When I was at university in south-west Nigeria in the 1990s, my father used to make an emotional plea every time I came home for a visit. Students on campus were one of the few groups of people willing to stage acts of defiance to the military dictatorship, then running the country. These were usually brutally suppressed by the security forces. As I prepared for the eight-hour drive back to Oyo State, my father would summon me for a chat. “Please, please, don’t get involved in any protests,” he would say. “If they ask you to join, say no.”
Watching Nigeria’s protest movement explode during the last few weeks, I’ve been pondering my father’s warnings, and the way my generation internalised them. I still can’t work out whether or not we were right to live so cautiously for so long. Nigeria has changed since those dark days. But the past is not yet a foreign country here.
My father was no coward. Throughout my childhood, I watched this impassioned accountant throw himself into causes that were not really his business. He criticised local leaders exploiting the communities they were supposed to represent. He called out corruption. During Nigeria’s brief democratic interlude in the early 1980s, he waged and won a court battle against the state government for unconstitutionally fiddling with electoral boundaries. My father’s list of enemies grew so large that we couldn’t say whose attempts at black magic were behind the dead cats, monkey paws and severed chicken heads that began to appear on our front porch.
He was not prepared, however, to let his beloved daughter become collateral damage in a protest. His warning to stay away from demonstrations seemed like sound advice to me, and my friends felt the same way. Street protests were for daredevils. It’s hard for Nigerians today – the majority of whom weren’t yet born when the era of military dictatorship ended in 1999 – to understand the fear it instilled. Criticising the government landed you in prison. Bombs went off in hotels, homes and offices, killing activists and dissidents. Student demonstrations were met with gunfire. Politics was discussed in whispers. In June 1998, Nigerian news outlets reported that General Sani Abacha, the head of the ruling junta, had died in his sleep. My brother, then at university, told me that the students were too fearful to celebrate until they had found a radio and confirmed the news on the BBC World Service.
Military rule went out the window with Abacha’s demise. As the most repressive practices of the junta fell away, the country remembered how to breathe again. But civilian government is not the same thing as democracy. We still had to contend with corruption and abuses of power, albeit on a less epic scale. Long after Nigeria’s leaders stopped wearing uniforms, my generation’s attitude to politics was defined by what the legendary musician Fela Kuti called “suffering and smiling”.
So when we saw young people take to the streets this October, we were filled with awe. They were protesting against SARS, the brutal and corrupt police unit that cast a pall over all Nigerians’ lives. Some of my friends donated money to the protesters. Others sent them meals, snacks and water. There was an element of guilt as well as celebration in these gestures. “Our generation has failed them,” my friend Oyinda said as she ordered 2,000 T-shirts saying “#ENDSARS”. “Let’s do what we can to support them now.”
It was exhilarating at first, even for us armchair observers. SARS, the Special Anti-Robbery Squad, was set up in 1992 to combat violent crime, but evolved into a protection racket. The unit stopped people at random, tortured them, demanded bribes and even carried out extrajudicial killings. SARS’s plain-clothed officers usually targeted young men, especially those who dressed flamboyantly or looked like they had money, whom they would accuse of being internet scammers.
SARS is only part of a more general problem with policing: security forces killed 18 people during the first two weeks of enforcing the country’s lockdown measures. Once in jail, those without money for bribes – as few Nigerians do – can be lost in the system for years without a trial.
Nigeria has changed since those dark days. But the past is not yet a foreign country here
Everyone chafes against the police. I don’t know a single Nigerian driver who hasn’t been shaken down for money by them at some point. But, until recently, the security forces seemed too powerful to confront. Then, on October 3rd, a video went viral, which purported to show a SARS officer shooting a young man in the southern state of Delta. Something seemed to snap. The pandemic may have contributed – with schools and universities closed, young people had time to nurture their grievances. The Black Lives Matter protests that had taken place in America over the spring and summer also provided inspiration. Celebrities and influencers from around the world spread the “EndSars” hashtag.
I remember the moment I realised how serious the protests were. It was a Saturday, and I finally had time to settle down and read the Premium Times in my home in Abuja. The photographs were staggering. Crowds of protesters had shut down parts of the main thoroughfare in Lagos, the financial capital, and, just as astonishingly, the government was not doing anything about it.
It became clear over the next few days that we were in new territory. As a journalist, I’d covered the protests in 2014 calling for the government to free the enormous number of schoolgirls held in northern Nigeria by Boko Haram. Apart from metropolitan enclaves like Lagos, few people in the south seemed to care much about the girls’ plight. When I returned from reporting trips to the north and tried to talk about the horrors of Boko Haram, people just shrugged.
