Activist, Aisha Yesufu, speaks to newsmen about #EndSARS protests, threats on her life by some northerners, among other issues.
According to her a lot of people in the North are saying that she should be killed but she is not afraid dying as “we are all going to die anyway”.
“No, I am not afraid for my life; we are all dead in Nigeria. Is this life? Today, there is nobody living in Nigeria; we are all surviving. What we have here is not life. Come on, we are all going to die anyway.
“I was 10 years old when I came to the realisation that the worst thing any human being could do to me was to kill me and it is not really the worst thing because I would die anyway. I am 46 now and will be 47 in December so I am not threatened by some people with misplaced priorities, who do not know their enemies.
“With all the killings going on in the North, which one of them has ‘called out’ (to draw critical attention to someone’s unacceptable behaviour) the President (Maj Gen Muhammadu Buhari [retd.]), who has failed woefully to secure lives and property or condemned Abubakar Shekau (Boko Haram leader), but they feel Aisha Yesufu is their enemy.
There is a viral picture of you with one hand raised which has been a symbol for Nigerians protesting against police brutality. How does that make you feel?
It doesn’t make me feel anything because it is something I have done over and over again, at any protest, where you have the police trying to brutalise or attack people. I have always had my fist in the air and stood like that. So for me, it is not something I sit down to think about. It is just a bit weird that in this particular case, it went viral and people look at it differently. But I’m happy with the fact that a lot of people take courage and solace from that picture and know that no matter what is being thrown at them by the government, they can afford to resist, be defiant and continue to stand for something good for themselves and the country.
Now that the #EndSARS protests have stopped, following which there was so much looting and vandalism; what is the status of the agitation?
The looting was caused by the government and done by its sponsored thugs. What we have learnt is that Nigerians are always ready to blame the victim rather than the perpetrator and that needs to stop. We need to put the blame squarely where it should be put – and that is on the government. They have ascribed the looting to the #EndSARS protesters who were peaceful and organised. Even when the government brought thugs to attack them, and looting and destruction of their belongings started under the watchful eyes of security agents, they did the right thing. We saw military vehicles transporting thugs, policemen and other security agents who supervised the activities of the thugs. They attacked the #EndSARS protesters and injured some of them. But Nigerians kept quiet. Even when some of the thugs were apprehended by the #EndSARS protesters and handed over to the police, the police refused to arrest them. Then the thugs suddenly turned on the government and started attacking and looting public and private property. The government must take full responsibility for that.
In Abuja, we saw as thugs were deployed everywhere inside Abuja, including where the Central Bank of Nigeria headquarters is located. They attacked protesters and burnt their vehicles. The most important thing is that citizens understand they have rights. The youth understand that they have a voice and have to be active. They are doing that now. There may not be street protests for now but a lot of activities are going on. The online protesters are still at it and panels have been set up. Protesters are strategising and watching all these. The protests would have been wrapped up within three days if the government had been sincere in doing the things that needed to be done but the government was silent.
Many people are saying the protests should have been stopped after the government conceded and disbanded SARS, and that the protesters should have engaged the government to see how the other demands would be met. They think that would have prevented the looting from happening…
Like I said earlier, Nigeria is a nation where people blame the victim rather than the perpetrator. Instead of blaming the government for killing innocent citizens who were peacefully protesting, some Nigerians want to blame the protesters and this is not the first time it has happened. When the government killed Shiites (members of the Islamic Movement in Nigeria), Nigerians blamed the Shiites. When it killed members of the Indigenous People of Biafra, Nigerians blamed IPOB members. This is an anomaly that has consistently happened and it happens to people in an abusive relationship. Nigerians are in an abusive relationship with their government so they would rather be on the side of the abuser so that hopefully, one day the abuser doesn’t turn on them but it doesn’t always happen like that.
Also, the #EndSARS protesters were always at the negotiating table. It is the government that was never there and it has shown absolutely no leadership. We saw it in the way the government used brute force. The protesters were strategic right from day one. They had their demand and when the government said it had disbanded SARS, the protesters immediately brought out what they call #5for5 demands. But there was no action by the government and they said they wanted action. By the way, the government said the same thing in December 2017, when Prof Yemi Osinbajo was the acting President, then also in 2018 and in 2019 and now in 2020, so saying they disbanded it didn’t mean anything because they had said similar things in the past.
Right now, a lot of people have put out pictorial and video evidence to show that SARS officers are still on the streets and haven’t been recalled. And we need to ask: who is in control as it seems the government has no control over SARS? They consistently say one thing and do another thing. I think Nigerians need to know that the government is meant to serve them and not kill them.
