In the face of government denial, four young people tell their stories. Shot, beaten and terrified, they speak of disillusionment, but also of hope.
In October last year, thousands of mainly young Nigerians took to the streets to protest against police abuses, particularly among the now-disbanded brutal special anti-robbery squad (Sars) police unit. –
Yet the several protests across the country were brutally repressed. At least 12 people were killed in the #EndSars protests, according to Amnesty International, and dozens were injured, including at Lekki tollgate in Lagos on 20 October, where witnesses livestreamed soldiers shooting at protesters draped in or waving Nigerian flags.
The army and Nigerian government continue to deny anybody was killed at Lekki tollgate, and atrocities at other demonstrations have scarcely been acknowledged.
A year on, four young Nigerians present at the protests across Nigeria reflect on the brutality they suffered and witnessed. They describe how it changed them and how they now feel about their home country.
Amaka Obi*, 30, living in the US
I didn’t see any of the shootings [at Lekki tollgate]. But I saw blood everywhere. It was unreal. And I heard screams, I heard people crying. And the gunshots. The only people that had guns were the military.
After it happened, it was something that I tried not to think about, but the images, I just couldn’t get them out of my head for months.
That night, it started off OK. The military was kind of surrounding us. They had these machine guns. And they were shouting at us. But I didn’t feel scared at that point. I thought there’s no way they’re ever going to do anything, there are hundreds of people around. It wasn’t bright daylight, but it was light enough for people to see.
I know I’ll never go to another protest in Nigeria, because we can’t protect ourselves
But then it got dark and the tollgate lights went out. I wasn’t at the main entrance of the tollgate, I was a little further away, but I just heard screaming and running. People were shouting, “they’re killing, they’re killing”. People were being pushed over and trampled. I was trying to find my friend because I didn’t know what was happening and I was afraid.
For at least a few days afterwards, I was in shock. I left Lagos immediately and went to Abuja, even though Abuja wasn’t safe. During the protests, my mum was calling me every day begging me to leave, crying, and I didn’t because I didn’t feel unsafe. But that was the first time I did.
I left Nigeria within a week. And then I felt this guilt. I was privileged enough that I didn’t have to be there. I have a blue passport [one of Nigeria’s five types of passport, given to government officials], I could leave at any point, but my friends and everyone are still there.
For a while, I thought maybe it didn’t happen. But then how can all of us remember the same thing? It did happen, it’s just they [the government] denied it. That’s the scary thing about the government. They can just gaslight you and tell you what happened isn’t what happened. Then you feel crazy.
I know I’ll never go to another protest in Nigeria, because we can’t protect ourselves.
When I went back to Nigeria, it felt different to previous times. I love to travel a lot, I used to take a bus from Abuja to Lagos, but no way now.
Ogechi Igbani, 32, from Abuja
When the agitation started and conversations happened online, it gave me energy. I wanted to do something.
That day [11 October], I got to Unity fountain. There were about 200 or 300 of us. The idea was to march to the police headquarters. We were singing our songs, and people were greeting us on the road. When we got to an intersection with two police armoured trucks, 30 or so people went towards them and knelt down. The police began firing teargas. Initially, we were standing our ground, but then gunshots started.
We were running and they [the police] were chasing us. I thought, “wow, I’m going to die”. But at the same time, in a weird way, I wasn’t afraid.
Some people ran into a bush to hide. I could have joined them but I thought, “why am I running? I didn’t do anything wrong. I didn’t commit any offence”. So I just stopped.
There was a police van with seven to 10 policemen. Immediately they saw me, stopped and said: “Shebi, you’re one of them?” [Shebi is Yoruba term used for confirmation of a statement: “is it not that?” or “you agree?”].
The officers that attacked me had guns and sticks, which were thick branches cut from trees.
It made me think of things I would do or should do to make my society better. For me, it was like a reawakening.
The first person slapped me across the face. I fell to the ground. About four or five of them started hitting me with the sticks. I tried to cover my head. All I was thinking was, “If I can’t do anything else, let me prevent them from hitting my head”. And they asked, “Who sent you? How much were you paid? Do you think you can protest? Who are you?”.
