…‘It was easy to see #EndSARS mayhem coming’
…Speaks on the fate of ‘masked soldier’
By Chris Onuoha
Colonel Hassan Stan-Labo (ret.), as Chief of Staff, 9 Brigade, Nigeria Army Cantonment Ikeja, superintended over OP MESA as its first Operations Officer.
In this interview, Stan-Labo captures his experience with the police at that time and shares his perspective on #EndSARS protest and the authorities’ response.
Let us look at the events of the past two and a half weeks that started with #EndSARS protests. What is your perspective and what do you think actually went wrong with that unit of the police?
The #ENDSARS protests are a reflection of the frustration, determination and resilience of the Nigerian youth over the inherent defects, deficits and drawbacks of our governance system.
The protests, which started as a simple #ENDSARSNOW demand, have snowballed into the agitation for good governance with the protesters metamorphosed into a national movement of sort. Every sovereign national police maintains a special force component that could be drafted at short notice to take on special tasks under daring conditions.
The defunct SARS and MOPOL of the Nigeria Police fall into that category. Usually they have their briefs and job descriptions well cut out. The problem with the SARS was that they went out of their briefs. They embarked on initiatives they shouldn’t have, taking the law into their hands. Secondly, there was a high level deficit in supervision and oversight functions along chain of command.
You were at a time the Commander of OP MESA in Lagos which must have collaborated with the police or specifically SARS. Can you relate to us your experience at that time especially on the allegations that have now come to light concerning police extrajudicial killings, extortion, conniving with criminals, etc?
Yes, as Chief of Staff, 9 Brigade, Nigeria Army Cantonment Ikeja, I superintended over OP MESA as its first Operations Officer. Being at its formative stage, we wanted a synergy in operation. We tried to achieve this by ensuring that each patrol team had men from both forces.
However, it wasn’t too long that it became necessary to discontinue with this operational style due to some unprofessional conduct noticed with our men. It became clear that the synergy we sought to achieve wasn’t giving us the expected result but rather impacting negatively on our men.
These conducts included soliciting tips from the public, instilling fear, unleashing unprovoked aggressiveness and involvement in non-security related matters, all to the detriment of the Army’s image and relationship with the public.
I had to take time off to meet with local chiefs, community leaders, influencers and nobles to assuage and win their hearts and minds back. Otherwise the public could see us as some occupational force out to oppress them.
It must be said that whenever SARS elements were to be part of the team, they were often properly dressed. But the team would usually come across SARS men looking tattered like armed robbers on the highway, brandishing AK 47 rifles, appearing in bathroom slippers, wearing dark glasses with handkerchiefs tied round their heads.
I have had the cause to bundle a few into the military cell at the Ikeja Cantonment and demanded to see their bosses. Oftentimes their bosses would plead that I shouldn’t make their cases official as the CP then was a very close friend and a strict disciplinarian. So, SARS problem is failure of command issue. When leadership is itself complicit, moral authority is lost. This is a fundamental issue with the Nigeria Police.
Now, let us talk about the authorities handling of the #EndSARS protests. Are you satisfied with what you have seen?
I am not satisfied with the handling or the crisis management strategy deployed by government. Ab initio there was failure of intelligence. I wonder why the intelligence community didn’t see this coming and advising government on steps to avert it. The absence of timely response is doing so much damage to this administration.
Things are often left to degenerate beyond redemption before you see semblance of action as though those running this country don’t reside in Nigeria. A week before the commencement of the #ENDSARSNOW protests, I had concluded at my own micro-level that a storm reminiscent of the Arab Spring was gathering momentum in Nigeria. I said this after personal analysis of the situation in Mali, the instability in next door Cameroon, the restiveness in Guinea and the near failed states of Niger and Chad.
A presidential address a few days before the protest or immediately on commencement would have saved the nation the trauma and challenges we now face. And now that the crisis has taken this turn, I am yet to hear of visitation to victims’ families by government officials. I am yet to hear of visitation to victims in hospitals.
I am yet to hear of visitation to those severely injured and lying critically ill in hospitals as a result of the Lekki shooting by anonymous persons.
All investigating panels, judicial inquiries etc. should have representation from youths. Otherwise such inquiries would be lacking in transparency. And this would rub off on integrity and would fail to command public acceptability. Implementation timeline for accomplishments of demands must be given and followed through.
All orderly room trials should youth representatives in attendance. Youth representatives must not be handpicked by government officials.
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Efforts must be deliberately made to overcome the trust deficit that current exists between government and the people. Nobody takes government pronouncements serious anymore.
