COVID-19 Lockdown: Where is Amotekun? Nigerians ask amid southwest unrest

Before COVID-19 hit Nigeria in February 2020, several controversial national issues dominated the media space. From the leadership crisis rocking the All Progressives Congress (APC) to the Supreme Court judgements that cut short the reign of former Imo State Governor Emeka Ihedioha and dashed the hope of Bayelsa governor-elect, David Lyon of the APC barely 24 hours to his inaugration. Debate over the launch of the Western Nigeria Security Network (WNSN) codenamed Amotekun stood out and created a lot of buzz in the media.

More than two months before Nigeria reported the index case of coronavirus in the early hours of Friday February 28, the media was awash with fierce debates over the establishment of Amotekun. Reports about Amotekun dominated discourse in national newspapers, the online and broadcast media.

Amotekun was inaugurated in Ibadan, Oyo state on Thirsday January 9, 2020. It was established by Governors of the six southwest states – Ekiti, Lagos, Ogun, Ondo, Osun and Oyo – to complement the efforts of the regular security agencies.

"It has become embarrassing that insecurities are happening in the south-west state. Amotekun will save us from ritual killing, cybercrime, kidnapping among others. We shall not relent until the entire place is secured," Governor Rotimi Akeredolu of Ondo State who also doubles as the Chairman of the Southwest Governors Forum, said at the launch of Amotekun.

In the last few years, cases of kidnappings and robberies along major highways in the southwest have become increasingly higher, this is believed to have spurred the governors to create a complementary security outfit.

The launch of Amotekun was received with so much excitement in the Southwest and others parts of the country. The euphoria didn't last too long before it was tainted by the Federal Government's declaration that it is an illegal outfit.

Minister of Justice, Abubakar Malami, in a statement on Tuesday January 14, 2020, had said the issue of defence and security fell under the exclusive list and not with the state.

"The setting up of the paramilitary organization called "Amotekun" is illegal and runs contrary to the provisions of the Nigerian law," the minister said.

Malami's statement set the stage for media battle between the proponents of Amotekun and the antagonists – the Miyetti Allah Cattle Breeders Association of Nigeria and some prominent northerners. Nobel Laurette Prof Wole Soyinka, elderstatesman Afe Babalola (SAN), human rights lawyer Femi Falana (SAN) among many others also waded into the debate, kicking against the position of the Federal Government.

"Amotekun is a protective and supportive outfit established by the governors of the Southwest. It has its roots in the 1999 Constitution and the constitutions before it – 1960 and 1963," Babalola had said.

Soyinka also took on the ex-governor of the old Kaduna State, Balarabe Musa, over his comment that Amotekun would lead to the declaration of Oduduwa Republic.

He said: "Balarabe is sadly, but I hope not tragically wrong. I invoke the tragic dimension here because the making of tragedy, especially for nations, often begins when fears are mistaken or promoted as facts, and governments either by themselves, or together with interest groups, are enticed by fears into embarking on precipitate, irrational, and irreversible acts".

Falana said the federal government has no power to declare the outfit as illegal but advised the governors to enact a law to back up the establishment.

He said: "Even though I had cause to join issues with Mr. Malami over his legal opinion on the security outfit I was compelled to call on each of the south west governors to forward a bill to the house of assembly of each state for the formation of Amotekun."

All the governors soon enacted laws for the formation of Amotekun in their respective states and revealed plans to begin recruitment of personnel into the outfit.

Since COVID-19 disrupted socio-economic activities in the country from March, nothing has been heard about Amotekun and the plan to recruit personnel to begin operation, until two weeks ago when reports of unrest in some parts of Ogun, Lagos and Oyo states, where lockdown has been imposed, forced residents to take to social media to ask about the latest on Amotekun.

Tweeting with the hashtag #LagosUnrest and #OgunUnrest, some Nigerians stressed that if Amotekun is already in operation, it would have provided support for the security operatives in combatting the cases of robberies and unrest in some southwest cities.

A popular Twitter user with the handle @ayemojubar tweeted: "there is no better time for the deployment of Amotekun in the Southwest than now. This is purpose for which they were created."

Another user with the handle @chartbee suggested: "Due to the #OgunUnrest, #LagosUnrest and #IbadanUnrest, should we all agree that this is the best time to unleash Amotekun on this menace before things go out of hands!!!"

The Development Agenda for Western Nigeria (DAWN) Commission, the Southwest regional integration institution coordinating the activities of Amotekun said the COVID-19 pandemic delayed the takeoff of the outfit.

The Director-General of DAWN, Seye Oyeleye, in a statement on Tuesday April 14, said the six states were in the process of recruiting personnel into the outfit when the virus broke out in the country.

He said the governors had proposed that Amotekun would commence operation in April but "unfortunately, the whole process has been stagnated as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, which has made the gathering of the personnel for training difficult and unadvisable."

Oyeleye assured that Amotekun has come to stay and would take-off as soon as the coast is clear for return to daily lives.

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