#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.