…By Fisayo Soyombo
In my 17 years in and around journalism, this was the first time I asked myself if a story I personally investigated was really true. It had no precedent — that I invested time and energy n digging out a story, then I wrote it, got it published and, in the weeks and months that followed, asked myself if what I’d spent time investigating had indeed happened. This explains the equanimity with which I view those who still ask — out of genuine naivety or incredulity rather than blind party leaning — if people indeed died at the Lekki tollgate on October 20, 2020. If I, the journalist, sometimes felt that way, I can understand the plight of the doubting Thomases in the public.
As events of the last year have so pointedly taught me, the wheel of government propaganda grinds with blinding, all-shattering venom, obliterating anyone or anything in its way. And when government so desperately wants to sell an agenda, nothing can stand in its way. The damage may be limited but it can hardly be stopped, considering government’s unlimited access to state funds, the media, the police and the army. Politics in Nigeria is often a matter of life and death; any movement that threatens to tamper with it therefore risks its cunning and brutishness. This was the story of the landmark #EndSARS protest of October 2020, grinded to a halt at the Lekki tollgate by the bullets of the army and the police on the orders of the political class. Of course it was a massacre!
There isn’t much anyone can say to those who insist nobody died at the tollgate. If they assume this belief out of loyalty to the ruling party, good luck to them. If it is for the preservation of their plate of porridge in the corridors of power, one can only hope for their freedom from the bondage of greed. The truth is, even if a million dead bodies were produced today, those who believe no death was recorded at the tollgate will not make an about-face. They are a lost cause. But there are those who concede protesters were felled by soldiers; only that the casualty toll is not high enough to be deemed a massacre. These are the people for whom this piece was written.
In the immediate aftermath of the atrocities committed by the Nigerian army this day last year, I studied the definitions of ‘massacre’ by some of the most reputable dictionaries. From them, I found the three features that qualify a killing as a ‘massacre’. One, the casualties must have been unarmed or defenceless against their assailants, rather than a two-way battle that left a group more bloodied than the other. Two, the pattern of killing must have been indiscriminate. And, finally, a large number must have been killed.
On the first, there is no debate. The slain #EndSARS protesters were unarmed, especially as they had been hoodwinked into believing soldiers wouldn’t shoot them if they saw the waving of Nigerian flags. How naïve of them! Were the gunshots indiscriminate? Absolutely! All my firsthand witnesses told me of how soldiers fired bullets into the air and at protesters in an unsystematic, uncoordinated manner. And, yes, a large number of people was killed. The question, then, is: what number of people is large enough to be a massacre? This answer would be relative, depending on individual perspective of the value of life. Oxford Dictionary, for instance, has a sentential example of the ‘massacre of 40 people’. Do I believe up to 40 people were killed at the tollgate? Yes. I tracked 20 but as I wrote in my undercover investigation, I merely scratched the surface of that story. I believe so firmly that way more than 40 were killed that night.
Some of the people for whom this piece was written have consistently asked some important questions: Where are the names of the dead? Where are their families? Where are their bodies? I’ll answer the ones I can, and explain why some will forever remain unanswered without necessarily impugning the reality of the massacre.
On the dead, I already gave three names and three faces in my investigation; that’s six. For 14 more whose names could not be established, I presented their final moments as captured by those who saw them die. Those who insist on names forget that the protests were attended by an infinite number of people with no previous alliance. Nobody kills Shi’ites, for instance, and gets away with it. But it’s only because they’re a finite group. They hold periodic meetings; they know one another’s families. If 200 of them hit the streets for a protest and only 160 return, it’s easy to know. But imagine a young man from Ijegun joining another from Isolo and yet another from Agege at the tollgate, how do you name them if they get killed? Nobody forewarned them that soldiers were coming to kill them. One couldn’t have told the other, “Please give me your name and number so that when soldiers kill you I will release it to the public!” The best we’ll ever get is protesters telling us about the deaths they witnessed; you won’t get their names. Just because of the infiniteness of the protesting group.
Where are their families? Another question soaked in middle/upper-class conceit — that assumption that everyone in Lagos has family, a home, access to social media, a voice. Leave the comfort of your home and get on the streets; you will be shocked by the sheer number of people with no bank account, no house address, no brothers or sisters, nothing; people who could die today and nobody speaks for them. And guess what, after the more educated people like you and me left Lekki on that day, these were the guys who populated the tollgate: the shoemaker, bus conductor, the Lagos hustler. A study of the demography of survivors bearing gunshot injuries will reveal nothing but this truth. As a matter of fact — and you may not have heard this before — quite a number of the Lekki tollgate protesters were young, hungry and jobless youth who showed up because of the food and drink. The allure of the food and drink at the tollgate was too much for them to turn down; you think people like that have family? Solomon Abouta, one of the victims I named, has only one relative in Lagos: his brother Nathaniel. All the rest are in a village in faraway Adamawa State. If Nathaniel keeps quiet, nobody gets to hear of Solomon’s death. Forever.
And, oh, where are their bodies? That is a question you’ll have to ask the army. They did the killing; they supervised the cleanup. By multiple unrelated accounts, they moved the bodies. Unfortunately, we will never hear the truth from them — not after all the lies they have told about their involvement in the incident.
These no-death proponents like to ask these questions, but there are so many questions on the other side they themselves should ponder. Let me ask just six of them. If indeed nobody died at the tollgate, why did Lekki Concession Company (LCC), in their submission to the Lagos State Judicial Panel on Restitution for Victims of SARS-Related Abuses, tamper with the CCTV footage (from automatic mode to manual) just two minutes before the strategic positioning of military trucks at the tollgate in the evening of October 20? If there’s nothing to hide, why not submit the footage raw? I know for a fact that in the days after the incident, the Lagos State government was shopping for “an investigative journalist” to write about October 20. If there were no deaths, why did the government try to control the narrative? Journalists were going to report it anyway, as it was one of the biggest global headlines of the time. But why was it government’s job to shop for an ‘investigative journalist’? The injured #EndSARS protesters from the tollgate who were treated at government-owned hospitals, why did the government ban them from speaking to the press? Why is it that not a single one of them left the hospital with the bullets extracted from their bodies? The post-#EndSARS activists who were threatened with death on the phone, on whose behalf were those calls made? Why did the government demolish the shanty opposite the tollgate — and without any advance notice at all? By the way, residents of that shanty were the only non-participatory witnesses to the massacre, and in their interactions with the media they corroborated repeated claims of the movement of protesters’ bodies by soldiers. Why the sudden erasure? What were the interests of those bent on silencing them?
That we’re here, one year after, debating whether people died or not, arguing if it was a massacre or not, is a reminder of the enormous powers in the hands of the bloodthirsty dictators in public office masquerading as democrats. Regaining our country from them will not happen overnight. But we at least know the enormity of the challenge and the might of our common enemy. And we also know the devious extent to which they’d go in their attempts to obfuscate the truth and confuse the people.
Soyombo, former Editor of TheCable, the International Centre for Investigative Reporting (ICIR) and SaharaReporters, is the Founder/Editor-in-Chief of the Foundation for Investigative Journalism (FIJ)