I was reading the last few pages of a book that had kept me awake throughout the night, when the phone rang insistently around 9 on Friday morning. It was Njideka Anyadike, my colleague on the television programme, Patito's Gang. She was quite strident, if not hysterical: "See what they are doing to defenceless women o. They are throwing tear gas at us. They want to kill us. Look at Marie Fatayi-Williams, they are trying to kill her with tear gas. Reuben, this is a woman who was allowed to speak in England and nobody molested her. In her own country, the police want to kill her. Eh Reuben, see them, they are cocking their guns. Please tell your people that the police are attacking Nigerian mothers !"
Eventually, Njideka calmed down, and I was able to get the details of her story. A group of mothers under the umbrella of Concerned Mothers Of Nigeria (CMON) had decided to stage a procession between the OPIC Plaza in Ikeja, Lagos, all the way to Alausa, the seat of the Lagos state government, to express solidarity with all the women who lost their loved ones in the Saturday, December 10 Sosoliso plane crash and to deliver a letter to the Lagos Governor to ask President Obasanjo to do something about the aviation sector, about planes that keep dropping from the sky, killing so many people, and the Aviation Minister who in their reckoning should be fired.
The women had mobilised themselves and agreed to meet at the OPIC Plaza, beside Sheraton Hotel, and then start the procession from there. Leading the team was Professor Jadesola Akande, former Vice Chancellor of the Lagos State University, and other distinguished Nigerian women. They carried no weapons. They did not threaten to overthrow the government. They only wore black T-shirts. Those that did not have black T-shirts wore other dresses. They were all united by their concern that Nigeria can be a much better place. Like the women of Athens and Sparta in Aristophanes' Lysistrata, they wanted to express their concerns about the gradual unravelling of Nigeria under President Obasanjo. They were not going to talk about Third Term or politics; they only wanted to ask that the carnage in the air and on land should stop. They wanted all the grieving women of Nigeria to know that they are not alone in their season of despair. The organisers had done a good job of mobilising the womenfolk.
By 9 a.m, about 1000 women had gathered. They came out of their cars, or parked their cars in convenient locations. But they probably did not imagine the extent to which the Nigerian state is unravelling. It was like old times all over again. A contingent of policewomen had been stationed in front of the OPIC plaza. As the Concerned Mothers arrived, the policewomen told them to go away. They threatened to deal with the Concerned Mothers if they refused to leave. The policewomen looked determined. They were obviously acting under instructions from above. A confrontation soon erupted between the policewomen and the Concerned Mothers.
One of the Mothers had told a policewoman: "What do you think you are doing? What if your own child had died in that plane crash?" To which the police woman replied: "this is federal palava, make una go back home to your husbands, federal palava no concern you." Federal palava? This policewoman may have sounded stupid but perhaps there was some sense to her point about "Federal palava". After all, there is already a federal character to the recent plane crashes: one plane crashed in the West, another one in the North, and then in the East. But the concerned mothers were not talking about such palaver; they wanted to express their grief.
The nature of their concern soon became clearer to me, in the evening of the same day. I was in Victoria Garden City, a lovely neighbourhood for the rich, to attend the 50th birthday party of Col Paul Edor Obi, former military administrator of Bayelsa state. And behold, I ran into Mrs Marie Fatayi-Williams. "Madam, someone called me this morning", I intoned, "to tell me that the police were trying to kill you and other Concerned Mothers. I am glad to see that you are still alive."
Mrs Fatayi-Williams had a story to tell: "Look, my brother, when this plane crash in Port Harcourt occurred, I told my husband and my daughters that I wanted to travel to Port Harcourt to commiserate with the women who lost their children. I wanted to see the woman who lost her three children. I wanted to talk to the woman who lost two of her children. I have been through that route before. My son, a 26-year old man died in a bomb blast, just like that in London. A lot of people will go to those women. They will tell them, sorry we understand. But they don't understand. They will tell them we know how you feel. Nobody knows how you feel. They don't know. So, I really wanted to see those women to counsel them. For a long time I have been mourning. I am just trying to pull myself together. So when I got the invitation to be part of the effort of the Concerned Mothers, I was very happy that some women were already thinking of reaching out to those women in grief. I was very anxious to be part of the procession to Alausa. So, I took out the very dress I wore when I made a speech at Trafalgar Square when my son died. I have been avoiding that dress. But I decided to wear it to the procession. When I got to OPIC Plaza, I saw many women. They just kept arriving. But then there were these policewomen who were already waiting for us. I thought they were there to join the procession as concerned mothers too. I later realised they had been given instructions to deal with us."
