Neither thoughts and prayers for the families of the deceased nor statements of concern that indicate how deeply troubled any African leader feels were released in the last two weeks that youthful Nigerian protests have been pushing their government to solve the menace of police brutality.
It took ECOWAS, West Africa’s economic and political cooperative group, nearly 24 hours after blood had incontrovertibly been spilled in Lagos to note “with concern” that the protests have turned violent. Ghana’s president and ECOWAS chair, Nana Akufo-Addo, ultimately bowed to domestic pressure to denounce violence, “be it on the part of the Police or protesters”.
But the truth is that lives, mostly of protesters, had already been lost prior to protests in Lekki, Lagos on Tuesday. A number of videos online that were authenticated by the BBC and others on the ground showed violent clashes between protesters and police and Twitter was awash with gory photos and footage of bloodied bodies and bullet wounds.
The Nigerian army denies ever shooting at protesters on Tuesday night while the governor of Lagos State has been hopping on media platforms quelling down suspicions that people were killed with enviable Humean skepticism. We do however remember that the Nigerian army also denied in 2015 that they had raided Zaria, a town in the northern state of Kaduna, and killed over 300 people.
Investigations soon after concluded that the Zaria massacre was by the hand of government forces. Today, Amnesty International says it has “credible evidence” that multiple protesters were killed at the Lekki Toll Gate by army fire.
President Muhammadu Buhari has yet to say a word on what happened on Tuesday but his acolytes will point you to his many tweets about how committed he is to overseeing reforms in a Nigerian police service that has one of the worst reputations the world over. But this matter, as well as how Nigeria appeases protesters, is entirely the coffin of the Nigerian government’s to carry.
However, what is not solely a matter for Nigerian heads is the indiscriminate loss of Nigerian lives. This is obviously not because Nigerian lives matter more than anyone else’s but because the whole of Africa cannot afford to overlook a slowly creeping menace in the continent’s most populous country and one of its most influential.
In terms of what Nigeria means to ECOWAS alone, the conversation should not be a long one since there are no doubts. In 2018, it emerged that the country had contributed more than 40% of ECOWAS’ money, a share that represented more than what was put up by 13 of the 15-member organization.
ECOMOG, the military wing of ECOWAS, is quite simply a Nigerian-led initiative. With successes in Liberia and Sierra Leone usually under Nigerian military commanders who lead Nigeria-majority troops, ECOMOG has been hailed as a model for regional peace-keeping on the continent.
Nigeria is Africa’s biggest economy, most prolific oil producer and largest consumer market, and the big decisions are rarely taken without that country at the table. If you have any doubts, I refer you to the recent misunderstanding over the country’s participation in the African Continental Free Trade Area accord and matters that ensued.
Perhaps, that is why those who fell over each other to wish President Donald Trump well after he contracted the coronavirus and those who lamented the partial destruction of the Notre-Dame Cathedral in Paris, France were not eager to say much about the loss of lives in protests for social justice. Nigeria scares everyone who knows they will need Nigeria.
This may not even be the more potent reason for the collective mute exercise. Intra-continental trade between African countries, after all, is less than 20% and that means not exactly everyone’s hand is in Nigeria’s mouth.
However, this is also the continent where countries have perfected the art of parochial relationships. Africa is not the proverbial village where you find mutually assured concern for well-being; it is rather what the late Ghanaian president John Evans Mills championed and called “taking care of the business in your home”.
It is easy to tell that the tendency for African countries to stay out of each other’s business even at the risk of genocides like in Rwanda was birthed by the failure of the post-independence Pan-Africanist project. But this is also spilled milk over which no one should cry
How the terms of cooperation and of moral expectations have been kept intentionally low over the last 40 years is what breaks the heart. What we have witnessed is an insistence on insipid friendships between state governments.
Do you remember the African Peer Review Mechanism (APRM) agreed upon by a majority of the African Union member-states in 2003? The precious proposal that was supposed to usher Africa into the 21st-century civilization of democratic culture wore away like an actor’s makeup in the rain because there was simply no willingness on the part of many of these countries to aspire to the values set beforehand.
The APRM is arguably not dead but it is better to never count it as a mandate integral to the plans of many of today’s governments. The plan was carefully neutered.
Hiding behind national sovereignty to either pull off acts of inhumanity or stay away from confronting these transgressions is a serious impediment to the growth the continent claims it seeks. On this path, the end can only be one thing and it is not a future for the hundreds of millions of young Africans.
It is actually not beyond Nigeria to get its house in order – the country has worked itself to prominence even after a painful civil war. Perhaps, the problem is how everyone else stands afar, watch it all fall apart and expect countries to rise up like phoenixes.