Friday, January 6, 2012

An Army Without Commander - #OccupyNigeria

By Seun Akioye
(An eye witness account first published on TELL website)

The police and protesters on January 3: Photo by Sunday Adedeji/TELL
I joined the rally as the crowd began to move from Yaba towards Ojota around 10:18am on January 3, 2012. All the major civil society leaders were there; Femi Falana [ lawyer], Abiodun Aremu [activist], Richard Akinola [activist], Ayodele Akele [activist] , Ganiat Fawehinmi [widow of  feary lawyer Gani Fawehinmi] , Dr Dipo Fasina [former preasident of ASUU] , Dr Demola Aremu and a host of others. These were mainly the same old battle weary soldiers. The government knew they would be there; the government was prepared for them.  I looked around to see any familiar face from the Twitter/Facebook warriors, these young men and women who are so vocal and militant on social media -some of them had vowed to go on hunger strike until the fuel prices are reverted- but I was really disappointed not to see any of them. They confirmed my theory that these people giving themselves online awards are only grandstanding and they are the same people that will be there at the “Presidential Lunch” with youths.

The other groups were made up of civil society activists from CDHR and other affiliates, there were some young people- mainly student union leaders and disciples of the civil society groups-they were charged and hardened. When we got to Fadeyi, the leaders, Dr. Fasina, and Comrade Aremu, said we should sit on the street on the right lane of the expressway. The youths, who had now gone ahead of the leaders, thought taking over the whole expressway would be better, so they did. They began to chant and dance. At this stage, the traffic both outgoing and incoming had come to a standstill.

But I noticed a certain division between the leaders of the protest. While Femi Falana and others were granting interviews to the media, Biodun Aremu and Akele were worried that there seemed to be a breakdown in the coordination. Aremu seized the megaphone and called the attention of the media. He expressed worry that the rally was turning to a personality interview slot and that is not good for the coordination. While the comrade was struggling with his worries, some youths who had gone ahead began to make a bonfire using old tyres. As Aremu spoke, the first whiff of dark smoke from a burning tyre went up into the sky.

I was apprehensive at the turn of events. My concern was that if the rally should assume a violent direction, then when the police came, they would have justifiable reason to unleash terror on all of us and it would badly taint the reputation of the rally coordinators. The youths, who by now were beyond caring, began to turn back motorists coming towards Yaba. Commercial vehicles were forced to a stop while private cars made a U-Turn right in the middle of the expressway facing the oncoming vehicles.

Some articulated vehicles were forced to block the expressway while residents of the area quickly shut their doors and windows. I found Comrade Akele and expressed my worry that things were getting out of hand. The other leaders like Dr. Fashina also expressed the same concern and told Comrade Aremu to ensure that tyres were not burnt. But Aremu told us that in Nigeria, burning of tyres is part of the mobilisation and there was nothing he could do about it. I was alarmed by this frank confession and began to worry that I was in the wrong crowd. The youth were now joined by some really frustrated Nigerians who said we should turn the whole rally into a Libyan Revolution.

Afrobeat singer Seun Anikulapo-Kuti arrived wearing a black T-shirt. He greeted some of the leaders and told Aremu he had stopped the boys burning tyres up front and that everything was calm. We proceeded and got to Onipanu. This time communication between the leaders who by now had been left behind and the rampaging youths had broken down completely. Cars were forced to park in the BRT lane while the owners were thoroughly intimidated by the youths. The frightened commuters quickly concurred with whatever the youths asked of them.

By the time we got to Anthony, things were out of hand. The youths threw down the police posts, rough handled a traffic police officer and on the other side, an OP MESA van was accosted by the youths. The van forced to a stop and the two soldiers inside had to fight their way out. Anthony was really hot but contrary to some reports that area boys hijacked the rally, burning cars and shooting in the air, I can confirm that it never happened. In fact, the area boys seeing the rampaging youths quickly cut down leaves and began to shout in solidarity, vandalising properties.  Banks were closed so were other business interests while the owners and workers looked at us through the safety of their windows. I found comrade Akele again and we began to beg the youths to stop. They turned a deaf ear.

When we moved towards Maryland, the situation was restored to calm, the leaders wanted the rally to continue towards Ojota at the Gani Fawehinmi Park. But some sections wanted to occupy Maryland, so while the main group went under the Independence Tunnel at Maryland, another group went up to Maryland junction. I was part of that group.

Comrade Aremu made a speech to the rally at the Independence Tunnel while we watched from the top of the bridge. He spoke about the wickedness of the regime and how the subsidy removal would further impoverish the poor. While he was speaking, a contingent of mobile policemen came. Activist Gbenga Sonoiki and I were the first to meet them. The leader told us they were there to keep the peace and ensure no law is broken. We assured him nothing of such will happen and that we will release the traffic as soon as we are done with the speech. Later, I spoke to the officer in charge of the unit and he told me that he is fully in support of the rally. He lamented the hardship brought about by the fuel hike and said majority of the officers would support the rally. This same feeling was expressed by three other policemen I spoke to.

By this time, the rally had moved on to Ojota, but we still kept watch over the Maryland bonfires and occupation. Ten minutes later, we released the traffic and began to put out the bonfire. But that was when chaos began too as a Deputy Commissioner of Police, Tunde Sobulo, reputed as a fearless crime fighter and also a wicked officer led some mobile policemen to Maryland. Sobulo and his men jumped on both passersby and protesters. I had interviewed the man in 1999 when he was the RRS coordinator and as I stood rooted there trying to remember where we had met, I heard his sneering voice ordering his men to arrest me.

I was dazed and stood rooted there. Was it me this man had just ordered arrested or someone else? By the time I came to realisation, three mobile policemen were close on me and like in a trance, I dialogued with my legs jumping bonfires and running over cars. There was chaos. Sobulo began to shout that the policemen were there and did not shoot and disperse us, he was angry that they even gave us protection. In an uncontrollable rage, he lashed out with the butt of his gun at an Inspector of police, and chased him all the way down towards Mende. The scene was a sorry sight. I saw the two coming towards me and ran again to the other side towards Bank Anthony way, and then I heard a shot ring out and then teargas. I looked back to see a youth wearing a green shirt being arrested and beaten up by the Police. The boy stood his ground and refused to beg as he was being dragged behind Sobulo towards the police van.

Then the unthinkable happened, the boy in a smart move freed himself from the grip of the police and ran across the road back to Mende side. I looked in front and was accosted by two Policemen. Raising my hands in surrender, I screamed “press, press” and that was when they allowed me to go. Along with the TVC crew, I ran towards Mr. Biggs at the Mobile filling station. We continued to run towards Protea Hotel in a panic, it was a sorry sight. After some calm we came back to the street and saw Sobulo in a mad fit, swinging his gun round and round. I saw one of the policemen I spoke to earlier and asked him whether Sobulo was alright. “He is a madman he said people should not protest when we too as policemen are suffering. He has millions in his account, but I suffer to pay my children’s school fees. He is a mad man, if you have a way to report him please do.”

I laughed to hear this astonishing revelation, but then Sobulo had started running wildly towards Anthony, holding his gun by one hand in the air. His officers stood around in amazement as he ran screaming, puffing and heaving. I tried to find out what he was chasing after and saw two elderly women.

-Akioye, is a tobacco activist and freelance journalist. He can be found on Twitter @seunakioye

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