"We asked to not be killed and we got killed for it."
In early October 2020, thousands of young Nigerians took to the streets in over twenty cities to protest against police brutality. The demonstrations initially called for the abolition of the notoriously abusive Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS), but soon intensified into demands for comprehensive police reform, an end to bad governance, and justice for victims of police violence. The #EndSARS protests quickly attracted global attention as they found common ground with other movements against police brutality. The Nigerian diaspora organised accompanying protests from Berlin to New York.
On the night of 20 October, fourteen days after the #EndSARS protests started, they came to an abrupt end. Earlier that day, the Governor of Lagos State, where the protests started, hastily announced a curfew to restore "law and order" and claimed the movement had been hijacked by hoodlums. Protesters gathered nonetheless at the Lekki Toll Gate, a major thoroughfare and the movement's biggest protest site, singing the national anthem and waving the national flag.
Around 6.30PM, a band of armed soldiers arrived at the scene. Minutes later, they started shooting at protesters, unprovoked. To date, no one knows exactly how many people were killed but Amnesty International estimates at least 12. The evening has since come to be known as the "Lekki Massacre". The government initially denied its Army was even present at the scene or shot at protesters. Then it later admitted they were present but did not fire live rounds.
Weeks later, judicial panels were set up across the country for survivors of police brutality to share their experiences and hopefully secure justice and compensation, two of protesters' demands. But the actions or conclusions of these processes will not be binding or enforceable. Six months after the protests and the shootings that ended it, the nation is still in collective, yet very personal grief. There are still many questions that need answering.
African Arguments spoke to a cross-section of Nigerians on how they are moving on after this national tragedy, what makes them hopeful still about the suspended #EndSARS movement, and whether they think justice will be served.
Ada Iloanya's 20-year-old brother Chijioke Iloanya disappeared in 2012. He was reportedly last seen in SARS detention in Awkuzu, Anambra State. In 2013, on hearing that a dozen bodies were floating in Ezu River, allegedly deposited there by SARS, Chijioke's father swam in the river, turning over each corpse, but did not find Chijioke's body.
"On the night of the Lekki Massacre, I suffered from a lot of survivor's guilt. A lot of protesters who were out there were out because of what had happened to people like my brother. People had been at the tollgate that night because they believed that everyone who had lost their lives to police brutality deserves justice, that my brother deserves justice. And that was perhaps the most devastating part - that everyone at the Lekki tollgate that night became victims of police brutality because they were demanding justice for victims of police brutality. I wondered that night, and many days and nights after, how many people had been there because of Chijioke Iloanya, and I blamed myself because if I hadn't been so vocal about what happened to my brother, perhaps they wouldn't have been. Perhaps my silence could have saved some people.
I've had to seek therapy, provided for by the Feminist Coalition, and although living with the memory of that night is still painful, I am learning to deal with it. That is why it was horrifying when the tollgate was said to be reopening. When news of arrests and brutalising of people who were about to protest this reopening, and even bystanders, reached me, it was a very triggering reenactment of an all too familiar modus operandi of oppression and brutality by the Nigerian Police Force."
Hauwa Shaffii Nuhu is a 22-year-old poet who participated in protests in Minna, Niger State.
"We tried to have a protest in my city - Minna, Niger State - but it wasn't very big. Still, it was heartbreaking because the police kept trying to frighten us. They were so, so angry at the fact that we dared to say "stop killing us". I was so stunned at the fury. The events of the night of the Lekki Massacre are not the sort of thing that one just gets over, especially because a lot of us watched the Livestream. I still have nightmares about it, I still randomly burst into tears when I remember it. One time I was at the bank, and on the TV during those brief commercial breaks where they just show a 'mashup' of different historic times and videos, a very short clip of the police firing water canisters at protesters in Abuja played, and I just started crying. because the events of those two weeks just rushed over me again. We asked to not be killed and we got killed for it.
