Lagos Commissioner for Information and Strategy, Mr. Gbenga Omotoso, has had his work cut out for him in the past few weeks. From the moment the Endsars protest began in Lagos many weeks ago, causing massive traffic gridlocks and disruption of the state’s economy, to the aftermath of the protest that saw unprecedented carnage and arson unleashed on Lagos, the commissioner has known no rest. He has been working assiduously to ensure that the general public get nothing but accurate information of all that’s gone down in the last few weeks. And he has done impressively well, disseminating information on behalf of his principal the governor of Lagos State, Mr. Babajide Sanwo-Olu, and the Lagos State government. The commissioner has been able to put things in proper perspectives. But his biggest headache has been the social media. He is extremely displeased with the volume of fake news that emanates from the social media and the chaos and bad blood that they cause among the people. He spoke to the City People team weeks ago and expressed his fears and concern about the menace the social media poses to the peace and stability of the state and nation as a whole.
What is the government doing about the security in the state, because since that time security in the state has become a source for concern?
Yes, you’re right. Let me talk about what the government is doing. Government is trying to get the Police to go back to their beats. These are people who have families. These are people who are human beings like us. We saw on social media how policemen were being lynched like criminals. I went with the governor to Ajeromi police station and I saw that the Barracks was looted. The kids and women came out and started shouting that the government should do something, that they too are human beings, that are we saying its an offence to families of policemen? In Lagos alone, the police lost about 6 officers, about 28 police stations were burnt, so the morale was very low. So, the government has promised them that all the children of the slain officers will not suffer. They will be educated up to university level. He said even though it’s not within his purview, he would arrange Insurance policies foe police men who are serving in Lagos and ensure that the police men are well equipped for their jobs. He was there with the deputy governor, Doctor Obafemi Hamzat, to tell the police men that this is not the time to despair, but the time to rise. So, the governor is doing everything it can to help bring back the morale of thee officers. But this question, good as it is, should be put in the reverse. What is it that an average Lagosian is doing to help the security situation? Day before yesterday, a man was taken to court. What really happened? This man took the BRT lane and a LASTMA official stopped him and said that is not good enough and they started stoning him until blood was gushing out of his head and had to be rushed to the hospital. This morning, the task force went to a place they call Ikeja along and were stopping Okada riders from taking over the BRT lane and they started stoning them. So, we have to check ourselves, are we ready to obey the Law? Are we ready to help the police arrest the criminals among us, because these criminals stay in the same community that we are in. Yesterday, the task force tried to stop motorists from driving against traffic and they went and brought out all manner of weapons to start attacking the task force and these are our brothers and sisters. So, what I think those of us in the media should do is to help educate the public that it pays to obey the Law. So, it’s a symbiotic situation.
Sir, is this government aware that the security situation in the state has become even more frightening? As we speak, people are getting robbed in broad daylight. If you’re caught in traffic or the traffic light stops you for a few moments, hoodlums will appear from nowhere and rob you of your valuables. Some have even lost their lives in the process and it appears the police are deliberately staying away knowing full well that there would be chaos everywhere. Is the government aware that the situation is getting out of hand and becoming more threatening by the day?
Of course the government is aware and that is why the government is doing about it. Take for example, I just told you Lagos state lost 28 police stations and barracks. So, the 28 police stations, the police officers working there, they go in there in the morning and from there they move to their beats. We are just trying to get them maybe portacabins for them to stay. We just started putting this together this week. But there are other officers who, along with their families, have nowhere to stay because they got their barracks were looted and burnt. It all boils down to what I was saying, that we have to caution those people among us who see security agents as our enemies. And we should expose them as well. You said there have been cases of people who have been robbed in traffic lately, that is true, but the police3 also have records of such criminals that they have arrested in the last one week. So, the police and government are doing a lot. Honestly, yes, with happened to the police, they have been a little bit withdrawn, but now, they are gradually coming out. They are getting their acts together and having a haul of criminals. They are arresting them in their in large numbers.
