Judge him by his modest frame, and you would be making a big mistake. Consider the weight of his office, and you might think that he would be averse to taking personal risks, and you would be wrong again.
He is no heavyweight boxer, yet he packs a devastating punch. He does not possess the oratorical prowess of Marcus Cicero or the fiery Rev Martin Luther King Jr, or Bola Ige, our own Cicero, God bless their souls; yet his eloquence is striking and his words can rouse a crowd to action. He is no soldier, yet he as bold as a lion.
I am speaking of my boss, the one whose Administration is “bankrolling” me, as it were: Lagos State Governor Babajide Sanwo-Olu.
The anti-Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS) protests had been going on for days, with angry youths seizing some sections of Lagos – Nigeria’s business and financial engine-room by the neck. The tension anxiety that gripped the city were palpable. Prominent citizens and ordinary folks were worried that the gathering clouds portended danger.
Hundreds of protesting youths camped on the Lekki Expressway. Another group was stationed at the House of Assembly gate, screaming: “No more SARS”; “No to police brutality”; “End SARS” and more. Their fire-red eyes spoke volumes. Some were roaring, their youthful necks expanding and contracting. They pumped the air with their fists.
Sweating and screaming, hundreds of protesters pulled off their shirts and wound them round as protection from the scorching Lagos sun (31⸰C). The protesters vowed that they would not vacate the road they were occupying until their demands were addressed.
Deputy Governor Dr Kadri Obafemi Hamzat elected to address the crowd at the Assembly gate. He mounted a truck, a microphone in his hand, and started slowly, even as music was blaring from some speakers mounted under a white canopy.
“Great Nigerian youths!” Dr Hamzat shouted. “We are with you. We feel your pains. I once had an encounter with SARS; you are not alone,” he told the protesters and counselled them to leave the roads. He said the State Government would not condone brutality and violation of citizens’ rights by security operatives, pointing out that the position of the State on the matter had already been communicated to the appropriate quarters by the Governor.
His words: “The tenet of the police operation is to protect the citizens. Security operatives don’t have the right to trample on the rights of law-abiding citizens, because of their unfamiliar looks, or because they are carrying laptops or iPhones. It is wrong for any police officer to expressly accuse or pronounce someone, irrespective of age, guilty because they have dreads or ride luxury vehicles.
“As a Government, we support evidence-based investigations and actions driven by intelligence. The procedure of arrest and prosecution must be followed through. We are equally aggrieved like every other law-abiding Nigerian. If a young man or woman who is legitimately doing his or her job is attacked or maimed by police officers for no reason, we will never support that. We condemn police brutality in whatever guise and we will continue to engage their leadership for change.”
As the Deputy Governor left the scene at 1:15pm, the protesters continued to sing anti-police songs, calling for SARS to be disbanded. He instructed his security aides not to harass the demonstrators.
That was last Friday. The next day, Saturday, the demonstrators stormed his home. He also addressed them, urging patience and restraint. But they were not in the least mollified.
On Monday, Governor Sanwo-Olu cut short an Executive Council meeting to address the angry crowd. His security detail, it was later learnt, had tried to dissuade him from embarking on a venture which they considered “dangerous.”
“It is a mob with no known leader, who can tell them to come for a discussion,” the governor was told.”
“Taking no action is no option,” the governor told his Executive Council members.
He chose a few of them, the younger ones mostly, to join him on the short drive to the Lekki Toll Gate, the heart of the protests. Sanwo-Olu told his security officials to stay back as he walked like any other person on the street. He was dressed like a typical Lagos boy – a fez cap, a grey sport shirt, a pair of jeans, and dark trainers. Smart.
He was calm. Even as the roaring crowd surged forward, he was unruffled. A young woman was reciting all manner of grievances against SARS. She was barely audible. Some were hailing the governor. “Sanwo-Eko! Sanwo-Eko!” they yelled. The governor kept a straight face. His serious mien betrayed a critical fact – this is quite different from a campaign crowd; it is a crowd of seemingly implacable youths. A protester offered Sanwo-Olu his open-roof vehicle. The governor mounted it. He grabbed the mic and began to address the unruly protesters.