I think we're at a place where our collective consciousness has peaked or been awakened, and what this has done is to kill our hitherto usual strategy of decrying something bad on social media for a few hours and then going back to normal. Now, we are ready to stay on the matter for as long as it takes to get a reaction from the appropriate body. That is huge. That is very huge. Now I want this to translate to an informed voter turnout when the elections come."
Flagboii became a significant part of the protests when pictures of him surfaced online, flying a white #EndSARS flag on elevated platforms from tankers to bridges. After the Lekki Massacre, the anonymous young man continued flag-waving, this time asking "Who ordered the Lekki Massacre?"
"The #EndSARS protest was personally a quite terrible one, which has deeply affected my mental health. But it is rather surprising that the first question anyone ever asks me is "how do you manage to get up there to fly your flag?" Since the protests and my role in it, nobody wants to have anything to do with me anymore because I have apparently become too "socio-politically exposed." The last time I went to fly my flag at the beach in Lagos, I got attacked by some guys. And even when I called for help, nothing was done.
The #EndSARS movement changed my entire life - I have become more aware of my own power in the face of oppression, more confident in standing up for what is right, especially in my personal life. Around this period, I have been able to prevent domestic violence in my immediate family.
It seems, to me, that my mere involvement in the protests has exposed me to the fact that taking a stand against brutality, no matter how small, goes a long way."
Samuel is a 43-year-old Keke driver based in Abuja, Nigeria, where protesters also faced violent police repression.
"I was in my keke the day protesters organised at the Nyanya-Mararaba road. I even dropped one of the people going for the protest at Nyanya. We talked at length and he told me how he'd been detained at the SARS detention center popularly known as "the abattoir." I had not gone far when I saw policemen running towards them and started beating them up as though they were thieves. Even if they are thieves, are they not supposed to be arraigned in court and then sentenced, if found guilty? Isn't that what the Nigerian Constitution provides? Seeing the police beating those young people in that manner made me understand first-hand why they were protesting in the first place.
I have witnessed a lot of crises in my lifetime. I was in Kaduna in 2000 when the riots broke out and it was such a terrible thing to live through. After the crisis in Kaduna, a judicial panel was set up to investigate. Even now, in Kaduna, there's a judicial panel for the victims of police brutality. But it is not enough to set up panels. Let the policemen who have oppressed and brutalised innocent Nigerians be penalised. The average policeman thinks he can do everything to you, but you, in turn, can do nothing to him. And we have to address that for things to truly change."
Chinenye is a 60-year-old, raw food trader based in Nassarawa State. Her daughter, who participated in the #EndSARS protests, lives in Abuja.
"On the night of the Lekki Massacre, my daughter was crying in a way I've never seen her cry before, and there was nothing I could do or say. It reminded me of my own mother being unable to shield me from the hardships of the Biafran war. Violence has become something every Nigerian witnesses at some point in their lives - from terrorism to inter-religious crisis and riots. I told her that night 'when you find a chance to leave, never come back'. If nothing changes, I fear she might have to watch her own children cry because this country has failed them."
Emmanuel Gyang is a 22-year-old student based in Jos. He is a survivor of police brutality and friend of Rinji Bala, who was killed by police in 2020.
"As a victim of police brutality, the #EndSARS movement was a very powerful one to experience. The beauty of the movement was in its spontaneity... its uniformity. It was absolutely devastating to see it end the way it did - I cried the night of the Lekki Massacre because I could have been there. If I lived in Lagos State, I am certain I would have been at the tollgate.
The day after the Lekki Massacre, I went to Rinji's house. I was talking to his parents who had heard about the Lekki Massacre and it was a revisit into the kind of pain we were trying to live through. I remember watching the video of the night of the Lekki Massacre and seeing how helpless the protesters at the tollgate were. It reminded me of my own experience and how helpless I was. I've had a gun cocked at me by a policeman. I've seen my friend die right in front of me as a result. The Lekki Massacre brought back that anger and helplessness. Rinji's case is currently being heard at the judicial panel in Plateau State. For me, justice for Rinji, and for all victims of police brutality, would be a recognition that the life of young Nigerians are sacred, especially from the police."
