#EndSARS Protests: Lekki Toll Gate Killing and the Reparative Work of Mourning

Stephen Temitope DavidStephen Temitope David is a postdoctoral fellow in the Chair for Historical Trauma and Transformation at Stellenbosch University. He holds a PhD in Literature from Stellenbosch University and a master’s degree in African Literature from the University of Ibadan. His research takes the Nigeria-Biafra Civil war and its afterlife as a point of departure in examining the links that exist between nostalgia and political violence in African countries with emotionally charged histories. He is also interested in the marginal voices that come to the fore when grand narratives of violence are unsettled by paying attention to the ways in which axes of identity such as gender, class, sexuality, race and dis/ability intersect to generate distinct experiences of violence and trauma.

The #EndSARS protests started as a citizen-led online movement before it spilled onto the streets of Nigerian cities, called attention to the murderous activities of a special unit in the police called Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS). Due to its strategic position as the nation’s commercial hub, Lagos was at the centre of things as the protests grew in intensity. As pockets of leaderless protests which were mostly organised on Twitter began to spring up in parts of Lagos, protesters started converging around the Lekki Toll Gate, which became almost like Egypt’s Tahir Square. At the toll gate, which serves as a portal to Lekki, a gentrified part of Lagos, protesters sang protest songs, listened to stories of brutal, and sometimes deathly encounters with the Nigerian state, and collectively mourned those who had been consumed by the state’s necropolitical exercise of power (See Mbembe’s Necropolitics). Eventually, the toll gate assumed symbolic importance as the heart of the protests; a massive stage was set up where several activists came to address protesters, and musical artists also staged short performances for those present. The atmosphere was generally peaceful and celebrative. Events at the toll gate were livestreamed on social media platforms as well as by mainstream media houses. A community of care where the most vulnerable were catered for started budding among those at the toll gate. The highlight of events at the toll gate was a candle light vigil where pictures of those who died in the hands of the police were displayed and their names collectively chanted – to invoke their presence and weave their memory into the realm of cultural memory where worthy ancestors are granted eternal board. Given that events at the vigil were beamed live across the world, and against the backdrop of the George Floyd protests in the United States, it is possible to argue that the vigil courted a form of transnational mourning space for those murdered.

On the 20th of October 2020, the army was deployed to the toll plaza in a bid to disperse protesters who had positioned the place as the nerve centre of the protests. In the end, many protesters were gunned down by the army. The killings not only make legible the human cost of unbridled impunity and injustice as well as the way Nigerians encounter the state as a destructive force that seeks to cadere its citizens, to “fall its citizens” (Adebanwi and Obadare 2010); it also called attention to the “imposed code of silence” (Ejiogu 2012) with which the government governs public remembrance. Hence, in a memorial landscape that is as arid as the Sahara, converting a toll plaza at the heart of Lagos state into a memorial to those killed by the state and its agents becomes a radical, ‘Antigonean’ form of politics (See Sophocle’s Antigone). It is this ritual of mourning and remembrance and the kind of radical memory work it does that this piece seeks to think through. Given Nigeria’s poor culture of public mourning and memorialization, especially when it concerns victims of state violence, it is important to pay closer attention to the citizen driven form of memorialization performed at the Lekki Toll Gate.

Nigeria’s fraught history of violence, of coups, countercoups, murderous ethnoreligious clashes, a civil war and daily killings by terrorists has created a nation-space haunted by teeming restless ghosts. These ghosts whose voices the country has mostly refused an audience have a membership that goes as far back as the colonial genocidal pacifications carried out in places like the Benin Kingdom and Opobo. Although they are denied narrative presence within the country’s historiographic landscape in the spirit of ‘moving on’, these spectral presences have been granted some narrative agency within Nigeria’s creative landscape; from literary narratives like Chris Abani’s Song for Night (2007), Ben Okri’s The Famished Road (1991) to Eedris Abdulkareem’s angst-laden song, “Jaga Jaga Reloaded” (2021), these ghosts have persistently staged an insurgent demand that they be listened to.  Thus, during the #EndSars protests when the toll plaza was positioned as a portal where the past could bleed into the present, these spectres stormed out to claim the narrative space they were offered. Thus, the toll gate was transformed into a space where restless ghosts of the past could be listened to, and forcefully reinserted into the nation’s memory landscape. This effectively transformed a thoroughly capitalist zone of operation into a memorial to those ungrieved/ungrievable lives who were considered disposable. In a sense, unbridled capitalism is confronted with the violence it wants us to forget but which haunts it perpetually.  It also served as an opportunity for being with spectres that continue to haunt the postcolony but whose stories remain silenced, their names unspoken and the grief of their loss locked in dark, private chambers. By opening a portal to these ghosts whose presence bear witness to the incorrigibly violent nature of the state, the protesters had radically ruptured the government-imposed sense of progressive history and time, and the desire to claim a more ethical use of force than their military predecessors. Thus, in asserting the grievability of these ghosts their belonging is reclaimed (See Butler’s Frames of War), and an affective community where their status as “having been” is acknowledged (See Ruin 2018).

