What’s Going On Special: A year on from the End SARS protests, not much has changed

We witnessed tyranny and the fact that we’ve refused to keep silent about it is brave

I believe that Nigeria exists, amongst other things, to shock, baffle and break the hearts of the majority of its population. It’s a conundrum as old as the country’s creation itself, an amalgamated entity formed by colonial powers. The same description still applies over 60 years after the country’s independence, except the colonial powers have been replaced by consistently awful leaders, who continue to shock, baffle and break the hearts of successive generations of Nigerians with new depths of economic, political and social cruelty.

Today marks the one-year anniversary of Nigerian soldiers shooting at hundreds of unarmed Nigerians at the Lekki tollgate and in other environs across Lagos including Mushin. Yes, it really happened. Young Nigerians were attacked with gunfire by Nigerian soldiers on their own soil, for committing the crime of protesting against police brutality and, by effect, the government’s indifference towards the suffering of its citizens. On the night of October 20, 2020, Nigerians at home and in the diaspora—and the entire world, even—watched with horror as young men and women fatally lost and struggled for their lives, the national anthem and green-with-green flag unable to act as capable shields against skin-breaking, blood-letting, life-taking bullets.

It was shocking, it was heart-breaking; it still remains shocking and heart-breaking, and the aftermath continues to be baffling. Hours after the massacre, the Lagos state governor pointed at “forces beyond our control,” and Nigeria’s president entirely omitted the killing of Nigerians on Nigerian soil by Nigerian soldiers in his national address, emblematic of his administration’s non-acknowledgment of the bloody event. Months later, the Nigerian military alternately lied and conflated the truth of what we already know, that their soldiers killed unarmed civilians at the Lekki tollgate on the night of October 20, 2020.

The reason I keep restating what happened on that Tuesday night is because of all the denials, silence and bald-faced lies by the alleged conspiratorial powers to erase one of the cruelest events in Nigeria’s fourth republic. It’s a tactic that’s worked on several occasions, where memories of atrocious happenings are pushed to the margins of history, only accessible to curious minds and those capable of holding a grudge through the injustice. Well, technological advancements and the internet are too democratised to keep pieces of evidence suppressed, and there are many young Nigerians who will continue to hold this particular grudge—because we defiantly asked to not be killed and fatally injured by the state.

For nearly three weeks in October 2020, millions of Nigerians walked the streets and motorways of the country in a demonstration against the special anti-robbery squad (SARS), a unit of the Nigerian police force infamous for casually and cruelly mistreating Nigerians. Initially created to tackle crimes such as robbery and kidnapping, the unit devolved into the sort of banditry it was meant to eradicate, wreaking havoc on the same people it was sworn to protect from harm. Generally, very few Nigerians can claim to count on a police force that has always been systematically inept at, and sometimes unwilling to, solve crimes and protect citizens, instead of using its power to harass and extort.

Within the first week of the EndSARS demonstrations, the Nigerian government and police responded in the same way it had a few times before, banning the bitterly complained about the unit, before officially dissolving it when they realised empty words would not be enough. At the same time, the promises to end state-supported brutality were being contradicted by their brutal response: live bullets were frequently shot at throngs of scampering bodies, people were arrested and (are still being) severely assaulted for demonstrating, and even armed thugs were ferried into attack peaceful protesters.

To be shocked and heartbroken, you have to be expectant, to be optimistic, and, to an extent, naïve even in a country like Nigeria. Despite all of the brutality meted out in our protest, we expected change to happen, and we were optimistic about our chances due to collective defiance. I remember marching, singing and chatting alongside new friends I’d made during a mini-Volleyball competition in Mushin, three days to the Lekki Massacre, trusting that our tenacity would count positively. But the thing is, defiance and tenacity for a humanitarian cause in Nigeria are rarely ever rewarded, and that is perhaps where our naivety showed, believing our generation would be the ones to effect change despite the past pointing to the contrary.

The Nigerian state has always shown a willingness to crush anything that’s critical of the status quo, and when intimidating moves did not work during the End SARS protests, it issued its crushing blows. The tragic ending of last year’s protests totally unravelled the true, gory and near-irredeemable face of Nigerian leadership to a new, younger generation. In fact, in the last year, the Nigerian government, led by former military dictator Muhammadu Buhari, has seemed to fully embrace its villainous side without any apparent care for the wellbeing of its citizens.

Living in Nigeria has always been a dangerous sport, but it’s arguably at its hardest and scariest these days. Yes, the police still profiles, harasses, extorts and kill the people it was sworn to protect, so much so that it’s okay to wonder if SARS ever left the streets in the first place. General and food inflation is currently far from kind, and addiction to horrible economic policies is squeezing more and more people into poverty. Nigeria’s South is being beset by armed herdsmen, kidnapping rates continue to increase, and state-sanctioned force is being used against aggrieved secessionists, especially in the south-east where the military is routinely involved in alleged attacks. The North is also being ravaged by insecurity, with ultra-religious terrorist groups stomping the eastern part of the region, and armed bandits terrorising its western part.

