The 2nd Vice Chairman, Association of Public Health Physicians of Nigeria, Dr Alero Roberts speaks on her experience at the #EndSARS protest and her perspective on the Lekki shootings.
You were at the #EndSARS protests at the Lekki tollgate prior to the shootings on October 20. What inspired you to go out there?
I won’t say it was an inspiration. I would say it was a feeling of frustration, disappointment, and yet hope that this might actually achieve what we had been working to achieve from my generation and my father’s generation. When the country gained independence, there was massive hope, and my parents took me along to the Tafawa Balewa Square. The (British) flag was lowered; the new one was raised. I was there. So, you can imagine the hopes, dreams and disappointments. And then, we’ve gone through the Civil War, the Udoji strike and successive agitations for what, essentially, is good governance; transparency and accountability. Whatever fancy name you want to call it at any particular point in time, it still boils down to good governance. People have an expectation and they have been let down time and again.
My son is very active on the social media and what caught his attention was that I told him that in 1978, when we, as university students, had that ‘Ali must go’ protest, over what we felt was an unjustified increase in the cost of school feeding, we didn’t have social media, yet we organised protests across literally all the universities in the country, so much so that the original National Union of Nigerian Students was proscribed. And my son was like, ‘Mummy you were there?’ And I said, ‘Of course, I was there.’ I was in the University of Lagos. I was there when a student, Akintunde Ojo, was shot and killed. So, this is not a new thing to me. And I’m just sad that we are yet here again, after 60 years of independence; after having gone back to democracy. And yet I’m hopeful that the Nigerian collective spirit has not been completely diminished, demoralised and destroyed.
There has been some criticism, particularly by the government, about the conduct of the protests and it being hijacked by hoodlums. What was the atmosphere like when you went out for the protest? Was it peaceful?
All the days that I went there – and I went there on more than one day; it was only one day that my father and I were there together – it was very peaceful, in the sense that, I must confess, as a parent and a veteran of these kinds of protest rallies, locally and internationally, I had kept asking them, ‘What’s your eventual exit plan? Do you plan to stay on the road? Until when? 2023?’ Because you and I know that some of these changes they are asking for require policy formulation, implementation plan, measurable outcomes, etc. It’s not something you just wave a magic wand and something happens. Like the ill-advised pronouncement by the IGP that SARS had been disbanded and they were then training people for SWAT. That was sort of a knee-jerk reaction that further angered the entire polity, not just the protesters.
I don’t know that the protest was hijacked. The protest grew until even ‘these people’ became a part of it. Their anger stemmed from hunger. Hunger is not just food. It’s a hunger for everything. We went there (Lekki tollgate) with hope. On the days we went, my son was in charge of the clean-up crew. So, he would get to the (protest) ground between 4.30am and 5am. There were young boys who slept there because there was nowhere else for them to go. I’m talking of 12 to 16-year-old children who slept there because there was nowhere else to go.
My son would get there with his team of friends to bring food for these children, and then the children would sweep and, by 8am, the protest ground was cleaned of the refuse of the day before. And this happened four to five days in a row at Lekki.
The Sunday when they wanted to organise a walk from Lekki-Ikoyi Link Bridge tollgate to the Ozumba Mbadiwe tollgate, my husband and I joined them to go and distribute Nigerian flags, and my son said, ‘Mummy, the mood of this place has changed. I don’t think I’ll go out tomorrow. That was the following Monday. And they didn’t end up walking from the tollgate to tollgate; they sort of did their thing there, because these were the so-called low-class protesters. There was a church service, then they all dispersed to their different homes.
By Monday, clearly, the mood had changed. The crowd was much larger and much more uncontrollable. Of course, women were coming with food to sell, but some were also coming to sell alcohol, cigarettes and Indian hemp because they too needed to make some money to feed (their) children at home. And this was a captive crowd; the market was not open. The captive crowd was there because many of them were students who had not been in school since February. The universities had been closed since February 22. These were youngsters who were seeing their future being whittled away while they were arguing whether senators or House of Representatives members should collect N300m or N400m. How do you talk to them?
So, I wouldn’t say the protests were, per se, hijacked by thugs and hoodlums. The protests grew to encompass all the disenfranchised, angry, uneducated, desperate, hungry, nameless, despised citizens of Lagos State.
The protesters gave the Federal Government a list of five police-related demands initially but the demands later increased to become more about bad governance in general and people in government complained that the protesters had lost focus. Do you think the demands were too many?
