We will never forget what really happened at the Lekki toll gate

a grave atrocity that can never be erased or revised

On the evening of October 20, 2020, soldiers from the Nigerian army prevailed upon peaceful protesters at Lekki-Victoria Island tollgate in Lagos, shooting at these unarmed civilians from shoulder level and at point-blank range. Contrary to what the Lagos state government and Nigerian army have maintained, the atrocious facts of this heart-breaking incident are irrefutable, with eyewitness accounts and videos disseminated via social media acting as strong evidence.

The Lekki tollgate massacre has been, perhaps, the lowest and most harrowing form of targeted violence to beset Nigerians who have simply dared to take to the streets in protest against the Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS), and police brutality in general. Prior to Tuesday evening, there had been multiple nationwide reports of harassment and physical assaults on campaigners by the police and alleged state-sponsored vandals, which according to Amnesty International, has culminated in at least ten deaths and serious injuries to many more. The arrival and subsequent shooting by the Nigerian army, which reportedly led to the deaths of over a dozen people and wounding over many more hits different – not just for the brazenness and heartlessness on full display, but also because of the preceding activities.

Just after midnight on that day, former Lagos State governor and National Leader of the APC, Bola Ahmed Tinubu, took to Twitter to acknowledge the agitations of concerned Nigerians, putting out a public address for the very first time since the ongoing wave of #EndSARS protests began. In the 24-tweet thread, he validated the concerns that triggered the movement against police brutality, before appealing to the Nigerian youth to call off protests, asking them to give the federal government time to begin implementing the #5for5 demands they have publicly claimed to accept.

It was a familiar appeal young Nigerians have been hearing for days from prominent political figures after sustaining the protests for the whole of the previous week. The response from the youth was a firm “NO”, as it had been with similar requests, and the reason was simple: the government and the police have paid lip service to abolishing SARS and reforming Nigeria’s policing system many times. It was made crystal clear that for protests to end, tangible signs that they would be taking the demand to #EndSARS seriously this time around were needed.

In this particular case, though, the rebuff was a little louder due to the subtle threats dressed as an appeal to protesters in the thread. In addition, Bola Tinubu’s alleged status as Kingmaker and one of the economic powerhouses within the state led many to believe that the motive behind his address was largely financial. The Lekki Concession Company, which is in charge of the blocked toll gate due to the sit-in protests has been reported to have lost about N234 million all through last week. It is widely rumoured that Tinubu is still involved in the company’s affairs.

Due to the intensity and decentralised nature of the protests, traffic in Lagos became worse over the course of continued demonstrations, leading to increased difficulty in mobility and carrying out business. With its importance as the economic capital of the country, several appeals for the suspension of protests by top government officials harped on the need for commerce in the city to go back to normal, with the sinister warning that these peaceful protests might very well descend into chaos. And they did, following some alleged orchestration by the government.

By late last week, there were already reports of sponsored thugs terrorising and physically harming campaigners and destroying their property. Depending on who you ask, peaceful protests suddenly descending into chaos is believed to be a ploy by the government to create motive for executive decision that would prohibit the protests altogether. On Monday, the Edo state governor Godwin Obaseki announced a state-wide curfew, after several inmates allegedly escaped from a high-security prison with the help of these mischief-makers disguising as protesters —a claim that has come under intense scrutiny on social media.

On Tuesday, Lagos State Governor, Sanwo-Olu took the same route, announcing, via Twitter, an indefinite 24-hour curfew that would begin at 4 pm on that day. This was after a police station in the Orile area of the state was burnt by an angry mob, and several of the buses at the Oyingbo BRT bus station were set on fire. The announcement was made via the Governor’s Twitter account just before noon, giving citizens all of four hours to move from wherever they were to their respective homes. Immediately it was announced, criticism started to pour in, such as the initial medium of dissemination being via Twitter as opposed to a broadcast on television or radio; the relatively short period of time to commute on an especially traffic-congested day. In addition to these concerns, it was also believed that the curfew would be giving leeway to the Police and other security agents to brutalise people, which is exactly what we were protesting in the first place.

Even with the announcement of the curfew, several Nigerians were determined to continue protesting, notably at central demonstrating locations in the city – Alausa and the Lekki-Victoria Island tollgate. For those who were at the latter location, the idea was to continue the sit-in, translating their stationary presence as a non-violation of the curfew. Towards the deadline, there were genuine fears that these campaigners were in grave danger, and it began at around 3:30 pm, when images of LCC equipment staff disconnecting cameras at the tollgate began to spread on social media. This development was especially foreboding, with many fearing that a cover-up was well underway even before any violence.

