Essay No.1 — “Zombie”
As children maneuvering through Lagos, we grew accustomed to unwanted military and police presence. We were bred to accept this as the Nigerian way of life. A portrait of the nation would be incomplete without the excessive amount of men in uniforms roaming the streets, obstructing traffic just so they can snort a quick line of power. I was terrified of them, but they were the monsters I knew.
As I marched on towards adulthood with my head on a swivel, I discovered that communities all over the world had also fallen victim to the same twisted fate. From the ‘Hands Up, Don’t Shoot’ movement which began in my teenage years, to the current tensions between the Chinese government and its people, it became clear to me that the world, and not just Nigeria, had been infected with the disease known as police brutality.
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While the world focused on which US presidential candidate was to be anointed “leader of the free world”, many Nigerians lost their lives at the hands of the very same people that were put in place to protect them, SARS. On Oct. 20th 2020, only weeks after Nigeria celebrated 60 years of independence, soldiers opened fire on peaceful demonstrators who were gathered at a tollgate in Lekki, Lagos. After days of silence with no explanation regarding the murders of distressed civilians who were armed only with flags, the nation’s President, Muhammadu Buhari, at long last addressed his people. An entire nation listened in shock as there was not a single mention of the lives that were lost. Buhari is widely recognized as a stoic man. But this was no time to display stoicism; this was a time to console his children.
Alas, we were left to scour the depths of the internet in search of any form of reason. A hopeless search for any government official that could at least pretend to care.
“SARS is disbanded, but the people are still protesting. We don’t understand the reason,” said Mohammed Ademu, the Inspector General of Police. He further explained that “members of SARS are just members of the Nigerian Police, they can work anywhere…so if you’re no [longer] in that unit, certainly you must continue to perform police duties”. Certainly you must continue to perform police duties. This, to give General Ademu some understanding, is exactly why people protested. SARS, on paper, were “disbanded”, but the exact same officers accused of terrorizing citizens were simply posted to other units with different names. This is not disbandment; this is disguise. Let’s use the 2014 torture and murder of Hassan Abdullahi as a case study. According to reports from the BBC, the commanding officer during the crime, Yussuf Kolo, was promoted to head of SARS. He was once again promoted to become commander of the Special Tactical Squad for the Inspector General of Police. F*cking mouthful. But, how is that even possible? If this is the foundation that Nigerian law enforcement is built on, then it makes perfect sense that the officers patrolling the streets assume it ok to torture and humiliate innocent civilians.
Some media outlets knighted protesters as “thugs” and “hoodlums”, claiming the protests were not at all peaceful. But even if this was the case, referring to them as hoodlums depicts a grotesque misrepresentation of the conditions. These weren’t thugs; these were simply nigerians.
In Jon Ronson’s book “So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed”, he mentions an east-coast psychiatrist, James Gilligan, who studies the effects of shame on human psychology. Results of Gilligan’s studies insinuated that violence can, in a high percentage of cases, be linked to shame because it is used as a tool to regain self-esteem. I don’t mention this to, in any way, justify acts of violence. This is solely to highlight the correlation between public humiliation and violence. Public humiliation has been embedded in the backbone of Nigerian culture. Daily, civilians are treated like second-class citizens by members of the police force. They are beaten, tortured, extorted, and generally bullied. As a child I observed armed officers casually throw up peace signs as cars approached. But this came with no peace if you didn’t slip some money in between their fingers. Robbery in broad daylight. Genius. I’ve observed the smooth, sophisticated interactions between white tourists and Nigerian customs agents at Murtala Muhammed International Airport while I, a Nigerian, am one row over getting shaken down by yet another underpaid officer for money that I do not have. So, acting surprised about any acts of violence that erupted as a result of this level of oppression is like putting water in a freezer and being surprised about coming back to discover ice. It’s like innocently walking through the streets of Lagos with dreadlocks or tattoos and expecting to not be arrested for looking “suspicious”. These things are inevitable. So these are not hoodlums; these are frustrated nigerians. Maybe Gilligan’s theory also explains our government’s violence at Lekki. Maybe they were attempting to regain some self-esteem following the online embarrassment they’d recently been suffering at the hands of Nigeria’s tired youth — #EndSars
Perhaps Nigeria’s politicians are looking too closely to see the bigger picture. We wonder how they fail to realize that the sooner they take care of their citizens’ most basic needs and encourage real businesses by giving residents the proper tools to succeed, the sooner we can achieve domestic growth and claim a larger share of the world’s gross domestic product (GDP). This isn’t a speech on economics. I only mention GDP in a subpar attempt to communicate in the language of our target audience. Because, see, my monster doesn’t want to hear about human rights. No, its language is money. This is the Nigerian way. We’ve adopted a loser’s mentality. A system poisoned by power and functioning under the orders of greed. A system that oppresses its population by eliminating any chance of real success. A short-sighted, economically malnourished system focused on keeping a handful of individuals rich, rather than building the generational wealth of a nation.
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It’s been months since the tragic day at Lekki toll gate and echoes of the EndSars movement appear to be dwindling. No more tweets from our favourite celebrities; no more news coverage. Blood stained flags still waving in the sky and the world moves on. Understandable. Nigeria is just one of many countries with an identical story. It’s mind-blowing to me that locals, raised under the same scrutiny as their victims, could grow up to become men who would willfully drape themselves in the uniforms of their oppressors. Probably descendants of the same unknown soldiers that threw Fela Kuti’s mother out of that second storey window in ’77. Over four decades later and we’re still singing the same song. Zombie, Oh Zombie...