Shari Epel (2020) calls attention to the reparative value of such rituals of mourning in a chapter titled “How do We Talk of Bhalagwe?” Writing about the exhumations and reburials that her organisation arranged for victims of the Gukuranhundi massacres, she observes that as the bones of the dead were being exhumed, their memory began to emerge from the archive of silence; relatives who had remained silent about their loss suddenly felt the need to retrieve pictures of the departed from dark spaces where they had kept them. The process also created an avenue for remembering, talking, celebrating and reinserting the dead into cultural memory as vibrant members of the community. In a sense, by being with, and listening to the dead whose bones were being exhumed and re-membered, both the living and the dead found some form of repair. This is also true for what happened at the Lekki Toll Gate; although the place was not a place of burial in a literal sense, and there were no exhumations there, the candle light vigil not only transformed the site into a memorial to those who had died as a result of state violence, it also created a space where those ghostly presences could be summoned through ritual acts such a collective incantatory invocation of their names whilst displaying their pictures on large screens, which reparatively reinserted them into memory. In this sense, memory of the dead becomes a potent tool for mobilization; politics is then positioned as a realm comprising the living and the dead.

As shells of the live rounds used to mow down Lekki protesters were being harvested as proof of the wanton killings that occurred there, frantic moves geared towards reopening the toll gate began in earnest. This represents an attempt to enforce another round of collective forgetting which helps whitewash history; in the end this makes it impossible to demand justice from the state. However, many Nigerians have continued to resist such attempts because within protest memory the toll plaza had become sacralised as a place of mourning and re-membrance. In the end, the state’s murderous move, which represents yet another episode in the long history of violence that has been the bane of the country, succeeded in adding more voices to the coterie of restless ghosts that travail the country’s haunted landscape. Those angry voices continue to murmur from the dark. And to engender the kind of “empathic repair” (Gobodo-Madikizela 2020) needed to start the journey to a liveable future, we have to be ready to be with, to listen to, and heal the dead. We should hearken to the words of Avery Gordon (1999) that we must reckon with those absent presences and offer them “a hospitable memory out of a concern for justice” (64)[1]. Hence, for the sake of justice we must like Horatio be ready to speak to them, to the presences that lie in the shadows; and like Odysseus we too must listen to dead Tiresias in charting a way to the future.

Works Cited

Abani, Chris. Song for Night. Akashic Books, 2007.

Adebanwi, Wale and Ebenezer, Obadare, editors. Introduction: Excess and Abjection in the Study of the African State. Encountering the Nigerian State. Palgrave Macmillan, 2010, pp. 1-28.

Butler, Judith. Frames of War: When is Life Grievable? 2009. Verso, 2010.

Eppel, Shari. “How Shall We Talk of Bhalagwe? Remembering the Gukurahundi Era in Matabeleland, Zimbabwe”. Postcolonial Haunting: Transforming Memories of Historical Trauma, edited by Kim Wale, Gobodo-Madikizela, Prager. Palgrave Macmillan, 2020 pp. 259-284. 

Gobodo-Madikizela Pumla. “Aesthetics of Memory, Witness to Violence and a Call to Repair.” Postcolonial Haunting: Transforming Memories of Historical Trauma, edited by Kim Wale, Gobodo-Madikizela, Prager. Palgrave Macmillan, 2020, pp. 119-149.

Gordon, Avery. Ghostly Matter: Haunting and Sociological Imagination. 1997. Minnesota UP, 1999.

Okri, Ben. The Famished Road. Anchor Books, 1991.

Ruin, Hans. Being with the Dead: Burial, Ancestral Politics, and the Roots of Historical Consciousness. Stanford UP, 2018.

