What happened, what is possible, and what is next?

In Government by Ife Ajayi

I don’t know how I got there—on the street, with the protesters, and their songs and chants of “ENDSARS!”—but I feel like I was exactly where I was meant to be. When we were younger, we were taught to sing: “we are the leaders of tomorrow.” But what happens when the leaders of tomorrow emerge, and the leaders of today refuse to leave. I guess it’s the same thing that happens when an unstoppable force meets an immovable object—children die. The truth is, Nigeria has been trying to kill us all for a very long time. No more.

SARS is the enforcement agency of Nigerian lawlessness. It is born of impunity, ineptitude, and kleptocracy found in the Nigerian government.  SARS is enabled by the same system that permits a child to die in the hands of an unregulated doctor, or a graduate to spend four years in a school and come out worse off. When I say ENDSARS, I’m calling for an end to police brutality and the whole system that creates and enables it. 

My name is Ife Ajayi, I was one of the thousands of Nigerians who yelled end SARS on the streets in Nigeria. I was on the street in Abuja serving food, picking up trash, and defending my right to live. This is my story—the story of a generation who arrived to reclaim our lives.

Independence Day

During Independence Day, Nigerian rappers and singers usually release some songs to remind us how great Nigeria is, or how we should serve our nation. Timi Dakola sings something, and Waje sings something, but I don’t remember any song coming out this year. I don’t even think it was about COVID. I think they were just tired. There is only so much you can sing. 

Ironically it was the singers who led the chanting. Falz The Bad Guy and Runtown hit the streets yelling ENDSARS. That was the song we needed this Independence Day. Singing in concert with them were hundreds of young Nigerians on the streets of Lagos. This will be our Independence Day and ENDSARS our marching song. 

I say Nigerians because maybe for the first time since our founding some decades ago, it felt like we were a united people. This wasn’t a fight for a particular ethnic or interest group but a fight for every Nigerian life. It was also why a lot of us joined. We all experienced the harassment or knew someone who was harassed, almost killed, or killed by SARS. All it took was for us to be young and this made us vulnerable to their wickedness. Any one of us could be the next victim. 

Days passed and the chants grew louder. Hundreds turned into thousands. We started from the streets of Lagos and filled almost every state in the country. The first few days were lively and full of optimism and jubilation. But there was an uncertainty to it all. 

Was it that SARS was acting alone and the government did not know? Would SARS turn on the government now that the pressure was up, would the military interfere somehow?  It was all so scary. There was no plan going in. We just knew the status quo of staying home and saying nothing, was just as dangerous as being out in the street. One thing was for sure, we were together. Together we screamed for reform, but the government showed no sign of remorse. Some of us slept at the protest grounds to no avail. Politicians shared hollow words, rebranded their death squad, and attempted to be done with us.  We were not done with them. 

Credit: Bamidele Babarinde @mr_babarinde

Their lackadaisical attitude fueled more anger in the heart of Nigerians and this led to the protest growing bigger and broader. The negligence of the government was evident, their cluelessness was exposed, and their incompetence revealed. Police started attacking and arresting campaign organizers and protesters. Several incidents were caught on camera, and this was when the floodgates opened. It was as if there was an alarm clock that rang in our heads, and all the youth in Nigeria and the diaspora poured out on the streets to defend each other. More and more youth felt they could contribute in one way or another, and we did. 

Legal practitioners offered their services for free to bail out wrongly imprisoned protesters. Local and International protesters were donating ambulances, money, food, medical aid. Private bouncers were hired for the protesters’ security. Electricians created portable charging stations, women’s groups provided reinforcement to keep this movement going and to encourage each other. Transportation funds were provided to and from the protest grounds. Help Lines were made available for those who had emergencies for any reason. These actions really encouraged more youth to come out and replicate these same structures and processes across the country.  These actions encouraged even more people to come out because they could tell there was a strong spirit of solidarity amongst the protesters.

As we progressed and marched on, day in and day out, more and more cases of police brutality started to come to light. Individuals shared their personal stories, families spoke up, and some police officers joined the conversation. The worst examples revealed SARS are roaming bandits that terrorize innocent people and casually commit gross human rights violations. They act with impunity, no oversight, and commit extrajudicial killings at will.  It also revealed how the underfunding, and lack of oversight across the entire chain of command leads to impunity on the front lines.

