Sitting down to have dinner sometime around 7:00pm NLT, I would never have imagined that some of my opinions were about to change forever. How did that happen?
Well, follow this story slowly and see where it leads.
It wasn’t a fascinating dinner, as I ate as fast as I could, so I could return to the pile of Bioinformatics analyses waiting for me on my computer. I don’t remember the exact thing I ate, so it was pretty uneventful. Everything changed when I went on Instagram for my usual update on the state of affairs in my home country, Nigeria.
As of 20th October 2020, Nigerian youths had been protesting peacefully in several cities across the country for at least 10 days. Those who, like me, could not be there to protest, made solidarity posts on social media and read up on the protest updates.
Hence, the hashtag #EndSars was trending on Twitter and Facebook. In solidarity, Nigerians in diaspora and non-Nigerians alike were retweeting #EndSars. Celebrities like Rihanna, Idris Elba, Alicia Keys and Cardi B were amongst those who tweeted. Even Jack Dorsey, CEO of Twitter, had tweeted several times and even created an icon for the movement. In many cities across the globe, Nigerians, including here in St. John’s, held peaceful protests in solidarity. Many others supported the movement by donating money to help the movement.
Donations were made to an organization called the feminist coalition, which disbursed money for many purposes, including providing food and drinks for protesters. In some cases, government-owned security forces came to disrupt some protest venues and ended in bodily harm and some cases, death of protesters. The feminist coalition catered for the hospital bills of the injured and donated to the deceased’s families. In other locations, hoodlums and thugs tried to disrupt the protests, resulting in injury to protesters and destruction of properties. Again, the feminist coalition came to the rescue. Within a few days, #EndSars went from a group of disgruntled youths who wanted the Government to listen to a full-on #occupy type protest.
But why were they protesting? Why were men and women between ages 18 and 35 years, which should be busy at work or school spending their days out on the streets protesting? And what was SARS?
Well, long story short, these youths were tired of the excesses of an arm of the Nigerian police called SARS. SARS, which is short for Special Anti-Robbery Squad, is a Nigerian police unit, which has been terrorizing young Nigerians since its inception. Notorious for not wearing police uniforms or operating between normal Nigerian police parameters, SARS is a thorn in many young Nigerians’ flesh. Most young Nigerians living in Nigeria have stories of their SARS encounter, which usually starts with being arrested – kidnap style, followed by getting manhandled and molested, culminating in money exchanging hands before their eventual release. Some young Nigerians don’t live to tell their SARS stories, either dying after being released or their dead bodies getting dumped somewhere and later found by friends and family.
Even Nigerians who haven’t lived long in Nigeria have SARS stories to tell. Young people with no personal SARS stories had stories from relatives and friends. So what makes a person prone to be picked up by SARS? SARS officials had a quintessential profile of the “SARS offenders.” The severity of your treatment depended on how non-traditional you looked. For starters, dreadlocks were a bad sign. Laptops, headphones, and even super fancy clothes and cars made you a candidate. And if you are a young Nigerian, you would most definitely fall into one of these categories. So when one such encounter early in October, a meeting with SARS operatives ended in the death of a young man, Nigerian youths decided they had had enough.
Using a few posts on Twitter and Instagram, a group of celebrities planned the first in a series of protests. With the first protest in Lagos, Nigeria’s commercial hub, more protests popped up across Port Harcourt and Abuja, slowly gaining momentum with each new day. Led by everyone and no-one, in particular, the youths came up with a five-point plan, dubbed ‘5 for 5’, which they wanted the Government to address.
The longer the protests lasted, the more momentum it gained. The deliberate and stubborn silence of the Nigerian Government meant that the protests kept dragging on. Eventually, the Government resorted to attempting to disrupt the protests. The police, including “SARS operatives’ tried to disrupt the peaceful protests, firing teargas and hot water, but the youths stayed resolute. They kept asking for a leader, which is true ‘Nigerian politician fashion’ would have been jailed, bribed, killed or blackmailed into submission. The youths’ insistence that there were no leaders incensed the ‘Powers-that be,’ and they changed tactics. Thugs and handlooms were brought in to cause more chaos, which ended badly, but still didn’t stop the youths.
Eventually, the police came out to announce that ‘SARS’ had been disbanded. The youths got what they want. But no. SARS had previously been disbanded, five years in a row. They got separated after an outcry, and they resumed once everything had died down. But not this time, the youths didn’t have it. They wanted all or nothing.
So the protests continued, as did the threats, and SARS operatives (who have been disbanded) were still harassing people. So on the 20th of October, state governments, including in Lagos announced a curfew, another tactic to get the youths to stop protesting. According to the Governor of Lagos state, there was to be no moment after 7:00 pm.
The thing with Lagos is that Lagos is a big city. The closest comparison I can make to Lagos is London, only with more chaos, disorder and noise. Traffic is crazy, with congestions that last for hours. At this point, many of the protesters, who were stationed at the Lekki tollgate decided their best bet was stay put at the tollgate since making their way home would amount to being stuck on the road after the curfew. They were not flouting the rules since they were not moving. Or so they thought.
Around the time I had my dinner in St. John’s around 10 pm Nigerian time, I saw photos of unknown persons dismantling the CCTV cameras at the tollgate. Nigeria Twitter and Instagram people chatted about that, throwing wild speculations. Next came the turning off of street lights and the billboard lights.
By the time I finished my dinner and went for one last look at Instagram before going back to my microRNAs and heatmaps, I saw a Nigerian actress’s video. She was crying, claiming she had left Lekki tollgate a few minutes ago and was worried because she could hear the sound of shots fired. Sporadically.
I refreshed and saw posts of different accounts of shots fired in the Lekki area. At this point, I became apprehensive and called my sister in Nigeria. She told me to check out a live video, currently streaming on Instagram. The live stream was by a known female DJ, whose career I have followed for the past decade. Unsure of what was going on, I joined the live session and saw the worst scene I could ever imagine.
There were screams from people running and crying that they had been shot and were afraid of dying. This DJ, DJ Switch, seemed to be in pitch black, helping people extract bullets or try to stem bleedings. She turned the camera to a few people on the floor, not moving, and a few who were bleeding. And she started running again, with a few others, claiming they were being shot at as well.
I don’t cry often, but when I do, I could cry you a river. And I wasn’t expecting to cry at all. But then, more videos surfaced. Of young people with Nigerian flags, with the green, white green waving, army officials charged at them, shooting into the crowd. With each new video I saw and each new update, I cried more. I never knew watching youths of my birth country, who just wanted to ‘not be killed’ by policemen who were maintained by taxpayer money, would hurt so bad.
Different sets of emotions washed over me. Fear, panic, anger…never have I felt so helpless in my life. Weak to the plight of my people who could have been my friends, relatives, etc.
I had many questions. For the leaders, the Government, the army claimed the video’s people were not army employees. The Government claimed there was no massacre. The president gave a speech almost three days later, without acknowledging the lives lost.
Between the nightmares and the uncertainty, I wonder, would the truth about what happened that night ever indeed come out? Would there be justice for those young people whose country and government failed them? Would their deaths be in vain, or would more need to die before the required reforms happen?