Many people believe the protesters conducted themselves in an orderly manner until things went out of hand with the attack on Benin prisons and release of prisoners, and the burning of police stations in Lagos? What do you think?
Protesting youths were well organised and conducted themselves with utmost sense of responsibility. We must give it to them, for they introduced a new and refreshing dimension to protest in Nigeria. Unfortunately they were infiltrated by hoodlums. Who could be behind these bad eggs? My guess is it could be any of these:
- Opposition parties hoping to cash in and rubbish the ruling party’s chances come 2023.
- Ruling party/administration who, in its desperation to get the youths off the streets, would attempt to discredit them, a case of giving the dog a bad name in order to hang it.
- Subversive and unpatriotic elements made up of persons and organisations with ulterior motives aimed at destabilizing our hard earned democracy.
For the arsonists at work, it is a pity because the infrastructure you are burning down actually belongs to you. Your resources would still go into fixing them and leaving government with little for infrastructure.
- As the protests went on at the weekend, the Army announced the commencement of Operation Crocodile Smile VI on Tuesday and the development stoked tension in the polity. If you were the Chief of the Army Staff, would you have taken that step?
Given the present realities with our security situation on ground, I wouldn’t have introduced Crocodile Smile VI now as COAS. Even though we know it to be an end of year operational event, it would be only proper to avoid such a coincidence.
What is your take as somebody who operated at a high level in the military on the deployment of soldiers at Lekki where protesters were apparently attacked and many killed?
Except I have an ulterior motive, I wouldn’t opt for a night operation knowing that I am dealing with young persons who could exhibit some level of exuberance. However, this is only when the initiative for deployment rests with me. If I am under command and only obeying orders and instructions, I’ll subtly advice otherwise and await the last order.
This is why I said from the beginning that the entire crisis management strategy deployed by the Government to this crisis is faulty. It was either never well thought out or there was no due consultation or, better put, very limited latitude for additional opinions and perspective on the strategy to be adopted. Not all situations call for the application of kinetic engagement of protesters.
Persuasion, display of humility and remorse in utterances by government officials while attending to demands would have long calm the youths even before the Lekki incident.
The military authorities have denied deploying troops. Is there the possibility of rogue soldiers at work?
If truly they were not at Lekki, then the situation calls for serious national security concerns. Because the import is that we are, unknowingly as a nation, harboring armed uniformed elements with the capability to cause severe destabilization or injury to our national interest. However, investigations would unravel all that. I suggest investigative hearing open to the public.
Another dimension to the crisis is the arrest of a ‘masked soldier’ who in an online message asked his colleagues to refuse orders to kill protesters. What do you make of that development?
One man’s hero is another man’s…
He represents different things to different persons.
The ‘masked soldier’ argued that any order by military authorities to attack protesters would amount to a bad order. Is there anything called bad order in the military that could be refused by soldiers and there won’t be repercussions?
There are bad orders, but who defines a bad or good order? The giver or the recipient? Mind you in most cases the recipient has the challenge of identifying the originating source more so when he is not a part of the command chain.
In essence, could the troops who allegedly attacked Lekki protesters have refused that order because it was ‘unlawful’?
You can only refuse what you know of or else you go ahead and do your job.
What do you think is the fate of the ‘masked soldier’?
The outcome of the investigation will point out what direction to go.
What is your advice to the military authorities on their conduct in this crisis?
Under democracy, the military is subservient and in total submission to political authority. So the question should be what is your advice to government in its management of this crisis? I’ll advise as follows: a. Presidential address to the nation.
Not the empty speech we heard on Wednesday. The President did not speak to the issues. He did not appeal to the emotions of the youths. Mr. President was completely silent on the Lekki incident as though it never happened.
He did not express surprise at the shooting. There was disconnection between the speech and the expectations of the ordinary Nigerian. The speech could not have endeared him to the protesters. It was long in rhetoric and short on action. The President’s men speech drafters did a poor job at marketing the President to the public.
- Do everything possible to take hoodlums off the streets. More so when some Nigerians believe that politicians may be behind them. c. All hands must be on deck to meet the demands of protesting youths without the usual double speak and falsehood that characterize government utterances today. d. Draw up timeline and implementation framework spelling out milestones for attainments. e. Visitation to SARS victims’ families. f. Visitation to Lekki victims’ families. g. Visitation to the injured in hospitals and clearing picking all medical bills. h. Set in motion necessary machinery for the reforms of the police.