Sophia O. is a student based in Benin City, Edo State. She protested online and facilitated the release of protesters arrested from Ekpoma.
"The event of 20 October broke me. I was and still am completely broken. There are days where I randomly ask myself if the government really sent the army to kill Nigerians because it is still something I am unable to process. I couldn't sleep that night and nights after and I had to take a break because I was completely broken.
What is even more heartbreaking is the fact that the reason we protested still exists and continues to happen every day - Nigerians are still being killed and extorted by the police. And it's scary to see things remain the same way it was before the protests. The killings and brutality by the Nigerian police is so random and I cannot be sure that it will never get to me and the people I love. I feel like one day it'll be me asking for justice, or trending a hashtag with a name that is familiar and it'll hit too close to home. It is a thought that haunts me every day."
Phillip Nyango is a 34-year-old politician and academic based in Jos. He was a member of the Plateau State Information and Communication Technology Development Committee. He joined protests in the state.
"The approach of setting up panels was, in my opinion, very lofty. But, commendably, the government has achieved social order by setting up judicial panels as a way of incentivizing protesters to get off the streets. Otherwise, the panel has barely achieved anything - it is, after all, an investigative panel. A lot of states have still yet to set up a panel and those that have are not appointing the right demographic. It is hard to imagine that a panel which is set up to address a largely youth concern, and which barely has any young person sitting on it, can provide justice."
Tade Ipadeola is a 50-year-old General Practice Lawyer and writer based in Ibadan. He joined in the protests in Ibadan.
"What is justice in this context? We know from evidence from several witnesses that young people were shot at, killed, and maimed. And yet, up until this moment, the state has not admitted any form of guilt or responsibility. Justice begins when the state is forced into an acknowledgment of the guilt it has in going against every known principle of the free world - these young people were shot at singing the national anthem and flying the Nigerian flag. I have not changed my Facebook profile picture of the Nigerian flag drenched in human blood. The Nigerian military did that. And we should never forget that."
Johnny is a photojournalist based in Lagos. He was present at the Lekki Massacre. His name has been changed to protect his identity.
"On 20/10/20, I was at the tollgate at about 4:30PM. I had a professional exam the next day and after the curfew was announced, I needed to get to Ikoyi so I could stay with a friend. On getting to the Tollgate, I couldn't cross over to the other side. Also, everywhere had emptied out and there were no cars to take anyone back to their homes. I reached out to a friend of mine who was protesting at Alausa and he told me that although there was military presence at Alausa, there was no threat of violence. I thought the same thing would happen at Lekki.
However, when the soldiers came to Lekki, they opened fire as soon as they stepped out of their vehicles. It was chaos everywhere. Some protesters kept yelling instructions, telling us to raise our flags so the soldiers wouldn't shoot at us. DJ Switch was screaming at the top of her lungs, telling us to go on our knees and wave our flags. We did. But the soldiers kept shooting, telling us to "leave right now!" But protesters kept yelling back in turn "End Police Brutality."
With every shot, stray bullets kept hitting protesters. All I wanted to do was to find a way to escape. However, as a photojournalist, it was important that I documented what was happening. So that was what I did. I had to sit in a gutter the whole time I did this, while simultaneously looking for an escape route because I did not want to think about what would be done to me if I were caught with a camera documenting the event.
Days after, it continued to feel like I was still at the tollgate, reliving the experience. Merely looking at the pictures I took of what happened on that night is a reminder of bloodshed and horror. I have still not gone past what happened at the Tollgate that night. In spite of everything, I am hopeful about what #EndSARS started. It has shown that we are not a generation that would be quiet in the face of injustice."
Zainab Onuh-Yahaya is a writer from Nigeria. She's currently rounding up a law degree in the Nigerian Law School. This piece was published with the kind support of the Nigeria Leadership Initiative.