Can you put a figure to what Lagos State has lost in the past month? I know it might be a bit difficult to quantify these things, especially the cultural heritage, but conservatively, can you put a figure to it? And is the federal government coming in to assist to rebuild some of these things?
It’s a bit difficult to put a figure to it, but so many people have been calling to say they would like to help. From overseas, from within Nigeria, from everywhere, people are saying they want to assist. On Monday the governor inaugurated the board of Lagos Rebuild Trust fund, headed by Mr. Yemi Cardoso. They’re doing this so the whole thing can have a formal appearance. So, it is this committee that will gather experts, valuers, engineers, archivists, and other professionals who will now be able to say, well, if you want to rebuild City Hall today, we need x amount. So, until that is done, it will be a bit difficult to place a figure to it. But I believe the rebuilding of Lagos state is not something that can be done in a jiffy because like I said, the destruction is on a scale beyond belief. It is unimaginable. When he governor got to the High court, he couldn’t disembark from his vehicle. He was shedding tears. And all along, he has not been talking about his own personal loss, his own emotional loss. His family house on Lagos Island was burnt, his mother’s house in Surulere, and he has not been talking about all of that. So, if you begin to talk about it in naira and kobo, you will be trivializing it. At the Oba of Lagos palace, all of those things that Lagosians used to be proud of, they shredded them. They destroyed everything. For many Lagosians, the loss is more of an emotional one than financial. Most people are coming forward to support, multinationals, private individuals, those who don’t have money ate coming forward to offer services, that all of those things destroyed must be restored.
I want to believe, sir, that there must be some investigation going on underground to fish out those behind these calculated destructions of government institutions. I hope the government isn’t sweeping this away as the activities of some mindless criminals?
Of course, you can’t have these kinds of attacks on the scale that you have had it and then people will just fold their arms and just begin to whimper and groan about it? No, we have to find out what happened, how did it happen, how did it get to this stage? And is there something that we are doing but not doing well, and even if there is something we are not doing well, is this the reward? Why should people go to this level to express their anger, if their anger is genuine? So, yes, investigations are going on. But we won’t the situation to dampen pour spirit of a greater Lagos. We will use this experience as a stepping board for us to on a journey of greater Lagos that Mr. Babajide Sanwo-Olu has promised.
Would you say it was that the EndSars protest came up as a result of the frustration of the people who believed that the government was deaf to their outcry?
There is no smoke without fire. And don’t forget that the EndSars protest is not a Lagos state affair. It didn’t even start in Lagos state, it started in fr away Delta and then started creeping to other parts of the country and then brought us the kind of disaster we are nursing now. I wouldn’t say the EndSars protesters had no genuine reasons. Don’t forget the governor, Mr. Babajide Sanwo-Olu, addressed them twice. I remember following him to Lekki, he carried the EndSars flag. Then, when he came to Ikeja, Alausa, to talk to them and to collect a letter from them which he took to the president, he also marched with them. So, it was a genuine noble step carried out by our youths. And after a while, people said it was time to go home. Your voice has been heard locally, globally, loud and clear, there is no need to press on. So, in discussing this matter, I will like us to separate genuine anger from criminality. Any man who is not a criminal, no matter how angry he is, he can’t go and steal. He can’t go and attack a bank and attempt to remove its ATM, and when you ask him, he says I’m angry.
This EndSars protest seems to have generated a lot of mistrust between the government and the people. You as the man in charge of information and strategy, what are the strategies you are putting in place to earn back the trust of Lagosians considering the whole issue at hand?
