Throughout last week, I was unable to shake off an overarching feeling of dread. Usually, I’m not one to allow external circumstances to influence my mood. Life is hard. Shit happens. You can’t take many things to heart. But if you’re a Nigerian like me, then you probably followed the recent protests against police brutality in the country. What started out as trending hashtags on Twitter escalated into riots that threatened the peace and stability across the country. Youths in their numbers clamoring for police reforms and policies in place to end the cycle of police brutality. How did we get here?
It all started with SARS, a rogue unit under the police force. SARS is supposed to stand for Special Anti Robbery Squad. They were set up in the 1990s to curb burgeoning cases of crime and armed robbery in the country. But in recent years, SARS has done nothing but cause pain and misery. They abuse their power, inflicting harm, violence, extortion particularly on young citizens.
Imagine feeling unsafe in your own country simply for dressing nice, or driving a fancy car, or owning an iPhone. Police officers can stop and extort you. And if you resist, you might end up losing your life. Here’s a Twitter thread by Yele Badmosi, (co-founder Microtraction, Bundle) who went through a harrowing ordeal at the hands of SARS officials.
We know of BlackLivesMatter protests that happened across the world a couple of months ago. It was a tad comforting to see different races of humans take to the streets to speak against the systemic oppression of black people. As opposed to the Civil Rights Movement during the 1950s and 60s, blacks had more allies across different races. The object of the protest was of course a white police officer who killed a black man by kneeling on his neck for 8 minutes. An act that served as an epitome of the oppression that blacks have endured for so many years.
I’m not even referring to white on black oppression. Entire books and stories have been written on that subject. I’m referring to black on black oppression. Black people oppressing and killing other blacks. A phenomenon that is indeed rampant across Africa. From the ongoing killings in the Republic of Congo to the persistence of rape, sexual abuse, and gender-based violence in Namibia to police brutality against innocent civilians in Nigeria. It is the same phenomenon that gave rise to the menace called SARS.
SARS hires criminals disguised as officers who perpetuate heinous crimes. Extorting money and oppressing the lives of those they are meant to serve. I don’t blame them though, I blame the rot in a broken system that extends all the way from the leadership; the ruling elite. The state of Nigeria has been on a downward spiral for as long as I can remember. The cycle of oppression, bad leadership, gross incompetence among occupants of public offices, corruption, and lack of empathy for the suffering plight of the average Nigerian.
The indignation of the youth against the Nigerian ruling class goes beyond the #EndSARS campaign. We were born into a country that has done very little to support our dreams; a country with too many broken systems.
Throughout the protests, I took the time to compile some of the most heart-wrenching stories on SARS. Here’s one that really struck me. A story of a young man named Chijoke who was killed by SARS officials.
How did we get here? I thought the police were meant to protect life and property. Why are they killing the youth?
Oh, it gets worse. Apparently, Chijoke’s death is one case out of many. Did you read about the Awkuzu killings? Here’s the link on Nairaland. The forum thread is dated 2013 signifying that the SARS problem is nothing new. It has been on-going for years.
After reading other reports of the Awkuzu killings, I was in total dismay. I’m not one who clings to the existence of places like heaven or hell. But I sincerely hope that hell exists, at least for people like Officer Nwafor.
Dire signs of things to come
As protests began to gain momentum across the country, the EndSARS movement garnered international attention. Young people had found their voice, and for a moment it seemed we could pull our collective strength and instigate change in the system. 5for5 was the demand. Finally, our leaders would listen. If they adhered to our demands, we could apply similar pressure on other wrongs in the system. Or so we thought.
I found a video that basically warned against harbouring false hope.
The part of the video that struck me, was when he talked about soldiers coming in to shoot a few youths and drive fear. It’s what our parents suffered in their time. They protested, they fought, but the “old warriors of the oligarchy” prevailed.
The setup for a crime scene – something felt off.
We could already feel like trouble was brewing. In the twitter-sphere, information was circling that the Lagos State government was to impose a 24hr curfew to curb the escalation of events. The curfew was announced at midday on October 20 and was to begin at 4 PM. Something felt off. How can the government announce a curfew 4hrs before it is to take effect? In a city like Lagos, which is always bursting with activity. Plus the mad traffic.
It was highly unlikely the government would be able to enforce the curfew given the short timeframe in which they gave notice. Not long after, there were reports of CCTV cameras being taken down at the Lekki toll gate. I couldn’t verify the authenticity of those reports. Still, the events engendered a dire foreboding of what was to come.
My father called me on phone almost immediately.
“Dumebi, I hope you’re not anywhere near that tollgate. I have heard they want to deploy soldiers and it’s going to get messy. Chei! this our country na wa. Our leaders are out for blood. Chei! Please, Dumebi, I’m begging you. Don’t go anywhere near that tollgate…”
I could hear the fear in his voice. A fear that was already starting to grip me. I logged into Twitter to see if there was any news. Funny how Twitter had become my primary news source during these protests. Local news and media outlets were not covering the events like we expected them to.
Turns out there were still protesters at the Lekki tollgate. Many of them had received information about the imminent curfew but decided they were going to stand their ground and hold the tollgate. Things were not looking good.
Black Tuesday at Lekki Tollgate
At about 7 PM on Oct 20, the lights around the toll gate plaza went out. And there were gunshots. People running for cover. Blood and carnage. I could not wrap my head around the fact that army personnel could fire live rounds at peaceful protesters who waved the national flag while singing the country’s anthem. Earlier in the day, there was the speculation that if protesters sang the national anthem while waving the flag, the army would not shoot at them. Turns out that was a lie. Well, either it was a lie, or the army decided to flout those rules in order to execute their kill order on peaceful protesters.