[1] Several states have set up judicial panels to investigate the atrocities committed by SARS. While one could read this as a way of listening to ghosts in order to heal the dead, there have been several allegations that the panels are merely performative spaces where forms of “deaf listening” (Jolly 2012) are being practiced. Relatives of dead victims of police brutality have expressed doubt concerning the possibility of getting any form of justice.  

The 50TH Anniversary of the End of the Nigerian Civil War: Revisiting the Ante-Bellum Strategies

Frank Aragbonfoh AbumereFrank Aragbonfoh Abumere is the Leader of the Global South (Developing World) Research Unit at the Arctic University of Norway. Until recently, he was a: Senior Member of St Antony’s College, University of Oxford; Visiting Fellow, African Studies Centre, Oxford School of Global and Area Studies, University of Oxford; and Visiting Research Fellow, Department of International History, London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE).

On the 50th anniversary of the end of the Nigeria Civil War, the consequences of the war still plague the Nigerian state. In other words, the Nigerian state is not merely faced with residual losses; the tragedies of the war have become recurrent phenomena. The combats and deaths of the war might have ended; nevertheless, the destruction, devastation, disunity and enmity left behind by the war are a spectre hunting the Nigerian state today. This prompts one to ponder on what could have been done strategically in order to prevent the war since failure to prevent the war was largely a failure of strategy. Except such failure of strategy is examined, even if history does not repeat itself, it may rhyme. The war has already happened once as tragedy, it should not happen secondly as a farce.

When dealing with crises and conflicts, many times we commit four errors of strategy. One error of strategy is the failure to use hard power when and where it is required. Another error of strategy is the failure to use soft power when and where it is required. The other errors of strategy are using only hard power when and where a combination of hard and soft powers (smart power) is required and using only soft power when and where a combination of soft and hard powers (smart power) is required. These errors of strategy sometimes result in grave and disastrous consequences. In order to prevent, resolve, manage or deal with crises and conflicts successfully, we need to understand that some crises and conflicts require hard power, some require soft power, yet others require both hard and soft powers (smart power). Hence, I argue that relying on hard power when and where soft power is required, relying on soft power when and where hard power is required, and relying on either hard or soft power alone when both are required to prevent, resolve, manage or deal with crises and conflicts is a project in futility which may result in grave and disastrous consequences. In the ante-bellum period of the Nigeria Civil War, the afore-mentioned four errors of strategy made it impossible to prevent the war. 

The war failed to be avoided because of a combination of errors of strategy by the principal actors in the ante-bellum period. I shall focus on the principal actors of the ante-bellum period since it was their actions and omissions that were of utmost importance to the country during that period. I am not necessarily isolating the principal actors as individuals; I see them both as individuals and representatives of the various collaborators with whom they acted or failed to act, and the various constituencies they represented.

The Coup Leaders

The January 1966 coup leaders believed it was only through hard power that they could bring about the revolution they wanted. This extreme reliance on military hard power did not only result in the July 1966 counter-coup and the subsequent crisis which culminated in secession and civil war, it would also have a domino effect that would go on to establish a coup culture and military rule in Nigeria until 29th May, 1999.

The July 1966 counter-coup leaders believed the only way they could get the ‘justice’ they wanted for the slain northern political and military leaders, the change of leadership of the country, and the secession of the northern region was through hard power. Like the January 1966 coup leaders’ extreme reliance on hard power, the July 1966 counter-coup leaders’ extreme reliance on hard power did not only result in the subsequent crisis which culminated in secession and civil war, it would also have a domino effect that would go on to establish a coup culture and military rule in Nigeria until 29th May, 1999.


Aguiyi-Ironsi’s failure to ‘adequately’ punish the January 1966 coup leaders and Gowon’s total failure to punish the July 1966 counter-coup leaders can be considered to be grave strategic failures of relying on soft power when hard power should have been relied on. Aguiyi-Ironsi was seen as being too ‘soft’, rather than ‘hard’, on the January 1966 coup leaders. This contributed to northern military officers’ quest for ‘justice’ or vengeance which resulted in the July 1966 counter-coup. To what extent Aguiyi-Ironsi should have used hard power to adequately punish the coup leaders is difficult to tell. But having already used hard power to successfully check the coup leaders and arrest most of them, prosecuting and adequately punishing them were the next steps he failed to take. On his part, Gowon’s placating and pacifying the July 1966 counter-coup leaders rather than punishing them contributed to the Igbo (in particular) and the easterners (in general) deciding they were no longer safe anywhere in the country except in their own region. It was this grounded feeling of insecurity that would subsequently, one year later, lead to secession and consequently the war.

