President Muhammadu Buhari, Thursday night, responded to Nigerians’ call on him to address them on the nationwide End Police Brutality protest that had entered the second week. Somber and subdued, the President said he was “pained” by the violent turn a protest that had begun rightly and peacefully took. He said, “The choice to demonstrate peacefully is a fundamental right of citizens as enshrined in Section 40 of our Constitution and other enactments; but this right to protest also imposes on the demonstrators the responsibility to respect the rights of other citizens, and the necessity to operate within the law.”
Buhari said his government did what was expected of it. “As a democratic government, we listened to, and carefully evaluated, the five-point demands of the protesters. And, having accepted them, we immediately scrapped SARS, and put measures in place to address the other demands of our youth. On approving the termination of SARS, I already made it clear that it was in line with our commitment to the implementation of extensive Police reforms.”
However, it seemed the protesters failed to read his lips. “Sadly, the promptness with which we have acted seemed to have been misconstrued as a sign of weakness and twisted by some for their selfish unpatriotic interests. The result of this is clear to all observers: human lives have been lost; acts of sexual violence have been reported; two major correctional facilities were attacked and convicts freed; public and private properties completely destroyed or vandalised; the sanctity of the Palace of a Peace Maker, the Oba of Lagos, has been violated. So-called protesters have invaded an International Airport and in the process disrupted the travel plans of fellow Nigerians and our visitors. All these executed in the name of the ENDSARS protests. I am indeed deeply pained that innocent lives have been lost. These tragedies are uncalled for and unnecessary. Certainly, there is no way whatsoever to connect these bad acts to legitimate expression of grievance of the youth of our country.”
The President believed the deadly turn the protests later assumed was helped by social media platforms. “The spreading of deliberate falsehood and misinformation through the social media in particular, that this government is oblivious to the pains and plight of its citizens is a ploy to mislead the unwary within and outside Nigeria into unfair judgement and disruptive behaviour.” The truth, according to him, was that “both our deeds and words have shown how committed this administration has been to the wellbeing and welfare of citizens, even with the steadily dwindling revenues, and the added responsibilities and restrictions due to the Coronavirus pandemic.”
Buhari promised to “continue to improve good governance and our democratic process, including through sustained engagement. We shall continue to ensure that liberty and freedom, as well as the fundamental rights of all citizens, are protected.” He pleaded with the protesters to “take advantage of the various well-thought-out initiatives of this administration designed to make their lives better and more meaningful, and resist the temptation of being used by some subversive elements to cause chaos with the aim of truncating our nascent democracy. For you to do otherwise will amount to undermining national security and the law and order situation. Under no circumstances will this be tolerated. I, therefore, call on our youths to discontinue the street protests and constructively engage government in finding solutions. Your voice has been heard loud and clear and we are responding.”
However, he was very firm on “preserving the unity of this country.” He reminded Nigerians that his government “also has the obligation to protect lives and properties, as well as the right of citizens to go about their daily businesses freely and protected from acts of violence.” The President had a word of advice for the international community that has largely condemned the handling of the protesters. “To our neighbours, in particular, and members of the international community, many of whom have expressed concern about the ongoing development in Nigeria,” he said, “we thank you and urge you all to seek to know all the facts available before taking a position or rushing to judgement and making hasty pronouncements.”
The President had spoken as the protesters had demanded. He sounded placatory as had been expected of him. He had put things on the table and invited the leaders of the protesters to a “full engagement”. The ball now is on their court.