What ensued was a massacre. Images and videos were streamed live from the Lekki tollgate. Those of us on Twitter and Instagram could only watch in horror as soldiers opened fire on their fellow countrymen.
It was a traumatic experience. I can’t imagine how it must have been for those who were stranded at the tollgate. For some of them, they felt like there were going to die. The blood of the innocent stained our beloved flag. Back in secondary school, we were taught the meaning of the colors on our flag. Green, White, and Green. The green symbolizing our country’s wealth and prosperity. The white symbolizing peace. After the tollgate massacre, the flag became green, red, and green. The red symbolizing the blood of innocent youth. The image circulated social media and broke the hearts of many. Our national flag had been stained by the blood of innocents.
On the night of the massacre, I struggled to sleep. I could barely get 2hrs in. It takes a peaceful mind to fall asleep, and my mind was not at peace. Images kept flashing in my head. People running for cover as army personnel fired gunshots with the intention to kill. What is this madness? I always knew Nigeria suffered bad leadership, but I didn’t know the leaders were this evil. Someone had ordered the shooting of peaceful protesters at Lekki tollgate on October 20, 2020.
The following morning, I had a virtual standup session at work. But moods were grim; we were still reeling from the events of the night before. One of my colleagues was giving his update when we started hearing gunshots in the background. We advised him to log off the meeting and find a safe place to hide. Na person wey dey alive fit do standup.
Across Lagos, mayhem had been unleashed. Mobs of hoodlums had begun pillaging stores across the state. Even Circle Mall, which is located around my home, was seriously affected. These hoodlums didn’t have anything positive to contribute to the EndSARS movement. They only took advantage of the current limbo in order to loot the investments of hard-working Nigerians. Like most people, I still believe these hoodlums were sponsored by government officials to discredit the protests. I mean, we had 2 weeks of peaceful protesting without any looting and when they saw that people had found their voice, they resorted to hijacking the movement. Well played.
The Death of Okechukwu Obi-Enadhuze
We were still dealing with the shock of the toll gate incident and the riots spreading across the state. At exactly 1:54 PM on the 21st of October, a young man named Okechukuwu (Oke) tweeted: ‘Nigeria will not end me’. What was going through his mind wasn’t so different from what was going through the minds of many young Nigerians. We were scared, we were troubled. Roughly three hours after Oke put out that tweet, Nigeria indeed claimed his life.
An angry mob broke into his home and he was stabbed in the ensuing scuffle. According to the account given by his younger brother, all attempts to save his life were futile as the local hospitals rejected him.
Oke’s death wasn’t worse than the other deaths recorded this past week. It however gathered a lot of attention, mostly because Oke was the primal stereotype of the new age Nigerian youth: smart, hardworking, and enterprising. His final tweet: ’Nigeria will not end me’ an ominous reminder of what could befall anyone of us if we don’t fix our country.
The Possibility of a New Nigeria
This isn’t the first time the Nigerian government is employing such underhanded tactics against its citizens. The corruption of our ruling elite runs very deep. They rely on enshrouding the people in poverty and ignorance so they can’t fight back. And for many who went into government with the aim of tackling corruption, their efforts were largely frustrated. The rot is really deep. And it’s hard to fight an establishment that lacks a conscience; one that would go to any lengths to retain their power.
Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala wrote a book: Fighting Corruption is Dangerous. In the book, she detailed how her mother was kidnapped and their demand was she resign from her role as Finance minister and leave the country. Throughout her tenure as minister, she grappled with constant intimidation and threats. Many others like her faced similar circumstances. Dora Akunyili endured several assassination attempts. If they cannot persuade you to give in to their demands, they assassinate you. Such is the unending cruelty of our country’s ruling elite. Their tactics have been effective. Over the years they have remained in power, and they continue to oppress the masses.
Many have given up hope in the possibility of a better country. It is evident in the number of people who emigrate every year. We lose our brightest minds to the more developed countries. And you can’t blame those who leave. People are seeking a better life and escape from a country that has robbed them of opportunities. It’s a trend that has been on-going for years.
But the reality is not everyone can japa. Not everyone can run away. Quite frankly, most people would rather build a life in their country than relocate to a foreign land. And even if some of us do manage to run away, we will still have family and friends back home. We will still bear the stigma of coming from a place that is rotting. NIGERIA MUST WORK. Because as it is, life gets harder for the average person every day. We might feel safe in a better country, but we won’t be at peace if our family and friends are suffering back home.
Hence, we must find a way to strategically overthrow the existing oligarchy. It won’t be easy, but it must be done. These people don’t care about us. They are sucking the life out of our country and enriching themselves, while the rest of us cower in constant suffering. Their incompetence is laid bare in their inability to establish any framework for the consistent advancement of the life of the average Nigerian.
Our democracy has been sabotaged. Long before now. It is obvious we must get involved in our politics. Young people must vote and get involved. And I mean vote at all levels of public office. We have to treat our elections as a matter of life and death. Because the vote is the only weapon we have against our oppressors. It won’t be an easy fight. But if we are strategic and methodical, we can win.
At least, I can draw some level of comfort in knowing that young people have woken up to their civic duties. Now more than ever, we are aware of the collective power we have and the need to wield that power. If we are to wrest the state of the country from the hands of those that continue to do harm, now is the time. Arise, o compatriots.