Nigeria is a deeply divided country. It contains over 300 ethnic groups, though three of them dominate: the Igbo in the south-east, the Yoruba in the south-west and the Hausa in the north. The country is also split along religious lines between Christianity, which is the majority religion in the south, and Islam, which is predominant in the north.
Scrolling through the news I saw young people of every religion and ethnicity from Lagos and Ibadan in the south-west to Enugu and Aba in the south-east to Abuja and Kaduna in the north, all demonstrating under the same banner. I’d never witnessed such national unity in my life.
Was the protesting a means to an end, or an end in itself, an endless show of power?
One of the most impressive things about the leaderless movement was how savvily it used social media to fundraise (even switching to Bitcoin when the banks closed activists’ accounts). And the protests were fun and inclusive. I watched a video of a famous Igbo singer addressing a vast crowd in Enugu in south-eastern Nigeria, reminding them not to shove each other or touch the breasts of women demonstrators. The crowd cheered. Everywhere, protesters cleared their rubbish from the streets at the day’s end and stacked the bin bags neatly by the curb. This movement seemed unstoppable.
A few days after the protests erupted, I was chatting on the phone with Obioma, an old university friend. She lives in Lagos, in the centre of the action, and was caught up in the excitement. At one point she suggested the protests were Nigeria’s version of the Arab spring, and I flinched, knowing how that had turned out. There were things about the protest movement that made me uneasy, I realised, especially as it went on.
The young people were so determined not to get co-opted that they seemed to reject any form of strategy. This became particularly problematic after the government dissolved the SARS unit on October 11th. Clearly there was still a risk that it might just be resurrected under a different name, and there were no substantive announcements about justice for the people killed and tortured by its officers. Something more focused than protest alone seemed to be required to achieve these aims. Gradually, some of us started to ask: was the protesting a means to an end, or was it an end in itself, an endless show of power?
It was not an easy environment in which to raise these questions. When Segun Awosanya, a human-rights activist who had spent years advocating for victims of SARS, suggested that the protest movement open a dialogue with the government, he was denounced as a traitor on social media.
Rumours and misinformation contributed to the confusion about the movement’s purpose. I saw many people repeating a bogus claim that the UN would be obliged to intervene in Nigeria if they stayed on the streets for more than 30 days.
The killings were not so much frightening as dismayingly familiar
Other elements meanwhile took advantage of the unrest. There were prison breaks and attacks on police stations and even on Lagos’s international airport. By October 20th several states, including Lagos, had imposed 24-hour curfews. The protesters who had been camped at the Lekki tollgate in Lagos for the past two weeks decided to carry on sleeping there, in spite of the curfew, so that they’d be ready to protest the next day.
At about 6.45pm, the videos began to appear online. Armed Nigerian soldiers in uniform; protesters fleeing in panic as gunshots rang out; bloodied corpses strewn on the road. It later emerged that 12 protesters had been shot dead. To this day no one is sure who exactly killed them and on whose orders they were acting.
I talked to Obioma again later that night. We were concerned about her niece, who somehow had to get through the carnage to the hospital on the other side of the tollgate for her dialysis treatment the next morning. Obioma was shaken: she lived nearby and had heard the gunshots ring out.
For me, the killings were not so much frightening as dismayingly familiar. The cleverness and vibrancy of the protest had been met with a more traditional response of Nigerian politics. Here we were again.
The best way to tell how much traffic there is in my neighbourhood in Abuja is the frequency with which you can hear the roadside vulcaniser fire up his engine to pump the tyres of passing drivers. At the height of the protests he went very quiet: everyone who normally drove through his busy road was staying at home. Now his engine is once again the irritating background noise of my afternoons. Looting and riots are still going on in poorer neighbourhoods on the outskirts of the city. But around me, at least, life is fairly normal.
Nigerians have responded to the shock of what happened at the tollgate with characteristic dark humour. One popular meme, “CSI: Lagos”, mocks Babatunde Fashola, the minister for works and housing, who went to inspect the tollgate in the massacre’s aftermath and made a great show out of confiscating a camcorder as evidence.
At the same time, it does feel as if something has changed. The killings are all anyone talks about: what happened, how it happened, why it happened. People are frustrated that Muhammadu Buhari, the president and a former leader of one of the military juntas, has shown such little remorse for the massacre. But his government is constantly announcing new police reform measures, suggesting it has noticed the power of young people’s anger.
There is one constant throughout all of this. Most days my siblings and I get a call from my father. “Where are you?” he asks. “Please, all of you should stay indoors.”•
PHOTOGRAPHS: DANIELLE MBUNO