Aguiyi-Ironsi did not use military power to stop northerners from massacring the Igbo in particular and killing easterners in general. Here, Aguiyi-Ironsi needed to act urgently; he should have immediately used hard power to stop the massacre, and then employ soft power to pacify, reconcile and reintegrate both sides of the conflict. Gowon too did not use hard power to stop the northern soldiers who were massacring Igbo soldiers in particular and also killing soldiers from the eastern region in general. Furthermore, Gowon did not use military force to stop northern civilians from massacring Igbo civilians in particular and killing eastern civilians in general. 

Aguiyi-Ironsi opted for extreme pacifism and persuasion to the extent that although the country was very volatile, he failed to employ military power to quell the ongoing unrest and to prevent the imminent violence that was almost certain to happen. He only relied on ‘soft’ consultations and persuasions; he went on a nationwide tour to seek the support of leaders in the different regions (especially traditional rulers) in pacifying and persuading their people to shelf violence. It was on that tour that he too was assassinated. While engaging on pacifism and persuasion, Aguiyi-Ironsi should have at least put the security threat level on ‘red’, and hence put his hard power on alert since he knew the country was facing severe security risk.


Like Aguiyi-Ironsi, Gowon extremely relied on soft power and failed to use hard power when he should have used it to prevent an imminent civil war. In essence, he failed to combine hard power with soft power; in other words, he failed to use smart power when it was required. While engaging in pacifism and persuasion, Gowon too should have at least put the security threat level on ‘red’, and hence put his hard power on alert since he knew the country was facing severe security risk. Gowon believed that persuasion would work; hence the Aburi meeting which led to the Aburi Accord. He would later agree that persuasion failed. Moreover, he believed that ‘appeasement’ of Ojukwu and the eastern region would work.                                                                                                                                           

But Gowon would later agree that appeasement failed. Even when using hard power, Gowon was extremely cautious to the extent that rather than using military action to prevent the secession, he opted for, and attempted to use, police action. It was only when his first and preferred option failed that he opted to use military action. Nevertheless, to his credit, Gowon was conscious of the fact that in trying to prevent a civil war like the Nigerian one, the problem with using excessive hard power is that even if it succeeds to prevent the war, it will still be counter-productive later on. Using too much hard power, even if it succeeds in preventing the secession, may make the Igbo resentful of Nigeria. If the Igbo’s resentment of Nigeria is a continuous one, then this raises questions of domination and legitimacy. Continuously forcing a people to be under you against their will is arguably tantamount to domination and hence the question of legitimacy will becloud the achieved ‘forced unity.’


During the January 1966 coup, Ojukwu relied on hard power to contribute to stopping the coup leaders from taking over the country. After the coup, during the subsequent crisis that ensued, Ojukwu initially relied on soft power – as evidenced by the Aburi meeting and accord. But, he would later resort to hard power to get the secession of the Eastern Region. Firstly, when he needed to use hard power during the January 1966 coup, he did. Secondly, when he needed to use soft power during the subsequent crisis which ensued after the coup, he did. However, thirdly, when he totally jettisoned soft power and absolutely relied on hard power in order to guarantee the secession of the Eastern Region, he fell into an error of strategy. During the Aburi meeting he wanted a clause to be included in the accord; this was to allow regions to secede if they so wish. But the clause was rejected by the representatives of the federal government, hence its non-inclusion in the accord. So, we can say Ojukwu first attempted to use soft power, when that failed, he resorted to hard power. Nevertheless, the war became inevitable the moment he decided to totally jettison soft power and absolutely rely on hard power. Ojukwu over-relied on hard power and then got his strategy wrong.  


In summary, it is not that Ojukwu, the January 1966 coup leaders and the July 1966 counter-coup leaders should have totally rejected hard power and absolutely opted for soft power. So also, it is not that Aguiyi-Ironsi and Gowon should have totally rejected soft power and absolutely opted for hard power. Soft power might work extremely well, or it might not even work at all.  So also, hard power might work extremely well, or it might not even work at all. Soft power might work well to some extent and might not work well to some extent. So also, hard power might work well to some extent and it might not work well to some extent. Some contexts require soft power just as some contexts require hard power. But some contexts require smart power. Given that smart power contains the resources of both soft and hard powers, smart power has the best possible chance of success and hence it is the best possible option.