Testimonies revealed SARS is a government enabled crime syndicate.  Either the Inspector General of police Muhammed A. Adamu, was incompetent, and unaware of these atrocities or he was complicit to the crimes committed by his direct reports, or their subordinates, and enabled it. 

The police too were victims of Nigeria, and they were used as disposable pawns in this rotten kleptocracy that is the Nigerian government. They were systematically underfunded, untrained, and regularly deployed in dangerous situations. As a result, they too become oppressors, replicating the same patterns of impunity that birthed them. It became clear that we had to save the police from the government. They pointed their guns towards us. We pointed our cameras towards them. We both shot. Young Nigerians in the diaspora carried our images and set the internet on fire. 

Have you seen a herdsman in a Jeep?

I was able to experience both sides of the protests, working as an organizer and also taking part in the protests on the street. From behind the scenes, one thing for sure is that organizers were overwhelmed with help. Daily, there was more than enough food, medical aid, medical practitioners, water, funds etc. It was absolutely a refreshing experience in that regard. Every single person that came to that protest ground went home with excess food. It felt for a moment that the protests were the only thing that was working in the country.  But there was still a country, and a government, and they did not want the protests to work.

Organizers felt the constant need to hide our identities as we went out to purchase supplies for the protest. We were covering our plate numbers, not answering questions from strangers, not speaking to strangers in general and not communicating too much via text or phone calls. We felt that the Nigerian government was surveilling us, and attempted to curtail our right to freedom of expression.

Credit: Bamidele Babarinde @mr_babarinde

One day, I went to the protest grounds wearing a Fela T-shirt. I didn’t realize how risky this was! I noticed how much people would stare at me on the road and ask me questions. It was almost as if we were part of some secret cult, and were recently exposed. 

On one of the protest mornings, a few of us who had been returning home very late at night after the protest, spotted armed herdsmen being dropped off in Prado jeeps around our usual meeting point. It was not uncommon to see young dark-skinned, skinny men, with tall sticks and blue and white overcoats herding Cows through the streets in Abuja. But I had never before seen them before in Jeeps! Picture a bunch of raggedy looking armed men being dropped off in an expensive car. What were they there to do, why did they have weapons, where were their cows? 

We had to strategize. We reorganized our meeting points. People may have been trying so hard to frustrate our efforts but we were not going to allow any event to tarnish the peace in our protests. 

I remember at one of the protests at Airport road Abuja. The protesters had blocked the streets and a traffic jam ensued.  The protesters would be informed that there was a pregnant woman blocked in the jam, and she needed to get to the hospital. After screaming at cars to move to the sides of the road unsuccessfully, we reached out to a bus filled with military men and women to help us open space to let the ambulance through. One of them looked at me in the eye and said; “isn’t it your mates who caused this traffic? Talk to your mates to end the protest so the ambulance can go through”. There is nothing we can do.”  I started to break down in tears knowing they would watch a child die, to prove a point. 

If that woman had lost her life, it would end up on the news, and they would say it was our fault. A group of us ran to the protesters to disperse them. That woman had to get through! I’ll cut the long story short, using our own private security men, we were able to successfully let the ambulance through.

How to be brave?

I want to tell you we felt strong, and we felt like heroes and we were brave, but the truth is I was scared for my life every day. I struggled mentally as more pictures and videos started to surface online of innocent victims who had lost their lives protesting. My heart stopped when I saw the videos of soldiers who opened fire on peaceful protesters in Lekki. My friends were there. If I was in Lagos, I would have been there with them. Those were full human lives, and they were killed, just like that.  And till today, there has been no accountability for those innocent souls and their families. 

Would I be next, would my friends be next? If I died, is that how people would just forget, and move on? What would it all be for? I don’t want to die. I came to the protest because I want to live. We all did. Those who were shot protested so they would be alive. I knew we were not safe. But this was another level. We know the government is corrupt, but they were also exposed as authoritarian.

We had to be extra careful, and more vigilant. It felt like paranoia. Eventually I lost my voice and did not go to the protest ground because I felt afraid, uncertain, ashamed, but mostly hopeless.

