On May 24, 1989, palpable tension had gripped the University of Benin (UNIBEN) campus in then Bendel State. Students were observed loitering about the premises of the studentsâ€™ union building or gathering in groups, discussing at the top of their voices. The students were clutching copies of two handbills which contained purported misdeeds of the administration of military president, General Ibrahim Babangida, and some of his helmsmen. In the group discussions of the agitated students, they reasoned that at a time when government introduced Structural Adjustment Programme (SAP), an economic policy which ordinarily dictates belt-tightening and frugality, it was an irony that the same proponents of the SAP were the ones milking the economy dry.
The students apparently were expecting the student union leadership to address them, following which there would be declaration of Aluta (violent protest). The restless students were not disappointed. After a storming session, the student union executive in concert with the students parliament resolved on a mass protest. The leaders addressed the students one after another and before long, the latter were primed for a â€?mother of all Aluta.â€™
They at first embarked on a peaceful protest round some Benin streets and later in the day, they were granted audience by the state military governor, Colonel Tunde Ogbeha, who, when shown copies of the handbills, tried his best to repudiate allegations contained in them. But the next day, the protest turned violent, claiming no fewer than six lives. Among the dead were a policeman allegedly lynched by the rioters and a 15-year-old boy who was shot at close range by riot policemen at the New Benin Market area. After the dust settled on the hullabaloo, about 15 persons were placed on danger list at the University of Benin Teaching Hospital.
In Lagos, however, the controversial handbills had been circulated at the various institutions alright, but the students of the University of Lagos were at first reluctant to jump on the bandwagon. There, the student union leaders said they would require time to study and investigate the allegations contained in the bills.
But while they still tarried to broach over whether to take to protest or not at the UNILAG, another incident was playing out at the Lagos College of Education (LACOED). Ninety-five students of the LACOED had been arraigned before an Apapa Magistrateâ€™s Court, charged with the murder of two policemen during a riot embarked upon by the students a week earlier. The students saw the trial as trumped up, judging by a report they obtained that the policemen said to have died were actually alive. To further enrage them, the accused 95 students were not admitted to bail by the magistrate, who ordered them to be remanded in prison custody till the following month.
That LACOED 95 trial thus was a fire-starter for the UNILAG students to join in the mass riot which was later branded â€?the anti-SAP riot.â€™
The riot proper
So, by 4am on Wednesday, May 30, the UNILAG students, as in the days of the locust, trooped out of their Akoka campus, marching through Abule Oja to Moore Road before connecting Yaba College of Technology where they mobilised fellow students in the countryâ€™s premier technology institution. From YABATECH, the assemblage of angry students broke into groups and headed for various parts of Lagos to execute a mass action and make the city ungovernable. The platoons of rioters at their various beats in Lagos went into primary and secondary schools and conscripted pupils and students respectively, to participate in the protest. Woe betides any school head or teacher that tried to stop them. This action sent panic into parents, who ran helter-skelter in the streets, in search of their children.
The rioters who had by now been joined by other youths and street urchins otherwise known as â€?area boysâ€™, barricaded major roads and made bonfires which billowed into the sky in a joint, thick haze of fume. This naturally paralysed all commercial activities, as commercial motorists also withdrew their services. Public workers, artisans, traders and others had tales of woe to tell as they trekked long distances amid fear of possible attack.
The rioters who chanted various slogans and war songs which included Babangida Must Go!, SAP Must Go!, apart from making bonfires, also set fire on official buildings and vehicles that belonged to government or those not in solidarity with the riot. To show solidarity, everyone in the street had to hoist leaves or have them tacked to their vehicleâ€™s bonnet. The Lagos-Ibadan expressway which linked Lagos, Nigeriaâ€™s commercial nerve-centre with other parts of the country was barricaded thus causing untold hardship to travellers many who trekked long distances. Others simply broke down.