I’m sad that we need to ask that question. As a primary schoolchild, when you went crying to your mum and dad that the school term was starting and you needed a new math set, school bag and new school shoes or you wouldn’t eat, those were your ‘five for five.’ What was your ultimate goal? You wanted to get back to school to get an education, but you were a child. You see, first, your immediate needs – math set, school bag and school shoes. It is your parents who can see that what you’re demanding is even good, but the parents then know that, ‘apart from math set, school bag and shoes, he needs school fees, transport to and from school; he needs to be able to get to school and come home in time; he needs a lesson teacher and a place to study.’ They see the bigger picture. Does that make your ‘five for five’ unfocused? Let’s even say, after you ask for a math set, school bag and school shoes, somebody even educated you and said, ‘Is that all you’re asking for? What about school fees?’ You then expand your list to include school fees and a generator, so you can read at night; does that make you unfocused? Does that mean that the math set, school bag and shoes are no longer important? No! What it means is that the protesters have taken one thing as a catalyst. Although I shouldn’t repeat it, the #BuhariHasBeenABadBoy was actually a pointer to the fact that there has been bad governance. We cannot seriously be in a country globally acclaimed as the poverty capital of the world, and our senators and legislators are the highest paid in the world. Now, this is not an exaggeration. This is not fake news. This is something that could be easily verified. It just doesn’t match. We cannot be in a country with legislators taking that amount of money, with the percentage of our national income that is spent on civil service on remuneration alone. Does it make sense? It’s not about a ‘five for five’ or ‘seven for seven’. I saw a list that went to 23 and I was even happy to see that numbers six and 20 addressed salaries for teachers and medical health workers. So, the bottom line is all they were asking for was good governance.
The resurgence of the social media bill is another fallout of the #EndSARS protests. What do you think about the argument that hate speech and fake news on social media incited violence?
In the absence of law, you cannot define crime. Right now, we’re operating, as far as social media is concerned, in a relatively lawless environment. Whether we like it or not, there has to be some level of control over what can and cannot go out on social media. Whether we like it or not, there is fake news. We were battling what we call the infodemic during the COVID-19 period, when we were getting so much fake news going out about remdesivir and hydroxychloroquine. We, doctors, were talking and all that the pharmacists wanted to do was sell drugs because that’s what makes money for them. And we were battling this, and everybody was saying, ‘It’s because you don’t want us to go out.’ There was a lot of fake news. I know credible people that were asking me the most idiotic questions. So, the issue of fake news is real. Do you remember that Cameroonian-Nigerian doctor who put out something on hydroxychloroquine and the whole world was going up in arms? Is that what you want as a portrayal of what your country is about, as if there are no credible scientists and healthcare workers in Nigeria? There have to be some rules and regulations that guide practice, whether we like it or not.
Some might argue that the social media bill, if passed, will be used for political victimisation….
If we, the people, don’t get up and continue to make calls for good governance, then the people that are in power can do whatever pleases them. Evil only abounds when good people keep quiet. So, the first question I’m asking everybody is: where is your Permanent Voter Card? The second is: do you know who your representatives are? Let’s start from your local government chairman. Do you hold your local government chairman accountable? Do you ask him why he’s done this or not done that? And that is even before we get to your representative or senator. If we don’t hold them accountable, if we don’t organise to ensure that when they do something, somebody is going to come ask them questions, then whatever we get, we deserve.
There are lawyers. Look at what the NBA chairman did the other day; he went into the Judicial Panel of Inquiry and established himself there that ‘we are watching you.’ By doing that, he challenged every other lawyer. Now, people are asking questions: ‘Where is so-and-so? How come so-and-so have not said a word? What are you hiding? How much have they given you?’
So, we, the people, are more than the people in power; we put them there. They are not doing us a favour. They are our servants. Look at the problem we faced after the riots. Of course, we are a federal institution, so any gunshot wound that came in, we had to treat them. The governor said he was meeting all the hospital bills. But you have young doctors or nurses standing there, (treating) multiple gunshot injuries, bleeding. Ordinary cannula and plastic tubing to put up intravenous fluid, we did not have. Family members who wanted to go and buy were unable. For the family members who were even there, there was nowhere for them to buy.
These are also the same health care workers who have been battling COVID-19 since March. People talk about the PTSD, but I say it’s not PTSD. It’s ongoing traumatic stress disorder. Payment, they are not getting; hazard allowance, they are battling to take it from N5,000 to N25,000. While we were still battling for N5,000 to N25,000, we heard what was going on in the Niger Delta Development Commission. You save the lives of these people with multiple gunshot wounds, whether victims or perpetrators. You close from work and you have to stand at a bus stop; that’s when they come and attack you. Do you remember Dr Stephen Urueye, the young doctor killed four days after he graduated? This was a boy killed by these same hoodlums whose lives you are asking us to save without remuneration. Can you see the moral injury that is going on, and I’m just talking from the point of view of the medical health workers? I’m not talking about the primary schoolteachers.
Then we come to the policemen in the barracks – the recruits and junior officers who are told to buy their own uniforms and told to make unrealistic returns because the government is not doing what it needs to do in terms of health, education, and security.
What was your reaction to the Lekki tollgate shootings by soldiers on Tuesday, October 20?
I was so numb, it was horrible. Don’t forget that on Monday, I had to walk home from LUTH to Obalende because of the blockade. The story on the mainland was bad. I was completely demoralised. My husband was tracking my movements. We share location on Google maps. He couldn’t even phone me because he didn’t want me to take my phone out of my pocket, while I was walking. I mean, for God’s sake, I’m over 60. Really, is this the way to be at this point in our nationhood? I had to hold my son because he felt it to the hundredth degree, because he felt personally responsible for the people who had been shot in Lekki. He said, ‘Mummy, if I had space in my house, I would have taken some of these young boys to my house.’ But where he lives, he hardly has enough space for himself and his wife. And he felt personally responsible.
I haven’t quite got over the way I have felt that day. Let me put it like this: if I leave the country, it will be hard to get me back.