Speaking about killings, the protesters have alleged that there was a massacre at Lekki tollgate, carried out by soldiers but the state government has insisted that only two persons died. Some people are beginning to doubt that many people were killed because not many people have come out to say their loved ones were shot dead. What do you think?
People will doubt anything as long as it doesn’t happen to them. That is why I like to tell people that yesterday’s victims were once survivors and today’s victims are yesterday’s survivors and tomorrow’s victims are today’s survivors. This is not the first time that the government has ‘gaslighted’ (to manipulate someone into doubting their sanity) the people. When Chibok girls were kidnapped by Boko Haram in 2014, what did the government first say? They said nothing like that happened. Up till today, there are some people who still think that it didn’t happen. When the parents of the girls came out, some said they were actors. Lagos State Governor, Babajide Sanwo-Olu, told an international media organisation that indeed there was military involvement. Initially, the military denied that they were there and later, they said they were there to enforce compliance with the curfew imposed by the state government. Little by little, the truth is coming out but what they do is to put doubts in the minds of people.
You have been receiving death threats and more recently a Kannywood actor was said to have described you as an infidel, an allegation he has denied. Are you sometimes afraid for your life?
No, I am not afraid for my life; we are all dead in Nigeria. Is this life? Today, there is nobody living in Nigeria; we are all surviving. What we have here is not life. Come on, we are all going to die anyway. I was 10 years old when I came to the realisation that the worst thing any human being could do to me was to kill me and it is not really the worst thing because I would die anyway. I am 46 now and will be 47 in December so I am not threatened by some people with misplaced priorities, who do not know their enemies. With all the killings going on in the North, which one of them has ‘called out’ (to draw critical attention to someone’s unacceptable behaviour) the President (Maj Gen Muhammadu Buhari [retd.]), who has failed woefully to secure lives and property or condemned Abubakar Shekau (Boko Haram leader), but they feel Aisha Yesufu is their enemy.
You are also often trolled on social media, how do you deal with it?
I really don’t care what people say. I say that insults and compliments are people’s opinions and not my reality so people have the right to say whatever they want to say. I don’t allow the insults to get to my heart neither do I allow the compliments to get to my head. If I don’t get angry when people praise me and pray for me, why should I get angry when people insult and curse me? And also, some of these people are government-paid trolls.
A lot of people in the North are saying that I should be killed but they lack the guts to criticise the person who is failing them and has allowed killings to happen, not just in the North-East but everywhere – Southern Kaduna, Sokoto, Zamfara, and Katsina states. Instead of calling out the President, they are quiet because they are afraid to do that. The sycophants will rather say he is working and then praise him. The primary victims of these things should criticise the President. They should forget about the sentiments that he is a northerner. And the Imams that used to preach against the government when Goodluck Jonathan was the President, no longer do that because Buhari is from the North.
Such people are the infidels. I’m a Muslim and I know that Islam is basically against oppression. They always say that the people who support tyranny or oppressive leaders will not ‘smell’ paradise so they are the ones who don’t understand Islam. Their sycophancy is their problem. I am waiting for them to put a bounty on Shakau’s head, denounce Boko Haram and make demands of the President who has failed to secure the North and end insecurity because we can all see that he has failed. He has failed every region, he doesn’t care, he gives this failure in equal doses.
Some people on social media have alleged that your husband was found to have embezzled public funds and taken cars away when he left office as a public servant…
If they say my husband has stolen money, then he should go to jail, let us prosecute him. Come on, if you have evidence, bring it out. I do know for a fact that the person they call my husband is not my husband. His name is Yusuf while my husband is Yesufu. But they decided that because he was a public servant and since there is this other man who was accused of corruption and was sacked by the former Minister of Health before he was brought back by Buhari and finally sacked, it must be my husband. The person they refer to was indicted for misappropriating about N900m and was said to have taken away some cars, so they decided that it was my husband.
I don’t know him and they know that he is not my husband but for them, it is to put the news out there and try to discredit me. You can’t discredit me, I will use my mouth anytime. Even if I have done something wrong, come out with the evidence, I will face the wrath of the law. I hold myself to a higher standard than I hold anyone. I am proud of the fact that my husband worked in public service and protected his integrity, name and the assets of this nation. He put everything on the line. I dare them to go ahead and publish anything. They have tried that many times and it is not only during this administration; even the last administration tried it but they could not find anything to implicate my husband. When my husband became a public servant, I wrote him a letter. I said whatever shenanigans they do in government with public funds, you must never touch any dime and I know the kind of man I married. He spent eight years in public service and they have nothing against him. Come on, if they have something against him, they would have brought it out by now. The government is still searching anyway. I say good luck to them because I know they are not going to find anything.