Riot police though initially caught off-guard at the effective mobilisation and execution of the riot, later buckled up as they reinforced from their various divisions and units, meeting the rioters â€?fire for fireâ€™. At best, the rioters were armed with sticks, clubs, knives, cutlasses and cudgels. In isolated cases, some came out with dane guns. But the police responded first by shooting canisters of teargas but gravitated to the use of guns with rubber bullets. But as the riot intensified in severity, they began to shoot live bullets at the protesters, resulting in many casualties. When the dust cleared, no fewer than 10 civilians were killed while over 700 others were seriously injured.
As Lagos was â€?burningâ€™, a similar scenario was taking place in Ibadan, Oyo State. Though the poor economic condition in the country ascribed to the SAP policy and the revelations in the handbills also influenced the students of the University of Ibadan (UI), it was learnt that a local factor was a remote cause. On May 23, there was a studentsâ€™ parliamentary meeting which was disrupted when a teargas canister was shot into the gathering. The meeting ended abruptly as everyone ran for dear life, to the anger of its conveners. Before the disruption, the students had gathered to discuss a case of one Mike Uyi, said to have been a student in the faculty of education for 10 years. The students said Uyi was an agent of State Security Service (SSS) and called for his expulsion.
The students said Uyi must have been the brain behind the disruption of their meeting. The alleged SSS agent was the national president of Students Peace Movement of Nigeria and also, the leader of another group known as Peace Commando. The students marched to Uyiâ€™s room at Sultan Bello Hall, packed out his property and set them ablaze. Hours after the incident, the studentsâ€™ affairs officer of the university wrote a query to the students union, on the burning of Uyiâ€™s property.
Swiftly, the union replied the query, giving the authorities a 72-hour ultimatum to expel Uyi or face dire consequences. While the ding-dong continued, on Sunday, May 28, the students met with the state governor, Colonel Sasaenia Oresanya, demanding among other things, the expulsion of Uyi, the scrapping of SAP and that government must subsidise education. The students alleged that Uyi was actually a police officer and that his real name was Harrison Ugbile.
So, from the next day, the students declared indefinite lecture boycott and as early as 6am same day, the union leaders had mobilised them for mass protest. But the protesters were repelled by policemen who fired teargas canister. However, some of the students detoured and launched out through the Ibadan Polytechnic exit and poured into the streets. They were joined by thousands of others who included hoodlums and butchers.
Though there was disputation on the Ibadan casualty figure, it was widely reported that two students of Loyola College, Ibadan, were killed.
One basic factor in the riots which also occurred in many other parts of the country by students in higher institutions was that the studentsâ€™ main umbrella body, the National Association of Nigerian Students (NANS) had given a May 29 ultimatum to the Federal Government to scrap the SAP. The expiry of the ultimatum snubbed by the government apparently engendered a nationwide mass upsurge of riots on the campuses. Though this was without prejudice to other local factors.
The controversial handbill
The handbills that stoked up riots on the countryâ€™s campuses with an anti-SAP campaign as leech were in two parts. One of them reportedly contained features adduced to the May 1989 edition of Ebony magazine. The handbill quoted Ebony, a monthly magazine, as purportedly stating that Babangida was stupendously rich and had stashed some of the nationâ€™s wealth in private accounts abroad. The alleged report also stated that the military presidentâ€™s children were studying in Zurich, Switzerland and that his wife, Maryam, had a business empire abroad.
The other bill, which centred on Babangidaâ€™s deputy, the Chief of General Staff, Rear Admiral Augustus Aikhomu, alleged that he too had taken the countryâ€™s wealth abroad and that he detained a businessman, Mohammed Bashir under Decree 2, that he was a security risk. But the handbill differed, stating that the real reason Bashir was being detained was because he outsmarted Aikhomu in a business deal.
Closure of institutions
As the riots raged across the country with each case showing that students on campuses belled the cart, military governors in respective states where the riots occurred closed down those institutions. The UNIBEN was first to be shut, followed by UNILAG. Governor Oresanya also announced the closure of the UI and the Obafemi Awolowo University, Ile-Ife. It was also learnt that the Minister of Education, Prof Jubril Aminu conferred with Babangida on issues relating to the disturbances, following which the Federal Government terminated the appointment of a lecturer with the Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria, Kaduna State, Dr. Yusuf Bala Usman, who was a radical and possibly suspected to have been one of the masterminds of the crises.