Soon after 4 pm, many protesters remained at the tollgate, with videos of them chanting the national anthem and waving the Nigerian flag, going around social media. About three hours later, those boisterous chants were disrupted by gunfire from soldiers of the Nigerian army, which was captured from multiple angles by onlookers and brave, scampering protesters. These videos were immediately shared to social media, which raised considerable alarm. Notably, the lights from the billboards at the tollbooths had also gone out, something that had never happened at the site before then, which led many to believe that this was a pre-planned attack on unarmed Nigerian citizens.

To put it simply, it was a massacre.

In one of the heart-wrenching videos that went around, protesters were singing the national anthem while being intentionally attacked by bullets, and you can even hear the raw fear in the voice of a person close to the recording device. Days before, there were rumours going around that soldiers would not attack anyone holding the Nigerian flag and singing the national anthem, and from the looks of things, that isn’t true. Maybe they were just dead set on bringing carnage regardless.

All the short-length video evidence culminated in a virtual gathering on the Instagram Live of DJ/artist, DJ Switch, who showed what was happening at the tollgate in real-time. During the live stream, well over a hundred thousand viewers from all over the world witnessed some of the cruelties DJ Switch and the other protesters were subject to, especially as they were trapped on both sides by the soldiers after the first wave of shootings. This allegedly led to ambulances being blocked from entering the grounds in order to treat those who had been injured, and it meant that protesters were left to their own devices, while under the danger of another attack. In what was perhaps the most harrowing moment of the live stream, thousands watched one of the protesters die from a gunshot wound, an ending that could very likely have been avoided if professional medical help was allowed through.

Amidst all of this, the official Twitter handle of the Lagos state government announced that the curfew had been extended till 9pm for traffic-related reasons, meaning that those shot at the Lekki-Victoria Island tollgate were not even remotely violating any orders by being there at the time of the shooting. That announcement made an already gut-wrenching night even worse. None of this should have happened.

Throughout that night, people living miles around the tollgate, especially Lekki Phase One, reported intermittent gunshots which kept them awake. Thousands more kept vigil, loudly pondering the level of atrociousness we virtually witnessed, while uneasily waiting to hear or read an official statement from the state government or the army. By 4 am the next morning, nearly nine hours after reports of the violent attacks began to surface, Governor Sanwo-Olu delivered a statement via a Twitter thread, which we can all agree meant very little.

In bemoaning the attacks, he identifies the instigators as “forces beyond our direct control”, sharing photos of his visit to injured victims who eventually made it to hospitals, while failing to mention anything about those who lost their lives. Hours later, he made matters even more confounding with his live broadcast statement, going on national television to claim that no lives were lost to the shooting, implying that the video evidence we all saw and live-streamed were completely false. He also decided not to implicate the Nigerian Army, keeping them away from his speech altogether.

If Sanwo-Olu’s approach was perplexing, the Nigerian army’s was downright maddening. Initially forgoing the need for words, the army simply grabbed every news headline clipping they could find, branded it “Fake News” and shared it on their social media accounts. According to the army’s own version of events, no soldier belonging to the military was present or involved in the bloodbath we all witnessed. Rather than feign ignorance or even attempt to muddle the truth, their denial has been outright and seem unbothered, even when the FACTS are to the contrary.

In a press conference around mid-day on Thursday, the army finally broke its silence through Defence Spokesman, Major General John Eneche. Not only did they double down on their narrative of non-involvement, the Major General determined all video footage to be lies aimed at denigrating the Nigerian military, claiming they had all been doctored, and even though he didn’t specifically mention it, DJ Switch’s live stream that thousands watched in real-time seems to be among the alleged falsehood. These boldface claims align with reports that the army had also committed to clearing evidence, by collecting the bodies of those who were killed during the massacre.

It’s known that one of the negative effects of social media is the relative ease of misinformation, a tool used for the spread of propaganda all around the world, and the army is using this downside to scoff at our collective witnessing. Just over an hour before the Nigerian army’s press conference, Sanwo-Olu was on Arise TV to field questions about the Lekki tollgate massacres, and in the hour-long interview, he declined to implicate the perpetrators of this heinous act, basically confirming our suspicions that the government was colluding with the army to cover up something that ideally cannot, and should not, be covered up.

