There is a man at the end of Burna Boy’s ’20 10 20′ track, at the 3:18 mark, who in the midst of the gunshots, the running, the chaos, shouts ‘End SARS!’. I think about that man a lot.
Last month, something happened. I remember it felt like we had all been simultaneously plugged into a system of consciousness. Unplanned, protests were springing up all over the country. All of a sudden, there were people organizing action in Kaduna, in Ogbomosho, in Port Harcourt. Despite the odds, people were donating money, food, offering free medical service and legal services. Nigerians from varying economic classes, Nigerians at home and abroad came out to demand the right to the most basic of human rights: the right to live.
I remember thinking then of our how ancestors must be looking proudly down at us.
20 10 20
With the movement spreading like wildfire, the Nigerian government started to react as expected: irrationally, illogically.
On Monday, the 20th of October 2020, the Lagos state governor at midday, imposed a sudden curfew that would begin at 4pm. We complained about how unreasonable it was to declare a curfew that suddenly, giving people only a 4-hour notice to prepare. In a small corner of the internet, there was a tweet about CCTV cameras being removed at Lekki Toll Gate. Our minds were yet to grasp the wickedness that would unfold before us in a few hours.
Past 4pm, I saw a picture of protesters still at the Lekki Toll Gate. I remember zooming into the picture, in wonder of these brave, these defiant men and women. I logged off Twitter some minutes later as I had to finish some work: I had in my usual fashion, procrastinated till the deadline, which was that Tuesday.
Then, a few hours later, out of nowhere, my sister called out to me from her bed, adjacent mine, ‘They said we should check Instagram. They said they’re shooting people on Instagram.’ It made no sense but still we quickly we opened DJ Switch’s Instagram live feed.
There it was.
A shaky feed, with people moving frantically, with the sound of gunshots ringing in the air. The distraught comments in the Instagram Live explained all that was happening. Soldiers were at Lekki Toll Gate shooting at protesters. Some people were wounded, some people had died.
This could not be happening.
It was impossible that this was the same Instagram Live where we had watched those music battles, between M.I and Naeto C, between Brandy and Monica, all which had been the subject of ridiculous online banter, giving us warm moments of respite in a difficult year.
How was this the same Instagram Live where we now watched someone writhe in pain as people struggled to remove a bullet from his bloodied leg? How could we on this same Live, in a cold, slicing, moment, now watch someone die? How could this be? This was not a movie. This was happening real time, in a dark toll gate, kilometers away from us.
This was happening.
This was happening at the same Lekki Toll Gate that we had all collectively scolded the protesters for being too chill, for bringing pool tables, for holding games, for having too much fun. We had even joked that their food supply be cut down, as all the food options were making people forget that we were fighting for a cause.
We watched, some part terror, some part confusion.
Was this perhaps our punishment for having hope? For thinking that at the very least we would be treated like human beings?
The nights that followed, sleeping was difficult. When I closed my eyes, I saw faceless soldiers shooting. During the day, there was a blanket of heaviness over me. It felt like I was constantly on the verge of tears. I called friends who said they were still hearing the sound of gunshots even after things had quieted down. We, children born in the 90s, who had only experienced such violence through stories we heard from our parents, Nigerians traumatized into silence. We had only heard of the terror of the June 12 era, and for us it mostly meant a public holiday we were thankful to have. We had never seen fresh violence, and never this up close.
For days I still couldn’t grasp, couldn’t understand, how fire could be opened at people who were sitting, who were singing the national anthem, who were waving the flag. In moments of stunned sorrow, I would mutter to myself from time to time: ‘but they were sitting and singing the national anthem’, as if when I repeated it enough, I would make sense of it all, as if somehow some hidden meaning would be revealed.
Then, days later, I heard the Burna Boy song, ’20 10 20’, sang in honour of those who died on that day. As the song ends, it transitions into a snippet from the Instagram Live from that night at Lekki Toll Gate. You can hear the gunshots, the panic, the bravery. I listened to the song, unable to breathe, yet unable to stop listening, wanting to hear everything they were telling us.
I listened to the song, both a dirge and a lamentation. And then I started to sob, a visceral, trembling cry. I cried for the dead. I cried because they were so brave, the kind of bravery I couldn’t wrap my head around. I heard a man shout out in defiance, a war chant saying, ‘End SARS! I have been unable to stop thinking about that man. Where is he?
‘Let them shoot!’
Now, when the Nigerian anthem is sung, what will I hear? The voice of a man breaking as he makes his stand in the face of evil? When I see the Nigerian flag, what will I really see? The old plain green-white-green or that bloodied flag?
This is for those of 20-10-20.
May we never forget. May we always remember.