“Your voice has been heard clearly and a clear pronouncement has been made on the activities of SARS. The operation has been dissolved by the police leadership and just a moment ago. Sanwo-Olu said.“Mr. President addressed the nation on the issues you have raised. The President has said all SARS officers that are involved in the killing of innocent people and engaging in human rights abuses will be brought to justice.”
He went on: “My stance on this EndSARS protest is unmistakable and I have told you that we identify with this protest because you have legitimate concerns. I am saying it again here that this protest is in good faith. But, we must not be unruly when going out on a protest like this. We want you to be peaceful and decorous in expressing yourselves.”
Were they pleased?
Was the governor happy?
Sure. He was in high spirits because his belief that the youths needed to be engaged had turned out to be right.
Then, there were the backroom engagements.
After a long Security Council meeting, Sanwo-Olu held virtual meetings with a group of youths who told him what they felt was the way forward. They wanted all those detained in connection with the protests released. Sanwo-Olu broke to them the news that they had been let off the hook – and the younger ones were allowed home to their parents. But the youths insisted that one of them was being held at Panti Police Station. Sanwo-Olu assured them that he would be released. And he was.
The meeting ended about 10pm. But there was no respite for the governor and the deputy governor. They headed straight to another meeting that lasted till about 1a.m. After that, Sanwo-Olu called another meeting “to review the situation”.
He went to bed at about 3 am. Amid the meetings, the governor was consulting with Inspector-General of Police Mohammed Adamu. To the Police Commissioner, he issued a warning at every point that no shot must be fired.
Still, the protesters were not pacified.
Early Tuesday, the crowd began to gather again at the Assembly gate. There was a long row of cars and, of course, an army of youths. The music of Fela Anikulapo-Kuti – God bless his soul – was blaring in the background. Young women were wiggling their waists. The men were singing along the musician. There was smoking, and there was drinking
Sanwo-Olu was on his way to the office when he saw the crowd. He drove down to the scene. For minutes, he went round to give as many as possible the “chop knuckle” greeting, stretching out his hand. Beside him was Dr Hamzat. The governor crossed his arms and raised his hand in a Black Power salute.
The crowd responded: “No more SARS.”
Comedian Debo Adebayo, who also goes by the name Mr Macaroni, and Oluwatoyin ‘Woli Arole’ Bayegun, also a frontline comedian, tried to calm the youths.
“What do we want?” “End SARS!” they screamed.
Sanwo-Olu and Hamzat clambered into a truck. The governor spoke frankly and eloquently. As a mark of respect for his identifying with them, they stopped the music and listened.
“Your voice has been heard loudly and actions have been taken from the highest office in the land to address your grievances. It is time for us to move forward and engage further on your demand,” he told them.
The governor spoke of his efforts to settle the crisis, his determination to compensate victims of police brutality and get justice for victims of SARS abuses. Besides, he announced that he would soon be on his way to Abuja to present the protesters’ demands to the President. He would also visit the police chief. He marched with the protesters and displayed a placard bearing the #End SARS message.
About two hours after, the social media was throbbing with pictures of Sanwo-Olu’s visits to President Buhari and IG Mohammed. He drew high praise. In two days, Sanwo-Olu attended about 10 meetings and two demonstrations, flew to Abuja and returned with good news: President Buhari granted all the youths’ requests.
Those fast-moving days of riveting events might well have been taken from the thriller, Kevin Maurer and Matt Bissonnette’s “No Easy Day,” only that, in Lagos, there is no easy day. When Sanwo-Olu is not leading his team to deal with one pressing issue or one emergency or another, he is taking the lead in preparing them for the next.
Omotoso is Lagos State Commissioner for Information and Strategy
This piece was first published in The Punch