As aggravating as it is, it tallies with the Nigerian government’s attitude towards honesty: they obviously don’t consider it to be the best policy, and much of the local, traditional press hasn’t helped either. For the near fortnight of nationwide protests, a significant portion of the Nigerian has bungled coverage of what has been happening, from totally ignoring the protests to muddling facts, especially when it comes to acts of violence against peaceful protesters. With the exception of digital and satellite news channel, Arise TV, who have tried their very best to be transparent, many other TV stations, especially terrestrial, and newspaper publications have been found wanting, with headlines and stories ostensibly aimed at diluting the #EndSARS movement.

It speaks to the weakening of the press’ freedom in Nigeria, something that shouldn’t be a topic of contention in a democratic society. In the first week of agitations against SARS, rumours spread that radio presenters weren’t allowed to talk about the protests, since radio stations were alleged at risk of incurring fines from the National Broadcasting Corporation (NBC), the regulatory body for media content. This was more or less confirmed on that unfortunate Tuesday evening, as NBC put out a statement while Nigerians were still dealing with the horror and shock of unarmed civilians being killed. The statement was a guideline for covering the “crisis”, and it can simply be summed up as a warning for members of the terrestrial press to desist from any reporting that could be deemed as embarrassing the government.

In a society that adheres to the tenets of democracy, the press doesn’t only document stories, we are here to serve as a vanguard for the truth. On the night of the Lekki Toll Gate massacre, most of the press stood up to the occasion by reporting what was actually going on, but at that point, social media had already become the only trustworthy medium for what was happening in real-time. If an important section of the media refused and was being prohibited from effectively doing their job, Nigerian citizens were taking it upon themselves to document events, even while actively trying to stay alive.

During all this melee, international support for the #EndSARS movement poured in, alongside global condemnation of the brutal killings of unarmed peaceful protesters. There were also widespread calls for the president of Nigeria, Muhammadu Buhari, to address these senseless killings and the overall agitation. On Thursday evening at 7pm, about 48-hours later, the president finally broke a 9-day radio silence with a pre-recorded broadcast, where he read a statement that lasted all of ten minutes.

In his statement, General Buhari, a former military dictator in the ‘80s, glaringly did not acknowledge the Lekki tollgate massacre. His speech can be considered to be a regurgitation of Bola Ahmed Tinubu’s Twitter thread, albeit with far more conspicuous threats against those who would dare continue to protest. “The promptness with which we have acted seemed to have been misconstrued as a sign of weakness and twisted by some for their selfish, unpatriotic interests”, he says at one point during the all too disturbing speech, claiming that the demands of the protests has been fully accepted by the government—even though the Nigerian youth populace is unconvinced about the implementation, and rightly so.

The omission of the killings that happened at the Lekki and Alausa that night is clearly not accidental, especially as he acknowledged the few police officers who died in the line of duty while terrorising citizens who were peacefully asking not to be subjected to their abuse of power. I remember my mum used to tell me that you needed more lies to cover up an initial lie, however, it seems like this government administration are hell-bent on covering up their lie with silence. Momentous times like this one adjusts the perspective of history and the fact that the telling of many stories are controlled by those who were in power and reinvented by those who didn’t live through it.

During my endless scroll on Twitter, a platform that has helped bring a sense of community during these past days, I found a comment from someone who wondered if, decades from now, Tuesday night’s event will be deemed as a riot, provided they’re not altogether erased. It brought to mind the Aba Women’s riot of 1929, which, in reality, was an uprising against unfair taxation by the colonial government at the time. A lot of the time, history has been revised by to alienate what really happened to victims of its time. After all, Napoleon Bonaparte did say that “history is a set of lies that people have agreed upon”.

This time around, though, the people haven’t agreed on the set of lies being peddled by those in power. In fact, it’s this disagreement and vehement dedication to the truth that will ensure that what really happened on the night of October 20, 2020 doesn’t get revised or totally erased. I feel sorry for the previous generations who have had to endure this fate, but we now have the Internet and technology, an eternal tool that will help in documenting one of the gravest crimes against humanity we have witnessed as a generation.

Collation and diverse digital storage of evidence is already happening, and as the days go by, extensive research into the minute details of that unholy night will only come to the light. Thursday evening’s speech by the Nigerian president has caused jitters to creep into the mind and hearts of Nigerians dedicated to seeing an end to police brutality, and it’s anyone’s guess how the next few weeks of this struggle pans out, but the one thing I can say with a level of certainty is that we will not let the truth of the Lekki tollgate massacre go away. We all saw it and we will ensure future generations see it, too.

Dennis is a staff writer at the NATIVE. Please share any useful resources for the #EndSARS protests with me @dennisadepeter