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What Have They Done to Us?

By Hauwa Shaffii Nuhu

“Now we understand the layers of public traumas that formed the psyche of our parents. They were not the silent generation. They were traumatized. Imagine seeing what we saw during the past two weeks again and again for decades.” – Gbenga Adesina, on the #EndSARS protests.

20th October, 2020

7:20 pm.

Tonight, I am sitting in the car with the man I love. We’re talking and teasing each other. I am pleading with him to take his medications seriously. We’re talking childhood, school, and peer influences. We’re laughing in that way that only affection can draw from your heart. As I step out of the car and enter the house, he drives away. I finally swipe on my phone which has been locked for about an hour.

8:11 pm.

On Twitter, I quote Bulama Bukarti’s tweet of my essay on the murder of Hassan Alfa, to say thank you, and include the EndSARS hashtag. Then I scroll down and see it.

Kemi has tweeted The Lekki Toll Gate Massacre, 2020, and suddenly there’s not enough air in the world. I exit the Twitter app immediately, as though the faster I press the home button, the faster the tweet becomes a lie. I hold my head in my hands because suddenly it is hurting and threatening to split.

We had all known after the Lagos State government announced the 24-hour curfew earlier today that there would be violence, that there was no way for all protesters scattered around the megacity already famous for its gridlock and traffic issues to get home in time, even if they wanted to. We all knew that the police might use the excuse of enforcing the curfew as an opportunity to unleash violence on peaceful protesters.

Still, there is a distance between knowing and witnessing.

A massacre? No. That is too much, even for Nigeria. Perhaps it isn’t that bad. Maybe I should go back on Twitter to confirm the true state of things.

I open the app again, and my country is on fire.

I scroll and scroll. Every single tweet is about the violence and this much is clear: Nigerian citizens, who had been peacefully protesting police brutality for two weeks, sat on the ground at the Lekki Toll Gate, holding the Nigerian flag and singing the national anthem. They had been barricaded by the Nigerian Army, who then rained live rounds on the protesters. There’s a live stream of the events on DJ Switch’s Instagram. I consider staying on Twitter, limiting my memory of this day to texts and excluding videos, to make it easier to handle afterwards. But I feel horrible as soon as I think about it.

There are people dying right now in this minute at the Lekki Toll Gate, the least you can do is let your internal body bear witness to this carnage, to this violence.

When I find the live stream, it is bloody, gory and dark. There is a young man with a bullet in his thigh, he’s groaning in pain that sounds too agonizing to be just pain; his breath raspy and high and unbearably fast, as though he’s trying to reach something but with each breath he comes short, and so he tries again. His fellow peaceful protesters are running to try to save him amid the shootings, trying to extract the bullet from his thigh with their bare hands. They have used a Nigerian flag to partially cover the wound to mitigate the bleeding, but as with everything Nigerian, it is not enough. The boy is screaming “laa ilaaha illAllah,” there is no God except Allah. His voice is split in the middle, and what we hear is not really a voice bearing witness to God’s oneness, what we hear, what we really hear, is an unbelievable crack echoing the words that lie at the base of a now almost empty body. His voice is deepening and fading all at once, his body becoming lax, sinking deeper and deeper into the bodies of the people holding him and trying to save him.

He is dying.

I exit the app. I climb down from the chair and sit on the floor in my room, my back to the bed.

What have I just watched?

I draw my trembling knees to my chest, hug my legs tightly, and weep like I have lost a thing beloved. Because I have. A country. Faith. Hope. There are things I cannot name rippling through my body. The ones I do recognize are fear, anger, incomprehension. But the one crippling me the most is incredulousness.

How could this be happening?

I wonder how many more Nigerians scattered around the country, the world, are bound by this pain, weeping, like I am. Hurting like I am. Thousands, probably; there were over a hundred thousand people watching the livestream before I left. There’s much that binds us, I know — humor, sarcasm, kindness and even generosity. Even pain. But this, this is a new fabric, heavy in its hue. Z, one of the closest people to me in the world, said to me later, “I remember going to the toilet because my dinner came right back up. What I remember the most was crying – what was the value of life to these people?”

When I go back on Twitter, I find tweets saying the young man died. The Nigerian flag wrapped on his thigh, God on his tongue. It’s rumored that his name was Jide.

Z has a fascination for names and their implication. I am more interested in naming things than I am in people’s names being portals to their identity and lives. But with each thing she writes about names, I draw closer to understanding the importance of names belonging to people.

Jide. Olajide. Fortune has arisen. Wealth has returned. 

Did Nigeria have to end him, turn his name against him? What does it mean for a country to mock her own people in such a way? Twist their name until it’s staring backwards? Why did Jide have to go through such a cruel kind of undoing? What did his parents have in mind when they named him Jide? Why is any of this happening?

