Today makes it one year; one year since we went out, raised our painted signs, waved our flags, believing with all our heart that we were going to be the catalyst of change that would create a better country. It’s one year since my heart got shattered; it never mended. Never.
Chidubem, a former student union president in our university, and the best graduating student in the Department of Political Science, was no novice to the concept of aluta – a fight for rights. Justice was everything to this young man, who consumed justice as though it were a meal. I know this because he stood up to our lecturer, Dr. Igwe. This lecturer would harass me, single me out using casual flimsy actions such as forgetting to add my name on the attendance sheet or deliberately submitting my assessment just before the deadline. His actions became more intense with constant isolation and blaming me for every infraction – real or imagined. He repeatedly called me the ‘scapegoat’. I could always tell when he was about to launch an attack as his eyes glistened, and the side of his lips tilted into a sly smile; I absorbed every slight as there was no one I could tell that I refused to have sex with him. Why did he choose me, single me out for such cruelty?
Just like when I was 13. No one, no one in my family believed me when, at 13, I told them that our neighbour, Uncle Stanley, had a habit of smacking my bottom. My family’s response was to dress me in baggy clothes as though my body was the culprit – my emerging curves were tempting, and my body needed to be hidden away just like my questions. I turned inwards; I did not trust my voice. Even now, I look around the classroom and wonder how many of my classmates blame me for Dr. Igwe’s uncontrollable lust for me. I stay silent even with my friends who tell me Eeayah, as if my life was over and there was nothing they could do about it. Only Dubem cared and tried to loosen my tongue.
On a Tuesday, while I dealt with the most excruciating cramps, the kind of cramps that leave your stomach in knots, Dr. Igwe asked me to stand for the duration of a two-hour class. My punishment for failing to ‘hit the nail on the head’ while responding to a question he asked. I was exhausted, and the minute he left the class, I broke down, covering my face with my hands. Shortly after, I felt Dubem’s palm on my shoulder giving me a soothing and gentle rub.
‘You must tell me, Martha. Why is Igwe always on your case? I will not leave your side until you tell me!’
Dubem stayed until my weeping stopped. We found an empty classroom. I told him everything.
Two days later, I walked into Dr. Igwe’s office with a wire under my clothes. I felt that he could see that I was shivering violently. Igwe did not seem to notice. Instead, he launched into his usual lewd comments and demands. I made a run for it when he leapt from his chair to plant his overly moist lips on mine. Dubem was outside the door waiting for me.
Dubem helped me regain my voice by lending me his while I struggled to find mine.
So, when he decided to take a day off to attend the EndSars protest, I was not surprised. I needed very little convincing to join him in this fight for our country. Together, I believed our voice would be loud, and louder even because we were hundreds and thousands on the streets of Lagos and other states in Nigeria calling for justice, reform and peace. It was going to be fun. This day would go down in history and be written about in books – this was supposed to be the start of a new dawn.
That morning, at about 7am, Dubem was in front of my house, sitting in his car. He was going to park in my driveway, and we would take an Uber from my place, Lekki Toll Gate. Dubem had wanted us to join those that trekked from Ikeja to the island, but I resisted vehemently because I was already losing enough weight from my Keto diet. More importantly, my green, white, green eyeshadow would not melt all over my face in Lagos’s scorching sun.
We were not even five minutes into our ride when my fellow passenger asked if I brought any pepper spray.
‘Ah ahn! I’m just going there to shout, “we no go gree oh.” I don’t intend to fight anybody.’ And to that, we laughed and continued the journey.
From the start of the protest, I had been an online protester, diligent with my tweets and retweets of #endsars. It was a duty I delivered with gushing pride. I remember being amazed at how many of us Nigerians stood up and took to the streets. I was tempted to blame it on COVID and Nigerians having less to do, but it was not that. It was pent-up frustration, the kind that holds your throat so tight that you suddenly scream instead of using your words. Nigerian youths were screaming! We were screaming!!
Organisers gave us flags to hold as soon as we got to the protest ground. We waved our flags and sang. We listened to the stories of people who had suffered at the hands of SARS officials. We held a candle service that night for the souls that had been lost to SARS brutality.
‘You are crying.’ Dubem nudged me lightly with his elbow.
‘Hmmmn.’ I turned to him and wiped my face. I was not aware that I was crying.
‘I thought you said you were only here to shout, “we no go gree.”’ Dubem smiled and gave me another nudge. I smiled, wryly, as I thought to myself, ‘This boy, ehn.’
After the candle service, I realized that it was getting late. I wanted to go home. Some protesters offered Dubem and me a ride.