You have always been critical of the Buhari regime, doesn’t your husband sometimes put pressure on you to stop or not be so openly critical of the regime?
No, he doesn’t. I have 100 per cent family support. And I have nothing to hide. That is it; it is when you have something to hide that you find it hard to say the truth. I don’t go to anybody’s office to ask for contracts. They have tried so hard, it is not that they haven’t tried. I have never done a government contract in my life. I have never gone to ask for favour. Several times I have been offered certain things. For example, while I was fighting for the Nigeria Immigration Service in 2000, I got a call and was offered three slots. I said, ‘Yes, I have younger brothers and sisters who need jobs but I want them to open newspapers and see it there and apply. I don’t want them to go through some connection or whatever.’ That way, I can look anybody in the eye and call them out. I don’t curry favour with them. They felt what they could use was my husband’s name. They felt anybody who was a public servant must be corrupt but it is wrong. There are a lot of people who served the government and protected the assets of Nigeria and we need to celebrate them. I want the world to celebrate my husband. Because they have skeletons in their cupboard, they assume everybody does also.
As a youth corps member in 2000, I was overpaid by the National Youth Service Corps. I don’t know what happened, I got more than I was supposed to get in my account and I raised the alarm. Years later, I thought maybe it was a racket and the money was mistakenly paid into my account. I remember my fellow corps members and NYSC officials harbouring resentments towards me and I didn’t understand it. When I went to return the money, there was so much resentment but I insisted. The bank was the defunct People’s Bank of Nigeria and I got a letter stating that I returned the money. I also wrote to the NYSC.
I am content with what I have. My big mouth and integrity are more important to me than whatever anyone has to offer. I always say the money I am looking for is not with the Nigerian government, it is with the Nigerian people. I am a trader; I buy and sell and getting Nigerian people to patronise me is what I need, not the government. Who needs government patronage?
Do you think the government is sincere that it will reform the police and meet other demands of #EndSARS protesters?
The Nigerian government, especially under Buhari and Osinbajo has never been sincere about anything. What will ensure this is for citizens to insist on getting justice because legitimacy comes from the people and they must be ready to be active citizens. Taxpayers’ money was spent to set up a panel for the reform of SARS in 2018 and the panel did their job and handed over the report to the President but nothing was done.
The National Broadcasting Commission has imposed fines on some TV stations for allegedly inciting violence by showing videos they said were unverified, what do you think about that?
What I will ask is: when are they going to fine Buhari, the policemen and military men deployed to attack citizens, and the government that deployed thugs to attack citizens for inciting violence? Does NBC understand that we are in a democracy? The stations reported what happened. That was what they were supposed to do. This is 2020 and not 1984. They didn’t cook up stories. Anyway, the case is already in court. In the President’s broadcast, he said what he did was seen as weakness by the protesters; there were veiled threats in the broadcast.
Recently, the Minister of Works and Housing, Babatunde Fashola, found a camera at the Lekki tollgate; do you think any new evidence can come out of the discovery?
I think Fashola has questions to answer. The camcorder was just sitting there for Fashola to discover after the place had been cleaned up. So Fashola has a whole lot to say and the authorities must be interested in it. But I am ashamed on behalf of Fashola because he is somebody we all thought was a good technocrat but under his principal, he has degenerated before our eyes. It is a shame. It is very sad and unbelievable. I just wonder what happens to people, where is integrity? Beyond that, the Lagos State Government should ensure the release of the footage of what happened at Lekki tollgate – not doctored.
It appears that nobody is talking about Chibok girls and killings by Boko Haram again while people are still suffering in the North-East and some of the girls are still missing. As prominent voice in the #BringBackOurGirls campaign after the adduction, what do you think happened?
Definitely, the BBOG has been talking about Chibok girls; it is almost seven years since they were kidnapped. We are making demands even though the government doesn’t want to listen. It sees us as enemies. On Boko Haram, we still talk about them. I saw how some people were saying, ‘Why are you talking about #EndSARS when we have bigger problems? There is insecurity in the North.’ And I said, ‘Who says these things are mutually exclusive?’ You can talk about #EndSARS and securing the North in the same breath. I think people who sit down and want to blame every other person other the incompetent, clueless and inept Buhari regime should really be ashamed of themselves.