But the Concerned Mothers refused to be intimidated. They formed themselves into a three-line procession. Their plan was to go through the Opebi link road, beside Sheraton, all the way to the Opebi junction in front of First Foundation. They would then take the Oregun link bridge and go on to the Governor's office at Alausa. As they marched towards their destination, they intoned responsorially: "Jesus Christ, our Lord, be with us...Mary the Mother of Jesus pray for us..." The police women followed them, warning them to abort the procession or face the wrath of the law. The women kept marching: "Jesus Christ, our Lord, be with us...Mary the mother of Jesus pray for us...". It was a quiet display of female power in the early hours of Friday. The policewomen tried to disrupt the process, but their fellow women ignored them.
Jadesola Akande and her band of grieving women had hardly travelled 800 metres when from all directions, lorry loads of mobile police men suddenly showed up. The fierce-looking policemen jumped down, waving guns, cudgels and tear gas canisters. This special squad took over from the policewomen. Their leader ordered the women to disperse, or taste the full wrath of the law! The women having been surrounded decided to sit on the kerb and surrounding lawns. They were asked to move. They refused. The leader of the police team was seen making a call on his cell phone. When he finished the call, he signalled to his men. The policemen cocked their guns. The ones with tear gas canisters uncorked them and before the women knew what was happening, tear gas canisters had been thrown into their midst. A melee ensued as mothers, grandmothers, professionals, the wives of other men were surrounded by the acidic fumes of tear gas.
"I almost choked" said Marie Fatayi-Williams. "Within a minute my face had become swollen and because I am asthmatic, I suddenly started losing breath. I was helped into a nearby car. There was confusion everywhere. The road was blocked. People were running here and there. Someone gave me her inhaler and that was what saved me. I didn't mind using the inhaler although it wasn't my own. I just wanted to regain my breath. While all that was going on, some policemen came to the car and said I should get out of it. I tried to explain that I was having difficulty breathing, they said that was not part of their business, I should just remove myself from the car and get lost. I had to come out again, only to see Professor Akande asking the women to regroup and continue with the procession. She said the police wouldn't dare shoot us. So we regrouped. I think our resolve infuriated the policemen. They threw more cans of tear gas into our midst. Then they started pushing the women physically. They arrested some women and bundled them into their vans and drove away. At that point, many of us scattered. We wanted to get into our cars, we were not allowed to do so. The policemen kept insisting that we should just move away... It was very bad. And yet we were not carrying any weapons. We were not fighting Obasanjo...Some journalists who were there were also attacked by the police. They took their cameras from them by force and removed the tapes."
Now, is this sad or not? Is this not another sign of the times? President Olusegun Obasanjo has been reported as having expressed shock at the behaviour of his policemen. Clearly, what is on display is police brutality and how brazenly the state violates the rule of law. The Inspector General of Police later came to Lagos and he has been quoted as saying that the procession was illegal, and that the police acted rightly in defence of public order. He apologised however for his men's "overzealousness". But there is a recent Supreme Court ruling which upholds the right of the citizen to the freedom of assembly and specifically dismisses the issuance of police permits as unconstitutional. The women had reminded their assailants of this Supreme Court ruling and they had even duly informed the police about their procession. But according to the police, the application was submitted late.
The conduct of the police should not be surprising. A report released a few months ago by the New York office of Human Rights Watch had specifically accused the Nigeria Police of recklessness, brutality and lawlessness. Under Ehindero and as we move closer to the 2006 elections, the police and other security agencies are exhibiting oppressive tendencies which point to a move towards full-blown tyranny. Some of the policemen have even offered completely strange excuses. The IG declared that the President has set up a stakeholders forum, if the women have anything to say they should have gone to that forum. But who is the IG to dictate how a group of citizens with constitutional rights should exercise the freedom of expression? The Area F Commander of the Police ACP Joshak Habila was also quoted as having said of the women: "Their action is bad. Protesting will give the nation a bad image. How could these women just mobilise themselves to cause confusion?" This ACP's chauvinism is characteristic, he says "these women", but even worse is his comment about national image. Which is more likely to give the nation a bad image: a group of peaceful protesters or a murderous national aviation system?
President Obasanjo should do only one thing: he should put a leash on his attack dogs. They are giving him and his government a bad name. Recent incidents are so reminiscent of the past under the military that we can only wonder how far this government would go in violating the rule of law.
First, AIT/Raypower was proscribed for a day. Second, Bayelsa Radio was forcibly shut down for about two weeks. Three, a gang of policemen recently took over the premises of Channels TV and intimidated the staff. Four, a fortnight ago, the Catholic Secretariat organised a symposium on a Sunday evening, it later received a complaints from the SSS. Five, the police are now threatening to deal with anybody who organises a procession...President Obasanjo must do something about this descent into official brigandage. On Thursday, December 15 at a forum in Abuja, he said "my critics are not doing me, they are doing themselves". Thus, the President spoke Yoruba-English (awon ti won ro pe won nse mi, ara won ni won n se), but with policemen brutalising defenceless citizens, and security agents harassing groups and institutions, the President in his search for those who are "doing him" should please learn to look inwards.