‘I want to go again,’ I blurted out. I had to. You see, Unlike Dubem, I was no walking billboard for justice. I was no born vigilante. I did not have half of Dubem’s guts, so I blurted it out to keep the brewing anger inside me from bursting out.
I had expected him to laugh and tease my uncomfortable silence and sudden declaration, but he didn’t. I heard a deep sigh beside me, but I could not see any faces because of the power outage. Ever since the protests began, NEPA had stopped giving us power.
‘Me too,’ were the only words Dubem replied with.
I yanked my phone from the side pocket of my jeans and shone the torch in his face.
My phone almost fell out of my hand when the car jerked.
‘Ah Ahn, MARTHA! You wan blind me?’
‘I thought you were going to make fun of me.’
‘Martha, today was not funny at all oh. One of the names they called out as victims of SARS was my classmate in primary school. Those people could be any of us; that is why I did not make fun of you. There is nothing to laugh about. This country will not end us.’
‘God forbid! We must keep fighting and hope that this revival will be the beginning of change. This country will not end us.’ I repeated that last line because I had also thought about it many times.
Survival as a Nigerian in Nigeria has nothing to do with skill. It is an unhealthful blend of luck, God, and then some more luck.
We shared a hug under a pitch-black sky and parted ways. Dubem entered his car and drove off, while I opened the calendar on my phone to set a reminder for the 20th of October 2020. I called it #EndSars.
Two days later, we were back at Lekki Toll Gate. It was five of us from the candle service. I was the only female, but I did not mind. I have the reputation for making awesome male friends as opposed to female friends. Either way, I was going to need strength around me when the police started with their infamous oppression tactics, including employing touts to do their bidding or shooting sporadically into the air to create a stampede.
The day started as usual, except that I didn’t feel the need to put on a green, white, green eyeshadow. I was there to do more than shout conventional protest chants and agitations. The candle service offered me a more sober perspective to the protest than I had before, and seeing Dubem so focused and hurting instead of his usual energetic activist mode made my actions more intentional.
After hours of singing, chanting, marching with our little flags, we all sat down on the burning ground to eat the food provided by fellow protesters. My celebrity crush served me a plate of jollof rice and chicken and a chilled bottle of water.
‘So, you aren’t going to say anything to her?’ Dubem asked, watching me with bemused eyes.
‘What should I say to her?’ There was suddenly no saliva in my mouth, and my brain went on hiatus.
‘Your celebrity crush was in front of you, and you said nothing, Martha! You will not hear the last of this. Your children will hear of their starstruck mother.’ Dubem teased me on and off the protest that day, until I pleaded for mercy.
It was 9pm on the protest ground when we stood up yet again and belted out our favourite Nigerian tunes which conveyed our displeasure to our government. It was fun, but it was truth told without tears. All night, the five of us stuck together, singing and waving our flags. Even though there were policemen during most of the protest, we were still cautious of their presence.
There had been warning signs for protesters to leave the toll gate. I logged on to Twitter and saw tweets about a curfew imposed by the governor.
‘Look.’ I showed Dubem the tweets from my phone. ‘What are we going to do now? Should we go home?’ I was beginning to get worried. Imposing a curfew with only a few hours’ notice for us protesters to disperse was not only unrealistic but vengeful. Lagos traffic would be testing with scampering protesters trying to make their way home within a few hours.
‘Don’t worry jare. It is just a scare tactic.’ Dubem appeared unbothered, and so, I was unbothered.
We were unbothered up until the lights at the toll gate suddenly went out, and blazing guns released bullets straight in our direction. Waving our flags as an indication of nonviolence, we knelt and belted out the national anthem. In school I was taught to lay flat on your stomach when you heard gunshots around you, so I fell on my belly and stopped singing. I was not going to die professing loyalty to a country that doesn’t know what I mean.
‘Dubem!’ My friend had gone silent beside me.
‘Mar…tha,’ I heard him whistle my name.
‘Dubem!!!’ I pushed myself off my stomach and yanked my friend from the ground, dragging and lifting him to safety. I did not know where that was, but it wasn’t where we were. Our other friends were nowhere to be found either.
‘Mart… Martha.’ He kept calling me, but I was an injured lion on a mission to save my friend.
‘Don’t worry, Dubem; you will be fine. Don’t worry,’ I said amidst tears.
It felt like one of those scenes in an action movie where actors race amidst a hail of gunshots, yet miraculously, none hit them, except in real life the real miracle would have been for my Dubem to wake up. After I got us to safety and the lights came on, my tears gave way for the heartbreak that followed.
It was a massacre – a bloody massacre.
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