Were we not part of the problem? For the young Nigeiran elite, we may have been a part of the system that enabled this. Causauly we paid bribes, called the police to make unlawful arrests, or called our connections to get us out of a bind. We were faced with an identity crisis. We were too ashamed to go home. How could we convince our parents to speak up when corruption has become a family lifestyle. They needed government contracts, they needed to maintain their political connections to provide—but at what expense? Nigeiran culture has emerged into several overlapping cycles of rent seeking, corruption, cronyism and dependency. If you opt out, you fall behind, and are replaced by someone else quickly. 

The culture has also become one that casually suppresses freedom of expression of an average individual. There is a construct of what “good” looks like and if one does not fit into it, with no benefit of the doubt whatsoever, he or she is simply “bad”.  If you have tattoos, piercing, coloured hai, ripped jean, dreadlocks, you might be considered as one who lacks focus and therefore stereotyped into the category of a criminal. And you should get what criminals deserve. These two factors made SARS victims convenient targets. There was always a way for our elders to rationalize away the violence and continue their lifestyle of passive corruption. 

Credit: Bamidele Babarinde @mr_babarinde

I learnt through all this that bravery is not the absence of fear, but the active choice to persevere through it. And though our society may enable corruption, participating in it is a choice. If you opt out as an individual, the system spits you out and replaces you, but together if we reject the system together, we stand a fighting chance. The same corruption that lets you pass as an elite, is the same corruption that kills someone else’s child. 

We won. 

There are people who still think that the protests did not achieve anything. The Hashtag stopped trending, lives were lost, and we all went home.  They say we permitted the government to hijack the protests, and kill innocent people. People lost friends, people lost family and property.  I wonder if there are things the protesters could have done better.  

My heart is with the families of the deceased. I grieve with them, and have not stopped grieving since the protests were over. I can not imagine what they are going through right now. Justice has also not been served, and no one held accountable for their children’s death.  Activists are still being harassed, detained, and surveilled. 

Every day, in Nigeria our lives are in danger. The truth is the Nigerian government has been trying to kill us for a very long time. If not publicly at a toll gate, then silently—lack of regulations allow buildings to collapse on school children, lack of oversight or controls causes airplanes to fall out of the sky, lack of hospital regulations causes our family members to die in the hands of fake doctors. And all these murderers go on with their lives, scott free. No accountability. Anywhere you are in the world, you can get a phone call, and find out that Nigeria has happened to you. No more. 

The protest demanded accountability. This in and of itself was a victory, and let no one tell you it wasn’t. Young people spoke up and demanded their rights. We shook the hornet’s nest, and nothing came out. This is a system filled with lawyers, but devoid of justice. Human rights oversight committees had been empty, police enrichment funds were underfunded. Court systems were ill equipped. And although justice has still not been served, we leant how to demand it. And this is a power we can not unlearn. 

We raised awareness. The resistance may no longer be on social media, but it lives. We are now on the streets, organizing and getting all of us politically rehabilitated. Those who were disappointed by the failure of politicians realized they are the politicians they have been waiting for. You will see a shift in the 2023 Nigerian elections at all levels. Our names will be on the ballot, because our lives will be on the ballot. We will run, and we will win. 

We are hosting a range of civil actions and conducting political rehabilitation. You will no longer be able to buy votes for bags of rice, because we will feed our most vulnerable, and defend them. 

Elected officials in Nigeria who have felt untouchable and disappeared after the elections will be called to account. More people now know who their local government and elected members are. We know how much they make, and we are beginning to hold them accountable.  The government had made it clear that they are against our freedom. The next step is to retake our government from them. 

Maybe most importantly, the ENDSARS protests created a unified youth Nigeiran identity. It has shown that the tribalism that brought us here, will not take us anywhere. Some groups tried to frame the Lekki shooting as an attack on Western Nigeria. But the whole of Nigeria was hijacked, bleeding and burning. 

We have seen every time we want to come together for a cause, older Nigerians want to make it an ethnic fight to distract us. That is the world our elders grew up in, constantly being distracted by politicians who seek to use our identity as a distraction. ENDSARS killed our tribalism. We now know if people are united, there is nothing we cannot achieve together. This is the greatest achievement of the ENDSARS protests. It showed us what is possible if we unite.  It can only be forward from here.  We are the leaders of today. Our future is up to us. ENDSARS!

Credit: Bamidele Babarinde @mr_babarinde