12:11 am.

I am now in bed, all around me there’s silence and stillness. I am on my phone, searching for updates. There’s another live stream, the shootings are still going on. We can still hear them. On social media, we’re bearing witness, holding vigil.

* * *

Before the EndSARS protests began, the concept of police brutality had always been something that weakened me in the legs, that I felt powerless over. Earlier in the year while I was at the Nigerian law school before Covid-19 struck, my roommate Aisha and I had a conversation about the brutal Tabay technique used by SARS to torture people, as reported in a BBC documentary. She had wanted to do her final year dissertation on this phenomenon in Kano back when we were in university, she said. But her family was afraid for her safety, because it would require some heavy investigation on her part, and so she decided against it. We talked about the case of Hassan Alfa, who had been gruesomely murdered by SARS in Kano.

I often found myself thinking of Hassan; who he was, what his dreams had been, what he could have been. What I felt was always a powerless yet crippling rage and pain.

When the protests began in October, my rage and pain were no longer heavy things without limbs; they could move now. And so I made efforts and established a connection with Hassan Alfa’s family. I spoke to his father and brother on the phone, and wrote about Hassan.

There was something heartbreaking yet powerful in the voice of Hassan’s father as we spoke on the phone that night. It broke my heart and I wept later, but it also empowered me. I did not understand it then. I did, much later, in an unexpected place.

In a video of a different cluster of the peaceful protesters sitting on the ground at the tollgate, they are singing the national anthem even as the shooting continues. It feels like an edifice standing tall in the middle of ruination, smeared with blood and dust, but standing. The man holding the phone doing the recording is singing the anthem too. As he approaches the last few verses, the gunshots grow louder, more rapid, and closer. His voice is deep, but now it breaks and he begins to cry. It sounds like the scrape of strength pushed on its knees against a hardened floor. But still strength. The verses don’t get stuck in his mouth, he doesn’t swallow down the words, he speaks them through his tears, surrounded by gunshots going off, until he says the last words, “peace and unity.”

Illustration by Hafsah Sani Sami/Kweyve for Sahelien.com

I go back to the video even now, though it makes me cry. My younger sister asks why. “Why do you keep doing this to yourself?” she asks. “It is too painful, too depressing,” she says, and her eyes are full of tears she’s holding back. She’s 17.

“I don’t want to forget,” I say. But there is no forgetting a voice like that, even if it was heard only once. There is no forgetting that agony.

I return to that video because the voice of that man finally made me understand what it was in Hassan’s father’s voice that affected me so: it was defiant even in a state of brokenness and defeat. I go back to the video to feel this defiance. I want to feel hope and resoluteness from time to time, even from my broken spirit.

I have seen what a trauma without doors or windows has done to past generations and to today’s generation.

Our trauma manifests in the ways that we joke. We use the slang ‘jaapa’ to express a desire to flee this country every time it deals us a cruel blow, we use memes to douse and condense our pains into something small enough to pass down our throats, so it’s not lodged there for long. We feel guilt from all that has happened, then we are consumed by resignation, which is a cruel kind of dying.

But we also become apathetic overtime to violence and tragedies. It’s why a month and a half later, we will hear that hundreds of boys are kidnapped from a school in Katsina, and for some people the outrage will be the shape of several drooping leaves.

We become violent too, first in private spaces, and then in public spaces: subconsciously losing our ability to find these things repulsive, we begin to replicate them. We invite soldiers and policemen to intimidate people we have little personal feuds with, we seek to subdue, to break spirits. And a cycle might just be born.

Many Nigerians have tweeted about going about their days normally, then recalling scenes from the livestream on October 20th, and suddenly they are pulled and soaked into the grief afresh. It is like this for me, too. One time, at noon, I was trying to sleep, and as I closed my eyes, I was immediately drawn to a passage of an essay about the murder of a young man named Rinji by SARS earlier this year. The writer had reported that when Rinji’s body was found, they saw that he had tried to crawl away from the spot where he had been shot, his blood trailing him, until he eventually stopped breathing and stopped moving. It is a picture that haunts me, that stopped me from sleeping that afternoon, and many afternoons after that.

It isn’t normal for an entire generation to be so traumatized, so scarred.

And so I go back to that video of the national anthem-singing people, to find a window no matter how tiny, out of this all-consuming darkness. I say, if a people facing almost certain death at such close quarters will choose to have their country on their tongue, why shouldn’t I, sitting in the safety of my room, at least hold it in my heart?

Nationalism and patriotism within Nigerians have always struck me deeply emotionally. Here’s a country that has brought most of us nothing but pain, and yet when a person finds their rights being violated, they are most likely to say in defense, I am a citizen of this country, you cannot treat me like this. I have heard this line so many times, and it is not so much the words as the pride and dignity it is coated with, that warms my heart. We carry our Nigerianness with dignity and pride: in our vocabulary, in the ways that we keep waving the flags at protests. Even in the way that we ask the country to stop killing us.