Some people have blamed you for being one of those who brought down Jonathan’s government and helped to bring Buhari in and here you are always criticising Buhari…
Can we say the things each of those governments did that pleased anybody? I don’t have any loyalty to anybody; my loyalty is to Nigeria. I don’t care who is there. If my husband were the President, I would criticise and be on the streets if necessary. If I were the President, I would criticise myself, let alone any other person. Who cares who they are? Jonathan’s administration was a failure and had to be voted out and I’m glad some people feel that I was part of those who ensured that he was voted out. He was voted out because of his oppression. Innocent citizens were killed during Occupy Nigeria protests. There is nothing happening now that we didn’t see during Jonathan’s administration. It is happening now and I will criticise it. In 2019, Buhari ought to have been voted out but people didn’t do that. They began to use sentiments. You don’t reward bad behaviour, I will never support such. If he had been voted out, we would not be hearing about him now; we would be holding whoever is the President now accountable. I will criticise any government that doesn’t do the right thing. Jonathan and I are from the same region and it didn’t stop me from criticising him and Buhari and I practise the same religion, it doesn’t stop me from criticising him. I don’t care. Nigerian government under Jonathan was a failure and was heinous. Under Buhari, it is a failure and it is heinous.
My concern is for Nigeria to be better. I tell those people that they are yesterday’s sycophants who are today’s critics and don’t realise that today’s sycophants were once the way they were; they supported a government doing all the wrong things. The National Assembly was attacked under Jonathan, the media was attacked and newspapers were taken away, there was militarisation during elections, protesters were jailed, and Chibok girls were kidnapped and it took the President 19 days to speak about it. People had to be demanding that he should speak so what is happening now that we didn’t see during the time of Jonathan? It is just that most of them are sycophants and because they supported the President then, they cannot talk now. But a lot of people have been coming to apologise to us, saying so this is what it felt like when Jonathan’s administration denied that Chibok girls were kidnapped. It is the same way the Buhari administration has been denying that the Lekki massacre happened so they now understand.
When did activism really start for you?
I think it started from the day I was born. I have always been this person so when people say, how do you get to be like this, I wonder if there is another way. I have always held people accountable and always said the truth even though it got me into lots of trouble as a child. It has been my way of life. The first protest I was part of was in 1992 as a university student and it was my first semester in school. A lot of Nigerians didn’t hear about me till after I was 40. I come from a very poor background. I saw a situation in Nigerian where if you are poor, you are faceless, nameless and voiceless. You are nothing as a human being and I didn’t want that in my life so in the first 40 years, I focused on myself and when I turned 40 on December 12, 2013, I decided I was going to face Nigeria’s issues. Four months later, Chibok girls were abducted and I have been vocal ever since.
What do you think is the secret of your marriage? You are outspoken while your husband seems to be quiet and reserved yet your marriage has lasted over 20 years.
I think the secret is that our values are similar even though our personalities are different. For me, that is the most important thing. We share the same values and have respect for each other. We allow each other to be our individual self. He is not trying to mould me to be the way he is and I am not trying to mould him to be the way I am. We communicate a lot. We talk about issues and are supportive of each other. Those are some of the secrets we have and we don’t focus on small issues. We love each other and we are not afraid of expressing our love to each other. I married a man I knew would let me be who I am and I would let him be who he is. Mutual respect is very important. My husband is the number one feminist that I know. He fights for the rights of women and doesn’t like injustice. I remember in 2014, I was having a business meeting and someone said to my husband, ‘Why do you allow your wife to be so outspoken?’ And my husband asked him, ‘If it was your child that was taken away, would you not want my wife to speak on your behalf?’ The man went quiet.
You always describe yourself as someone with a big mouth and very blunt, in what ways has it got you into trouble at home?
Even as a child, it got me into a lot of trouble, but all my life I was prepared for this. As a child, my big mouth got me into a lot of trouble. One thing I realised was that when your truth favoured adults, they liked it but when it didn’t favour them, they didn’t like it. So I got used to that. And when there was any issue and they needed someone who would not be biased, they always sought my opinion. Even my parents, when they were having issues, they knew I would say the truth. And I would say it as it was. My Twitter bio says: ‘My mum says in my court, nobody wins,’ and she would always say that. I am unapologetic about my views and very objective. Sometimes my husband says I’m too objective because I would just point out what I noticed – this is what you did. One other thing that has helped me deal with situations is realising that people don’t look at things the way I see them. I don’t just look at issues as they are now, I look at the repercussions of present actions or inactions and because people are not looking ahead, they would say I’m too critical. But later, they would realise it and say, ‘Oh, this is what you saw.’ Some months ago, I wrote an article about thugs being brought into Abuja when members of the Nigeria Labour Congress were attacked at Asokoro where they had gone to the house of a minister to protest. I said by bringing thugs into Abuja, you are demystifying Abuja, a place they thought they could not go because it was untouchable. See what has happened now. They might not be able to control them later.