I can’t even tell how long it lasted.
Before then, I had not had encountered police brutality. But now I was seeing it for myself. And it wasn’t pretty. It wasn’t nice. It’s not something that I would wish for anybody.
It made me start thinking about how, one day, I’m not going to be here any more. It made me think of things I would do or should do to make my society better. For me, it was like a reawakening.
Now, I’m part of a group of young people wanting to change the country for the better. I still believe in Nigeria and think while I’m here I want to try to make things better.
Isaiah Ekabo, 32, from Lagos
I wanted to join the protests immediately as they began in Ajangbadi [a suburb of Lagos]. I was excited, the youths were protesting all over Nigeria, even around the world, outside embassies and everywhere. It was our time.
I was thinking, “yes, finally. Let’s come together. Let’s tell them that we’ve had enough”. The government, the police, they know what they put people through every day, so they can’t tell us they were surprised. Harassment all the time, because your hair is one colour, or because of piercings, or dreads. Even without any of those things, they can stop you for any reason. But, instead of seeing us as citizens demanding our rights, look what they did?
The first day I joined, straight away, they [the police] were shooting. They didn’t care at all. I know of two people who were killed.
I was running and heard them shooting from behind me. One person running some distance in front of me suddenly collapsed. They shot him. I couldn’t stop to check him, I just ran. Fearing for my life, I ran into a sidestreet. In Nigeria, in a so-called democracy, I was running from police who were trying to end my life, because of protests.
In Nigeria, in a so-called democracy, I was running from police who were trying to end my life, because of protests
I don’t really think about the protests now. I don’t give myself that opportunity. It’s a painful period because our government showed itself. But this is not new, it’s what we’ve known it to be.
Just to survive in Nigeria, it’s too much. Everything is working against you. Be it no light, no roads, few jobs, bad water. Then, on top of that, we have to beg that the police don’t harass or kill us. I studied architecture at university. I finished six years ago. Since then, I’ve been working, doing different jobs that are OK, it’s just not what I was hoping for.
I have an uncle working in Norway. It’s my prayer that I will join him after some time, either to find work or to continue university, because the situation here is too hard.
Agbeze Ifeanyi Matthew, 35, from Ondo state
On 20 October, my friend, Olamide Gudo, and I left the protest at about noon. But when we got to Obalende [a neighbourhood in Lagos state], we were not able to get a bus home to Ikorodu. We were stranded. Some youths had taken over the area. So we thought, let’s go back to Lekki tollgate, because that place is safer.
We had been at the protest there and the atmosphere was very safe, like nothing I had ever seen before. People were giving speeches, singing, dancing, protesting. There was food around and drinks.
At about 6.45pm, we heard that Nigerian soldiers were coming to the Lekki tollgate.
What happened was the worst memory I can never forget. When they got to the tollgate, they immediately started shooting
The tollgate lights had never gone off before, but when they turned them all off and we saw people [in uniform] removing the cameras, we became scared.
What happened was the worst memory that I can never forget. When they [the army] got to the tollgate, they immediately started shooting.
I was so shocked. Did this government send soldiers to come and kill innocent youths? It’s our right to protest peacefully. Some of us sat down. I saw a military man … He shot me [in the chest].
I ran away … but I was gradually getting weaker. There were so many people running, everywhere was dark. I thought if I carried on in that direction I was going to lose blood until I died, so I started to run back. And I heard two men say, “this guy has been shot”. I fell to the ground. These young men took my picture, then they took me to the general hospital in Marina.
The bullet had gone through my back. In the ambulance they were saying I had lost so much blood. The nurse was praying, trying to encourage me to be courageous, saying that I should not lose hope. This was around 1am.
I was the first person from the tollgate admitted to the ward. By later that morning, there was no more space.
To this day, Lai Mohammed [Nigeria’s information minister], the army, the government, are telling us that nobody was killed at the Lekki tollgate. You can see how disgraceful they are. So what we saw with our eyes is a lie? Are these bullet wounds fake? I’ve posted videos on my YouTube channel for future reference.