A Nigerian asked to introduce themselves is more likely to mention their nationality before mentioning their name.

* * *

The lover and I have three languages between us.

I am heavily invested in language, in communication. But my love for and knowledge of language also means that I know there are days when language is not enough, when you will reach inside your heart searching for words, and come out with nothing on your tongue. Nothing but the ache now spilling from the inside of your body to the outer parts.

Having multiple languages at our disposal means that I often have three chances at expressing myself to him. If I could not remember the word for something in the English language, I reached into Hausa and got it. If it was too far from me, I strolled into Nupe to fetch it. Often we have had conversations doused in all three languages. Once on the phone, he said with a mouthful and in Hausa that he had been eating Qoda. I did not know what that was. “Gizzard,” he translated.

“Oh,” I said.

I have come to cradle this switching with ease through languages as a form of intimacy.

When the attack at the toll gate happened, the three languages combined could not save us from silence.

* * *

The first time I learned about the Iva Valley Massacre of 1949, it was the strategic positioning and process of the killing that made my stomach turn—how the attackers formed a line, standing on a hill, and rained fire below. It was so completely heartless, with no regard whatsoever for human life. The Iva Valley Miners protested peacefully against the atrocious working conditions they were subjected to by the European government, they sang and danced as they protested, and the response from the colonial police force was to shoot them and kill them. They killed 21 people, most of them shot in the back. Fifty-one more were left injured. Because they asked for fair working conditions.

They had been singing, just as the peaceful protesters at the Lekki Toll Gate had been singing the national anthem. They had been unarmed.

How does one explain a security force firing live rounds into a crowd it was charged to protect, because the crowd was protesting extrajudicial killings?  With the Iva Valley Massacre, it was easy to imagine that such an atrocity was possible because the relationship between a colony and its colonizer was already one of violent oppression. The massacre was a continuation of that history.

But with the attack at the tollgate, it was more baffling, more treacherous. What it did was further prove the argument that scholars have made for a long time: that the police—colonial or contemporary—and the state are one and the same, and this explains why #EndSARS was in fact beyond police brutality, why it was also about bad governance.

* * *

My generation legitimately prides itself in a lot of things, one of which is “we did not inherit the silence of our forefathers.” It is a powerful line, except our forefathers were not silent, they were killed. The ones who survived had their spirits broken and beaten into inaction and muteness, which is another kind of death. My own parents, while they understand the fury that drives us, have a detached position. They are unable to bring themselves to hope or even imagine that history will this time be kind. That we will triumph.

And so, it isn’t entirely true that past generations were silent. The ones who survived saw too much horror to keep fighting. We each experienced that feeling in our various homes on the night of 20-10-2020, and by our bodies having absorbed so many more tragedies.

“I feel like we’re living in the worst of times,” I said to a dear friend, J, when he texted to check on me.

“It’s true,” he wrote back, “We are. Every day, I wake up scared.” He is faraway in the States getting his MFA, but the terror is just the same. “It’s hard. I am just afraid some terrible news will reach me. I have been praying,” he said.

* * *

The Nigerian army denied being at the tollgate that night.

Lagos State Governor Babajide Sanwo-Olu first said the following morning on TV that no one had died. Later, he agreed that the government had indeed invited the army to “maintain the peace.”

The army acknowledged later at one of the judicial panels set up in Lagos to investigate killings by SARS that they had been present at the tollgate. Then they said they were not in possession of live rounds, and had only fired blanks. After video evidence and forensic analysis emerged to show that they had in fact shot live rounds, they acquiesced that they had been there with live rounds, but did not use them.

Accounts of events we witnessed on livestream, that so many people witnessed in body and flesh, were denied so vehemently, so insistently. It was infuriating beyond words. But I go back to notes I had made as these things were happening, I go back to these notes which I had made as a defense to the fleeting nature of memory, and I know we did not all just conjure up those moments. They had truly killed us.

Some of us will never recover from it. Some of us are, just weeks later, planning to go back on the streets for a fresh wave of protests. Because history is cyclical, we recognize that those in power are using the same tactics that they subdued our parents with, on us. I worry sometimes that they will succeed, because there’s only so much a people can absorb.

But if a generation selflessly provided free food at protests every day for two weeks, raised 145 million Naira in donations in two weeks, set up legal infrastructure to rescue illegally detained protesters, provided raincoats for protesters when it started to rain, mobilized private ambulances to the Lekki toll gate after the shootings to rescue wounded people, if a generation sat singing the national anthem even as gunshots went off in the distance, then maybe, maybe, this generation is not breakable.