Sanwo-Olu forgot history

I have seen many people writing articles to praise Lagos State Governor Babajide Sanwo-Olu for what they regarded as his “exemplary leadership” in the Magodo Phase II Estate incident. He had tried to instruct a police officer, in the full view of reporters and television cameras, to withdraw his men from the estate, to which he had been sent by his bosses. Well, I have my doubts.

That is because in Nigeria, there have been many incidents in the last 40 years which conclusively established the futility of a state governor trying to countermand the orders given to a police officer by his high command. Not just the police; the same applied to secret service officers and the military.

Seven short years ago, we witnessed the running battle between then Rivers State Governor Rotimi Amaechi and the state’s Police Commissioner, Joseph Mbu. Not only did the Compol not take instructions from Amaechi, the supposed Chief Security Officer of his state, but he curtailed even the governor’s freedom of movement by preventing him from entering his own Government House through a private gate, which Mbu’s cops blocked. When five rebel PDP governors went to Port Harcourt to show solidarity to Amaechi, Mbu’s men tried to block their way and, it was said, even fired tear gas in Their Excellencies’ faces.

Other governors had other complaints. Abdulaziz Yari Abubakar once said when he was Governor of Zamfara State, he received early warning from indigenous communities about planned bandit attacks on the highway. He passed such information to the Compol, he said, but nothing was done until the bandits struck at the very hour they told the communities they would do so.

What was strange if a police officer disobeyed a governor, or even a collection of governors? In November 2013, the DPO of Asokoro Police Division in Abuja walked into the Kano State Governor’s Lodge, where Governor Rabi’u Musa Kwankwaso was having a meeting with four other nPDP governors who were trying to defect from the ruling party. The DPO told them he had orders from above that they should disperse, their constitutional immunity from arrest and prosecution notwithstanding. Their ample security details stood idly by when the DPO walked in.

Look, Speaker of the House of Representatives ranks above governors in the National Order of Precedence but in late 2014, that did not stop FCT Police Command from sealing the entrance to the National Assembly. We saw Speaker Aminu Tambuwal standing askance at the gate while a dozen House members tucked away their flowing gowns and scaled the fence.

The history of policemen defying governors based upon superior police orders goes much further back. In 1983, Borno State Police Commissioner Tahir Jidda’s men stopped NPP presidential candidate Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe’s motorcade from entering Maiduguri town from the airport, even though Governor Muhammadu Goni sat beside him. When they alighted from their cars and tried to walk past the police cordon, Jidda ordered his men to use tear gas. Zik even tried to lecture the Compol on his role in the struggle for Nigeria’s independence, to no avail.

Not only the police. Didn’t DSS agents storm and seal the National Assembly premises in 2017, without the knowledge of the Acting President, for which its Director General Lawal Daura got the sack? It wasn’t the secret police’s first such action. In 1981, Kaduna State Governor Abdulkadir Balarabe Musa was in Lagos when the State Assembly impeached him. He immediately made to leave for the airport and return to Kaduna but DSS’ precursor, NSO, surrounded the Kaduna Governor’s Lodge and told him he couldn’t go to Kaduna, lest there is a breakdown of order. Balarabe then flew to London.

In 1979, the then new Governor of Kano State, Muhammadu Abubakar Rimi, told a story at a public lecture. He said when he first sat on his desk, he saw an old security report about a political event at which he was personally present. The report was totally inaccurate, Rimi said, so he called in the state NSO director and told him so. The man calmly reached out, seized the report from the governor’s hand and told Rimi he was not supposed to see it, since it preceded his tenure.

It is more serious where soldiers are involved. Borno State Governor Prof Babagana Zulum cried out loud in 2020 when soldiers stopped him from entering Baga town, saying it was not safe. People had told the governor that soldiers were making brisk business in Baga’s famed fishing industry but he couldn’t get to see it. Governor Zulum has since calmed down a bit because in 2020, he summoned the Theatre Commander of Operation Lafia Dole, a Lt General, and publicly dressed him down because soldiers were extorting N1,000 each from travelers who had no national identity cards. Stranded motorists cheered while Zulum berated the General. In contrast, Sanwo-Olu’s encounter with the police officer was a very gentle affair!

If it is military partisanship, remember the Maiduguri Airport closure by Federal authorities in 2013/14. Governor Kashim Shettima was prevented from landing at the airport but upon orders from above, the airport opened for former governor Ali Modu Sheriff’s plane to land. A huge military contingent led by a Brigade Commander then escorted Sheriff around town for his thinly-veiled political program.

When Governor Kashim Shettima told State House reporters in 2013 that Boko Haram insurgents were better armed than our military, President Jonathan responded by withdrawing the soldiers that guard the Borno governor. State House said all other governors in Nigeria were guarded by policemen, which is true, except that there was a war situation in Borno. President Jonathan even said on live television that if he withdrew soldiers, Shettima “cannot even stay in that Government House.”
Soldiers operate well beyond any governor’s claim to being his state’s Chief Security Officer. This we saw in September 2020 when soldiers stopped vehicles conveying Benue State’s notorious bandit Gana and summarily executed him. Gana was on his way to Makurdi Government House, escorted by traditional rulers, in order to accept another amnesty offer by Governor Ortom. He had previously accepted Ortom’s amnesty, totally reneged on it, and was on his way to “accept” a second one.

Anyway, governors and other powerful people who tangle with soldiers and policemen these days must have forgotten earlier incidents. Such as in 1987, when Sheikh Abubakar Mahmud Gummi walked into the Kaduna State Police Command premises in the wake of the Kafanchan riots, which spilled over into Kaduna. He saw several hundred young men who were arrested for rioting. They were stripped to the waist and made to lie face up, gazing at the sun. Gummi angrily told the boys to stand up. A police officer then grabbed him by the collar and threatened to shoot him if he interfered again.

A year earlier, in 1986, the powerful Chief M.K.O. Abiola had a rough encounter with Airforce men in Lagos. If I remember right, his motorcade brushed an Airforce vehicle and in the ensuing arguments, MKO grabbed the uniform of an Airforce man, who responded very harshly. Abiola reported the incident to his friend, Air Commodore Nura Imam. To his surprise, the Commodore took sides with his men and said if you touch a soldier’s uniform, “he reacts like a mad dog.”

Anyway, we have known since 1980 that a governor’s word counts for nothing in relation to that of a federal officer. In March 1980, President Shehu Shagari commenced his nationwide tour of states from Bendel State. NPN members in the state prepared a lavish welcome for him, so two days before Shagari arrived, UPN Governor Prof Ambrose Alli clamped a ban on rallies and processions. When Shagari arrived Benin Airport, the state NPN chairman whispered to Minister of Police Affairs Prof Emmanuel Sunday Osamor [also a Bendelite] that police had stopped NPN’s dancing troupes at the airport gate. Osamor whispered something to the Compol, the gates swung open, and thousands of NPN supporters swarmed the airport and even the tarmac.

At the state dinner that evening, Alli angrily complained that his powers as chief security officer were brushed aside. In his reply, President Shagari said, “Governor, you and I should concentrate on governance and leave politics to the politicians.” In other words, Governor Babajide Sanwo-Olu should leave the Magodo matter to residents, litigants, lawyers, judges and policemen and concentrate on governance.

Mahmud Jega is the ex-chairman of Daily Trust Editorial Board