How I feel about #ENDSARS
I cannot think. I can barely breathe. I am tired. I am defeated. There’s a cloud around me too thick to be pierced by even the most violent ray of sun. My mind is thick with it: the mist of questions I have about that day. Who died? How many? Did they ask for too much? Did we ask for too much? Did we protest too much?
“What did we want?”
“When did we want it?”
“Yesterday! Today! Now!”
The Special Anti-Robbery Squad of the Nigerian Police Force (SARS) had been beating, raping, kidnapping, and killing people for years. The Nigerian government sat idle, watched it happen in tacit approval, complicit in the squad’s flagrant disregard for Nigerian lives. The protest was about SARS, but it wasn’t about SARS. It was about everything. SARS became the metaphor for the festering discontent with all of Nigeria’s governments since it was a country.
I went out with them, the protesters, on one of the first days. The year had been without much in the way of excitement and I was eager for new life, new stories, new memories. I didn’t have the fervent expectation or hope that anything would change. I do not consider prancing about the streets and yelling about Nigeria to be a good use of my time. I’m so numb with loathing for the country that the prospect of meaningful change is beyond my limited imagination. There’s a thing I tell a few, my friends, my family and now you:
“The Nigeria of my dreams does not exist in my lifetime.”
It is not a pleasant thought to have even if it is true. Sometimes I try to figure out the exact moment in time when my compass needle broke, turning away from national hope, no longer seeking the Nigeria where all are free from suffering, coming up with no solutions by way of policy or imagination. I have nothing to show for my efforts.
Is it something that happened to me? It could be. To live a day in Nigeria, is to be failed by Nigeria. That sentence brooks no argument. Is it something that my parents gave to me? It could be. What we have here is a certain sort of darkness that goes on breeding itself, powering itself, in a cycle. Now, there’s nothing that can stop it. Even if we decided today, all of us, Nigerians, that we would fix ourselves and our country too, we’ve likely passed the point of no return. We cannot see North, or South, or East or West, we can only turn over and over in the cycle of our own dysfunction.
On the first day I went out, I looked into the sea of people camping out by the Deputy Governor of Lagos State’s house. Young faces, eyes lit with the fire of youth, infectious and contagious, even more so than COVID-19, I felt my stone heart melt. My lips started to move. My fist approached the sky.
“Papa no dey oh! Mama no dey oh! If you want to kill me, kill me make I die. I will never follow you to that station.”
The station in the song, didn’t mean a police station, at least, not when we sang it. It was Nigeria’s expected end.
There’s a thing parents say to erring children.
“If you keep doing what you’re doing where do you think you will end up?”
Or more famously, “You will end up working as a cleaner in MacDonald’s.”
How can you look at Nigeria as it is now and not despair? 55.7% combined unemployment and underemployment. Are you not terrified? According to UNICEF, 1 in 5 of the world’s out of school children is in Nigeria, 14 million children! Are you not so frightened that you could immediately die and become a ghost? Do you want to live like this? Do you know what this means?
We pulsed with anticipation. We’d come to the realisation that doing nothing changes nothing, so we decided to do something. We’d block the roads. We’d camp out at tollgates. We’d feed ourselves. We’d tweet with fervour. We’d instagram with hope. We stood united. For a moment it didn’t matter who you were, who your father or mother was, what your gender was, what your bank statement said, your ethnic group, your sexual orientation, your religion. None of the things that typically divide us and make it seem like we don’t all want the same things mattered! We wanted a working country! A country that valued lives! We let ourselves believe that such a thing was in everyone’s best interest. It was like the first rain after a prolonged dry spell. Simba had come back to the Pride Lands, and we were going to evict Scar and his merry band of hyenas.
We had five demands, five for five.
We wanted the immediate release of all arrested protesters;
Justice for all the deceased victims of police brutality and appropriate compensation for their families;
An independent body to oversee the investigation of all reports of police misconduct;
Psychological evaluation and retraining (to be overseen by an independent body) of all disbanded SARS officers before they could be redeployed;
An increase in police salaries, adequate compensation for the vital work they do.
And they agreed, as they typically do, in that very Nigerian way, words without action. They said it would take time, but we know the truth of things - nothing necessary, nothing urgent, takes time.
“What did we want?”
“When do/did we want it?”
“Yesterday! Today! Now!”
Virtues, good attributes, are continuous adjectives. If you are honest, it is because you have never been caught in a lie. If you are considered kind it is because whoever it is that thinks you kind has never seen you being unkind. If you are thought to be trustworthy, it is because you have never broken trust. The minute, day or week, you skip virtue, your description becomes vice. The Nigerian government said it disbanded SARS, but they’d done the same thing three times in three prior years. It lied. It sent out the same people to tell us the same lies. They said our voices had been heard, that our five demands would be met.
Fool me once shame on me, fool me twice shame on you, fool me thrice shame on us both, fool me four times shame on you, shame on me, shame on your mother, shame on your father, shame on your sister, shame on your brother, shame on your children. Shame. Shame. Shame. Shame.
Lagos has a spirit. It is the agglomeration of all of us: how we’re feeling at any given time. We lean into its groove, we often bow to its mood. We know without reading the news when the city wants to party. We know intuitively when it is no longer safe to leave our houses.
After the first few days the mood, eager for change, hungry for justice, desperate for progress, started to sour. Lagos went into lockdown, those who could worked from home. Meetings were cancelled, opportunities were lost, the city began to seethe. Area boys were hired by who knows who to break up the protests, muddy the waters, perfume END SARS with the odour of criminality. Nigerians hate criminals with a burning passion and an eternal flame. Once one man calls you thief, or murderer, or homosexual, we don’t care if you die on the spot, with or without due process, or court, or prison, constitution be damned. END SARS was painted with all these brushes and a license to kill was granted. I felt it, the violent end to come. You felt it too didn’t you? I stopped going out even before the curfew was announced, and once it was announced I knew something was going to happen.
At 3pm or so tweets begging protesters at the Lekki Toll to go home came pouring like a flood. I agreed with them. Nigeria has enough martyrs, it doesn’t need anymore. They didn’t listen. They said this was just the beginning, that END SARS was the hill they were prepared to die on. And they did. They died there. They were shot there. They were killed there. We saw the shots fired as they sang the National Anthem. I heard them from my parent’s house. I bear witness to that terrible day, Black Tuesday, the 20th of October 2020. The massacre that’s being turned into a myth as we live and breathe.
The casualties of the END SARS movement are not only the ones who died that day or on any other day. Look left, look right, you’ll see one here. It’s the people that look at the mess that our country is and know in their heart of hearts that there’s something terribly wrong with us and that it might be too late to fix it.
I drove past the tollgate the other day. I’ll tell you how I felt. I felt like I was at the wedding of two of my worst enemies. The wedding hall was on fire, but the bride and groom and their parents didn’t care. In fact, they called it fireworks! I didn’t know why I was there but I was finding it difficult to leave. Other people left and I was happy for them. Some people tried to stop the wedding, put out the flames, but they strapped them to their chairs. They handed me a bottle of gin and a 6 pack of tonic, so I drank myself stupid, and when the flames licked me I could barely feel it.