Honestly, I believe that, despite everything that’s happened, we have the trust of even people who are not Lagosians. Everybody knows the good intentions of the Babajide Sanbwo-Olu administration and they have tried to identify with it in it’s time of trial. For us, these are trying times in Lagos. And the outpouring of emotions, outpouring of goodwill and hands of solidarity to the government, they have shown that the people really trust the government. But that is not to show that we feel infallible, no. That is no human being created by God who is infallible. What we’re trying to do is to do more of advocacy now. To let Lagosians own the government. To let Lagosians know that if you destroy government properties, it will not only hurt you alone, it will hurt every one of us. To let Lagosians know that the heritage is ours. So, I believe that if there was any mistrust, it has all dissipated now because the fact that people are coming out to support the government shows that the level of trust, if anything, it is rising.
As the Information Commissioner, your job must’ve been very difficult over the last few weeks. How did you cope with the barrage of information and misinformation coming out from the print, from the social media all at the same time?
It’s been very tough. But you can see that we’re now used to it. I remember when we first came in, the people were talking about the government not fixing roads and that all the roads in Lagos were bad and the governor explained that when the rains stop we will have start to fix the roads. When the rains subsided and we started to fix the roads, people were praising us. We were thinking of doing so many other things that we promised the people of Lagos and then Coronavirus came upon us. And Coronavirus globally has been a calamity that the entire world is facing now. There are many countries that have gone under lockdown as we speak. And as it was giving way, and we started revving up our programmes, so that before the end of the year we would’ve done so many things for Lagosians, the EndSars protests came. We thought it would only last for a couple of days, but it spread into weeks and then criminals took over and we ended up having the carnage that we had on our hands. So, its been one crisis after another. But as human beings, this has made us to develop thick skin and we’re now developing crisis strategies to face the situation so we do not lose focus, which is service to the people of Lagos. And I’m happy to tell you that all of these have only been able to toughen me and not weaken me. It has also enriched my knowledge and experience in crisis management, in communication and in so many other areas.
As a highly revered journalist, not just as the honourable commissioner, what can you say about the role of the social media so far in all of these? I recall that the DG of NBC was on Arise Television and he totally condemned parts of the media following their coverage of the mayhem that followed the aftermath of the EndSars protest?
I was on the phone earlier just before this interview started. If we all do not do something about the social media, number one, we are all going to lose our jobs, number two, the kind of integrity journalism confers on all of us, we are going to lose it. And once you lose your job, you lose your integrity, you lose your credibility, what else is left? Maybe some of us would have no choice but to go back to our villages and begin to farm. What is going on in the social media, in my own view as a true journalist, is condemnable and we should all fight it. Journalism is about facts and figures. The kind of thing that people are doing now to disrupt the peace of society is something all of should condemn. Take for instance this Lekki matter, that people are saying there was a massacre and that scores of people were killed and people were actually showing videos of people purported to have died, I watched the video of a woman who was in London and showing on her phone that the son was killed in Lekki and the next day, the friends of the son said, no, this guy died from an Okada accident and that they were actually two people that lost their lives in the accident and they mentioned the time and the place. I’ve seen photographs of people who were said to have died in Lekki, and some people said no, these pictures were gotten from a Nollywood movie. And you know, some of us, once they send us these things we click on our phones and say as received. Why don’t we ask questions before we start forwarding to others. We can see what has been happening. You can never tell where these fake information can lead us. By Friday, it will be one month after the Lekki incident that people call a massacre and we’re still fishing for evidence. Whereas, if you go to Mile 12 where they sell chickens, you don’t need anybody to tell you that today they have killed 20 chickens. Here, we are talking about human beings and we are looking for evidence all over the place. Few days after the purported massacre, they can’t find blood anywhere on the roads and yet it didn’t rain. You said you had trucks carrying bodies and that you carried seven at the feet of soldiers, were you carrying babies? And how come you don’t have the videos pf the soldiers taking away the bodies, you said your battery went down. Were you the only person there, you said no. Now, the soldiers have said yes, we were there at Lekki, but we fired blank bullets. So, we really have to be careful with the social media. For me, as a true journalist, I don’t just forward things sent to me to other people, I always check. It is very important that we all do this.