed.. whereas, “We the people.” And we have a constitution that was given to us by the military.

Ayo Obe: That’s not what’s blocking our road. The Land Use Act is not what is blocking our road. The NYSC Act is not blocking our road. The state have a lot of powers they don’t use. I mean, even in 1977, when the Constituent Assembly created the bones of our current constitution…as you know, we used to have parliamentary system. When the military were to handover in the 1970s, one of the problems they had was that there was no national figure and that’s why they went for the presidential system. I mean before the civil war, we had a prime minister who could stay in his place without campaigning and, of course, in those days, there were more seats. But now, the president has to get votes from around the country and another advantage of the presidential system was that the nonsense in the North about women not being able to vote had changed after the Independence. They were no longer saying women cannot vote and suddenly we needed the numbers and before you know it, women were ready to vote and be voted for. So, the base of that constitution was well laid by the Constituent Assembly. Even though the military had tried to take out the things that they don’t like, for instance, the unlimited jurisdiction of state courts. They have tried to take out those stuff but the bones of it are there. We have had four constitutional alterations since the return to civil rule. So literarily, we can remake the constitution as we want it. So what I want to see is young people, somebody running for office saying, “I’m going to campaign for the abolishment of the Senate, I’m going to campaign for the cap on senator’s salaries, that the salaries should not be more than two times or three times more than the national minimum wage”. As far as I am concerned, we need to see some sacrifice on the part of our elected representatives. We need to see them standing rather than sitting on this huge pot of money.

LM: So, do you think there is hope for Nigeria?

Ayo Obe: Of course, there is hope. I mean I remember during the 3rd republic, they had elections to the Senate and in those days, they would ask us to queue up behind our candidates. So, we were doing House of Assembly for Lagos State and Governorship and there was this dispute within the Lagos SDP. We all lined up and voted for House of Assembly and we were on the SDP side. And then when it comes to governorship, most of my neighbours would face each other. That was the era when Otedola became Governor of Lagos State because of that dispute in the Lagos SDP. But really, I would also say that the poison that we have, we see it in the United States, we see it here and we also see the poison online like “you voted for this person,” I mean, after Buhari’s election, we saw some people come out to say, “Ah, I’m sorry I voted for Buhari.” It’s a democratic choice so you have the right to vote who you want in power. Of course, I voted for Buhari because I wanted a change  in 2015 and when the only viable option in 2019 was still the PDP, then I had no choice. If they were to come back so soon into office then the corruption would become drenched but with this, we have got an idea, something can change eventually.  With this current development, we don’t know what will happen now but there is a vacuum now in Nigerian politics because at the end of the day besides the attempt of the People Democratic Party to capitalise is not really flying in Lagos. The Third Force came out too late in the 2019. Most of the people who wanted to the Third Force were former PDP members who felt that the brand was too tainted to run under. I hope that the anti-SARS protesters and those who have been galvanised can understand now that you have to be in the room where the decisions are being made because what you’re doing at the moment is demonstrating asking people to do things. If you’re not the person who can do things, you need to have someone in that place where decisions are being made. The road to that door is politics. Gani ran for president once. I voted for him under the National Conscience Party. There is nothing wrong in running for politics, the issue is what are you running for in politics. If you look at Nnamdi Kanu in the East of IPOB, when every Eastern significant politician will come out and say Nnamdi Kanu speaking sense and all that,  I was telling my friends that, of course, they will say things like that because if he tells people to vote for them, they know that he has political power and a huge army of people that are not participating. If he tells them to participate, they will. But he made himself politically irrelevant by saying, “we are not participating in Nigerian elections”. So, the people who want to be governors will say “Ah, if Nnamdi Kanu will not help me get there, then somebody else will”. So, I really hope that they don’t fall into that same pattern. I want to insist that you can’t have a democracy without democrats and politicians. The question is what kind of democrats and politicians do you want?

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