President Muhammadu Buhari yesterday finally spoke on angry youths’ protest of police brutality, urging them to end the demonstrations, which went violent after Tuesday’s crackdown by the army at Lekki Tollgate, Lagos.
Incidentally, the president was spectacularly silent on the tollgate shooting incident that brought his government worldwide condemnation.
He had come under severe criticism for his silence on the #EndSARS protests, which had raged for 14 days, spreading from Lagos State to over a dozen others with attendant disruption of essential economic activities.
But Buhari eventually broke his silence in a nationwide broadcast that was preceded by a National Security Council meeting in Abuja.
Pleading with the youths to leave the streets, he assured them that he had heard their cry and that his administration would address their concerns.
He urged the protesters to resist the temptation of being used by “subversive elements” to cause chaos with the aim of truncating the country’s democracy.
However, the president’s silence on the Lekki Tollgate clampdown by soldiers was made up for by the National Security Adviser (NSA), Maj. Gen. Babagana Monguno (rtd), who said the federal government was looking into the incident.
The president said if the protesters failed to heed his call to leave the streets, they would be undermining national security and law and order, warning that his administration will under no circumstances tolerate any situation that could jeopardise national security.
He called on the international 1community, many of which had expressed concern about the ongoing development in Nigeria, to get their facts right before making hasty pronouncements.
The president promised to respect the democratic rights of all Nigerians, but warned that he would not fold his arms and allow some Nigerians impinge on the rights of others.
The president, who said he was pained by the losses in the course of the street agitations, noted that he had enjoined security agencies to protect the lives and property of all law-abiding citizens without doing harm to those they are meant to protect.
Buhari listed his efforts to alleviate poverty and asked Nigerian youths to key into the programmes.
He stated that apart from schemes to reduce unemployment and rescue 100 million Nigerians from lack in the next 10 years, he had directed the National Salaries, Income and Wages Commission to expedite action on finalising of the new salary structure of members of the Nigeria Police Force (NPF).
He said: “In the circumstances, I would like to appeal to protesters to note and 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 the government in finding solutions. Your voice has been heard loud and clear and we are responding.”
While paying tribute to police officers and men killed in the line of duty, he called on all Nigerians to go about their normal businesses and enjoined security agencies to protect them and their and property.
The president stated that the government had put in place measures and initiatives principally targeted at youths, women and the most vulnerable groups in the society.
“These included our broad plan to lift 100 million Nigerians out of poverty in the next 10 years; the creation of N75 billion National Youth Investment Fund to provide opportunities for the youths, and the Micro, Small and Medium Enterprises (MSME) Survival Fund,” he said.
He reiterated that the federal government was paying three months salaries of the staff of 100,000 micro, small – and medium – enterprises; paying for the registration of 250,000 businesses at the Corporate Affairs Commission (CAC); giving a grant of N30,000 to N100,000 artisans; and guaranteeing market for the products of traders.
“These are in addition to many other initiatives such as Farmermoni, Tradermoni, Marketmoni, N-Power, N-Tech and N-Agro. No Nigerian government in the past has methodically and seriously approached poverty-alleviation like we have done,” the president said.
Buhari warned those who he said have hijacked and misdirected the “initial, genuine and well-intended protest” of the youths against the excesses of some members of the now-disbanded Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS), to desist from their actions.
He recalled that on October 12, he had acknowledged the genuine concerns and agitations of members of the public on the excessive use of force by some members of SARS, stressing that the acceptance of the demands of the protesters must not be misconstrued as weakness.
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.
“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.
“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 interest,” Buhari said.
He added that this has led to the loss of human lives, acts of sexual violence, invasion of two major correctional facilities and freeing of convicts as well as the destruction of public and private property.
The president lamented the vandalism of the palace of the Oba of Lagos, Rilwan Akiolu, while the “so-called protesters” had further invaded an international airport and disrupted the travel plans of fellow Nigerians and visitors.
“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 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 judgment and disruptive behaviour,” he stated.
According to him, both his deeds and words have shown how committed his administration has been to the wellbeing and the welfare of citizens, even with the steadily dwindling revenues, and the added responsibilities and restrictions due to the coronavirus pandemic.
On the welfare of police personnel, he stated that the National Salaries, Income and Wages Commission has been directed to expedite action on the finalisation of the new salary structure of members of the police as well as the review of the emoluments of other paramilitary services.
In addition, Buhari explained that in order to underscore the importance of education in preparing youths for the future, his administration has also come up with a new salary structure and other incentives for teachers.
He reaffirmed the federal government’s commitment to preserving the unity of the country, saying that he will continue to improve good governance and the democratic process through sustained engagement.
Buhari said: “We shall continue to ensure that liberty and freedom, as well as the fundamental rights of all citizens are protected. But remember that the 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.”
He advised the international community to intimate themselves with the happenings in the country before taking positions and rushing to judgment.
“To our neighbours in particular, and members of the international community, many of whom have expressed concern about the ongoing development in Nigeria, we thank you and urge you all to seek to know all the facts available before taking a position or rushing to judgment and making hasty pronouncements,” he stated.
The president thanked state governors, traditional and religious leaders, who have appealed for calm and restraint, as well as youth leaders who have restrained their followers from taking the law into their hands.
“This government respects and will continue to respect all the democratic rights and civil liberties of the people, but it will not allow anybody or groups to disrupt the peace of our nation,” he warned.