There are easy parallels between the government’s handling of last year’s protests and the continued, all-around systemic dysfunction we find ourselves. How do you expect a government to care about its citizens’ economic wellbeing and social welfare when basic amenities and palliatives were being hoarded during the trying times of the pandemic? Of course, a government whose response to civil dissent is censorship has no qualms extra-judicially banning a social media platform that fosters unbridled criticism. It’s fitting that a government that can’t commit to police reforms will refrain from condemning a cop fingered as an alleged key player in a cybercrime case. A government that prefers inaction, high-handedness, and will even mock civil rights demands will comfortably ignore striking doctors, while its president routinely seeks medical care abroad.

In all of my twenty-plus years as a Nigerian who’s lived nearly all his life in Nigeria, I don’t think I’ve been more aware of the fact that the Nigerian government doesn’t care about me, about you, about us. Maybe it’s because as you grow older you have no other option than to be perceptive of your society and its governing powers, but it still baffles me without fail. I understand it—or at least I think I do from the opening paragraph—but the sting that comes with every headline that shows the Nigerian government’s competency at cruelty is always familiar but never stale.

Nigerian leaders are typically described as inept but even that identifier would be bestowing too much grace on them. To be inept, though, is for the results of your efforts to be far from satisfactory. Make no mistake, the Nigerian government under President Buhari fits this bill, but only if you’re looking at it solely from a citizen’s perspective. From the ongoing economic mess—see the dollar brouhaha—to the aggressive rent-seeking policies in Nigeria’s burgeoning tech space, to the consistent policing of the media, to the constant flouting of the rule of law, and other scenarios, there’s sinister intentionality at play.

“When you inherit institutions and they were extractive, it’s very easy to fall into the practices of the colonizer,” South African Human Rights lawyer Brian Currin says in the documentary, “How to Steal a Country.” Even though we’re operating a democratic system this quote pretty much applies to Nigeria, where the government has taken up the role of its British colonizers to extract value wherever it can, through whatever means, and demand servitude from its citizens regardless of civil disagreements. In the Buhari-led administration, we’re pretty much in a reprise of his dictatorship period back in the 1980s. The President is still blaming “middle men” for the effects of the same horrible economic policies he brought back, and he’s still flouting the rule of law as he pleases while generally waging war on everybody like he did many years ago before many of us were even born.

One of the moments that still baffles me when I recall the events of last year’s protests is the video of Buhari chuckling as the Lagos state governor presents the demands of protesters to him. To me, and to many, it was an open mockery against the collective voices demanding for change. He had the same baffling reaction earlier this year in a rare interview on Arise TV, when he was asked about the extrajudicial Twitter ban. Based on these two events, I often wonder if president Buhari believes his administration owes accountability to Nigerians because it feels like we’re subject to the unquestionable whims of an overlord rather than the ideal nation-building ethos of a democratically elected leader. If we were in the latter, the president wouldn’t have the option to keep the reason for the Twitter ban to himself, he wouldn’t openly mock calls for reforms, and the deaths of unarmed civilians from the gunshots of soldiers wouldn’t be muted.

I’ve heard several social commentators describe the Lekki massacre as a stain on the conscience of the nation. That’s a serious understatement. The night of October 20, 2020, is another indictment—in a long list of indictments—on the very soul of Nigeria, so much so that I often wonder if there’s any soul left for saving, or even if there was a soul to begin with. I firmly believe that night fundamentally shifted the relationship of many young Nigerians with the country, and one of its glaring effects is the massive exodus we’re currently witnessing. Many in this demography don’t believe Nigeria is capable of changing for the better anytime soon, and even if it does, it’s better to be safe than sorry.

If the discussions of the last few days and the planned events of today, in remembrance of last year’s protests, prove anything, it’s that cynicism doesn’t expressly translate into lack of care. Young Nigerians are weary of the happenings from last October, and are even more aware of how much the Nigerian government is working to their detriment, but the commitment to ensuring one of the most vital civil rights moments in Nigerian history isn’t erased is a sliver of light in a time where all the memories are bloodied.

In his classic prison memoir, The Man Dies, Nobel laureate and activist Wole Soyinka famously wrote, “The man dies in all who keep silent in the face of tyranny.” The truth is, what we all witnessed on the night of October 20, 2020 is nothing short of tyranny. The fact that we’ve refused to keep silent about it is brave. The common question after the Lekki massacre ended the protests was, “what next?” It’s a question that still applies till date, and while we’re still figuring that part out—getting a PVC and voting would go a long way—the fact that we’ve not been shocked, heart-broken and baffled into totally abandoning the cause is currently our greatest strength.