My favourite restaurant in Lagos, where I’ve celebrated birthdays and passing the Bar, is also the place where I have twice in the last year got a call to say someone I love had been kidnapped – by our own police.
Young Nigerians like me have had to learn to coexist with the casual cruelty of our police, but most especially Sars, the so-called Special Anti-Robbery Squad. A rogue unit of the Nigerian Police Force known for torture, extortion and kidnapping, Sars do as they like, when they like. And if anyone dies under their watch, they face no repercussions.
When my friends were kidnapped by their ‘anti-kidnapping unit’ on their way home from dinner last year, we spent the next hours walking the streets of Lagos, asking people on the roads of Victoria Island if they had seen police take two girls away. Two police stations told us that if it was indeed Sars who had taken our friends, they could be anywhere in the state, or country, by morning. When my brother was stopped by a Sars-filled van, the officer who cocked his gun at him was wearing a SpongeBob Squarepants t-shirt. That is the near-comedic level of insanity we have come to accept as part of life in Nigeria.
Something changed this October. After a young man was killed by Sars officers, who then proceeded to steal his car, went viral, the hashtag #EndSars took on a new life. It became a movement. My generation, born into a failing country, decided enough was enough. #SoroSoke, which means ‘speak out’ or ‘speak up’ in Yoruba soon started trending, and the youth of Nigeria, from Ughelli to Lagos to Abuja to Benin City, began speaking out about the horrors of Sars. To truly understand the movement you must also understand how personal this fight is for most Nigerian youth, regardless of tribe, geographic location, party affiliation, socioeconomic background, or religion. As a whole generation sprung into action, I started to think about the ways to be useful, and headed home to Lagos.
Friends had already begun sorting themselves into different streams of work: lawyers doing pro-bono work freeing protesters, others organising security, some funding food for protesters, some on the frontline themselves. I began fundraising for the Feminist Coalition and the End Sars Response Unit, and then joined a team feeding protesters that became the Food Coven. When it rained I sourced umbrellas and raincoats, when it was cold I sourced hot tea for the front lines.
At the Lekki tollgate – the most symbolic of all protest sites – a community was built. There were prayers for Muslims, while Christian protesters stood watch. On Sunday, there was mass. There were candlelight vigils, prayers, dancing, singing, and community. With no discernible leadership, the youth of Nigeria formed a pro bono legal service that spanned over 20 states, a healthcare response service, security services, and welfare services including food and mental health support. Right before our eyes, it felt like we had begun to create the society we wished to live in. Our five protest demands were simple: disband Sars, justice for the murdered, the release of detained protesters, police reform, and accountability. The Nigerian government responded to these demands with indiscriminate violence.
The federal government began a campaign of terror almost as soon as the protests started. Police officers killed a man named Jimoh Isiaq, along with at least 12 other people around the country. Sponsored thugs attacked protesters as police stood by and watched.
Then came what we now call Black Tuesday. On Tuesday evening, reports of armed forces approaching the protest site began appearing on social media. Soon, the sound of a barrage of bullets rang around Lekki, and across the lagoon. Armed forces can now be seen in multiple videos trapping and shooting at peaceful protesters holding the Nigerian flag, singing our national anthem.
As the news flooded in on my phone, I felt cold. My chest tightened and I sat on the floor of my room with my parents flipping through news channels in disbelief – disbelief that no local station was covering what was happening. We listened all night as shots continued to ring out and Lagos began to burn. Our city had become a warzone, and it felt like an out of body experience. I can never explain how it felt to watch people die on Instagram Live while sitting in your house less than five miles away. As I type this days later, gunshots are still going off around Lagos, and the whole country is reeling from sporadic violence. Different groups have used the chaos as an opportunity to loot and be violent. Co-workers and cousins are texting me from underneath their beds as police continue to shoot indiscriminately in their areas. It is impossible to fully capture the terror that currently resides in my body. I keep asking myself, how did we get here? What did we ask for that was so terrible?
I do not know where to go from here. What I do know is that the Nigeria I woke up in on Tuesday 20 October is no more. As much as I wish to return to spending my Fridays with friends watching Succession, discussing our jobs, our side hustles, and our hopes for the future, there is no such thing as returning to normal. ‘Normal’ has been shattered by this depraved government.
But they have grossly miscalculated and underestimated the youth of the country they claim to lead. We will continue this fight until the lives of those we have lost are honoured, until Sars ends and we get justice for Jimoh, Tina, Chijioke, Anthony, Ayomide, Linda, and the countless others killed by Sars or still languishing in their custody.
The brutality that the Nigerian government has inflicted upon us, and continues to inflict upon us, cannot be normalised, and I beg that no one is apathetic to our plight. As Martin Luther King Jr said: “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”
Omolara is a campaigner and lawyer in Nigeria, writing under a pseudonym for fear or reprisal