The day after the Lekki tollgate massacre on October 20 last year, I was in bed listening to the songs of the American rapper Ab-Soul. The air was thick with anguish, and the pungent stench of death intrusively crept into my nostrils every time I stopped shaking long enough to breathe. At intervals, I tossed and turned, desperately trying to shake the gory events I witnessed virtually the night before out of my mind.
Instead, I shifted my focus to Soulo’s (as Ab-Soul is fondly called) gruff raps and biting social critiques, which thread the personal with the political. “What’s your life about?/Enlighten me/Is you ‘gon live on your knees/Or die on your feet?” he posed on “Ab-Soul’s Outro.” Later that day, as I wiped my tear-stained face, I questioned the point of the #EndSARS protests and if the reward was worth the risk at all.
Around this time last year, Nigerian youth made history. Fuelled by pain and united by an unfettering resolve, young Nigerians took to the streets to bravely challenge the extrajudicial killings of young people by the now “defunct” Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS) police unit. The atmosphere on the protest grounds – both physical and virtual – was unlike anything I had ever seen. At protest venues across the country, there was an assuring sense of camaraderie among the youth as we stood in unison to protest against bad governance. The movement was largely decentralised and particularly void of the ethno-religious tensions that usually plague the framing of Nigeria’s sociopolitical issues. We were one.
But on a dark Tuesday night at the Lekki tollgate in Lagos State, everything drew to a screeching halt. On October 20, 2020, following the announcement of a state-imposed curfew, military men opened fire on peaceful protesters, who sat waving the Nigerian flag and singing the national anthem, some losing their lives for the cause that night.
The massacre – and the ensuing chaos – left a bitter taste in our mouths, considering how abruptly the exhilarating momentum of the protests ended after it. Young people who were beginning to imagine a new future were rudely shaken back to reality by the sound of guns and the cries of wounded colleagues. It did not help that the government made relentless attempts at erasing the horrific events of that night from our memories. In the end, it became clear that justice is probably not a tangible concept in this country.
As such, the aftermath of the protests has had a polarising effect on Nigerians, straddling the lines between optimism and pessimism. For some, the fight is far from over, but they are afraid of any more bloodshed. And for others, that perspective reaffirms their initial belief of the public’s surface-level relationship with radicalism. But what makes a revolution? The people or the cause?
In his book, The Anatomy of Revolution, American historian Crane Brinton likens revolution to a fever. And much like a fever, a revolution can be a good thing for the surviving party. As Brinton puts it: “The fever burns up the wicked germs, as the revolution destroys wicked people and harmful and useless institutions.” In this sense, a revolution often achieves a positive outcome for the survivor – but survival is no easy feat.
Revolutions do not happen overnight – they are often a long, winding tunnel to the other side of freedom, usually with numerous setbacks along the way. And a successful journey to the light at the end is one of resilience rooted in desperate hunger for survival. Hence, those seeking to embark on a revolt must understand it begets a sacrifice of some sort: time, energy, resources, lives.
In December 2010, Mohammed Bouazizi, a Tunisian street trader, set himself on fire in protest against the police seizing his fruit and vegetable cart. The seizure itself symbolised the continued systemic dispossession and oppression he suffered at the hands of his own government. Bouazizi’s sacrificial act catalysed the Jasmine Revolution in Tunisia and eventually the Arab Spring, a wave of protests, uprisings, and unrest across North Africa and the Middle East, which ended up overthrowing the governments of Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and Yemen and shook others.
However, this did not come without a price: since Libyan leader Muammar Gadaffi’s downfall in Libya, the country has been ravaged by civil war. Similarly, Yemen descended into a bloody civil conflict after President Ali Abdullah Saleh was forced to step down. In Syria, President Bashar al-Assad has held on to power despite a nationwide uprising against his rule, at the cost of hundreds of thousands of Syrians killed and the displacement of millions.
After the harrowing Lekki tollgate shooting, #EndSARS protesters retreated to their homes, fearful for their lives and what the law enforcement could do next. Slowly but surely, it dawned on us that revolutions are not for the faint-hearted.
In his two-part essay “The anatomy of EndSARS protests as an incomplete revolution”, Nigerian professor of philosophy Douglas Anene draws parallels between a successful revolution and the successful delivery of a new baby, arguing, “The inconveniences of pregnancy experienced by the potential mother and birth pangs during labor are analogous to the pain and suffering that often accompanies revolutions.”
In this context, it may be easy to chalk up the deaths at the Lekki massacre – and during the protests at large – to expected fallouts of such an uprising. But many fail to comprehend this viewpoint. For one, the Nigerian sociopolitical climate has drastically deteriorated since then. Across the country, there has been increased violence and insecurity, a nationwide hunger crisis, and continued suppression of press freedoms. It is almost as if we took one step forward and three steps back.
Throughout her book, On Revolution, German American political scientist Hannah Arendt depicts revolution as a restoration, in which rebels seek to restore citizens’ liberties and privileges that have been lost due to the government’s brief slide into authoritarianism.
Contextualising this to Nigeria would be a myth; my country had been burning for decades before I was born. Long before I witnessed a plane crash kill about 100 children my age, long before an armed militia first launched an attack against a city in northern Nigeria. So restoration, in this sense, is near impossible, as Nigeria’s current dystopian state is all I have ever known. Our parents know this too. Much like us, change frothed in their hearts, but their activism yielded to the lack of true belief in its eventuality, leaving them riddled with the disease of hollow hope.
Essentially, the End SARS protests were inevitable. According to Brinton’s theory, the “fever” rises due to complaints among a people. Symptomatic of that fever is the breakdown of the body of power. The fever rages; then it is made clear that the people cannot tolerate it, and this rage is replaced with an improved body of power and a happier people. In Nigeria, years of unfettered violence and complete disregard of citizens’ lives undoubtedly brewed the displeasure that erupted into the nationwide righteous fury last year. Despite this, we are yet to be “a happier people”.
Still, the movement taught us a few positive lessons. The first being that we are much stronger together than we are apart. Across the nation, young Nigerians in all six geopolitical zones gathered with a common goal to end police intimidation, oppression, and brutality. Our united front was what ensured the protests were sustained for as long as they were. It also showed us that it is possible to have an accountable and transparent civil society that is responsive to the needs of its citizens.
The primary cause of the political rot deeply embedded in Nigeria’s soil is the government’s continued lack of respect for human rights, with no care for the very people it was elected to serve. Hence, seeing platforms like the Feminist Coalition voluntarily raise and disburse funds towards social services such as food, shelter, healthcare, physical security, and legal aid during the protests instilled a renewed hope in the country’s future.
Looking ahead, the only way forward is a complete reform of Nigeria. We have learned that the rot does not begin and end with the unlawful operations of a rogue unit alone, but is propagated by all factions within Nigerian society that enable and reward abuse of power and disproportionate use of force. But the political upheaval we seek will not be handed to us on a silver platter, as we have come to learn.
In his essay, Anene further argues: “Only a deep appreciation of the fact that revolutions involve life and death situations can generate the mental dispositions needed to lead a revolution successfully. In revolutions, halfway measures are futile and counterproductive.”
So, the million-dollar questions remain: Who is ready to go the full length in toppling these systems of control? In the face of violent and fatal resistance, who is prepared to stand their ground? Who is bold enough to rebel?
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.