Written by Jennifer Azubuike
Fayemi appeared in the living room in khaki shorts and a singlet with a small bag slung over her right shoulder. She carried her sneakers across the room and without a word to her mother, dumped them just outside the front door before going back inside. A couple minutes later, she re-emerged with a t-shirt over her singlet unbuttoned and seemed ready to hurry out the door.
“Where are you going, young woman?”
Fayemi was reluctant to reply. She knew her mother would not support her joining a potentially volatile thing as a protest. She had waited for the elderly woman to leave the house before going out but Mami lingered and didn’t seem to be going anywhere soon. Besides, there’s been pressure mounting on Fayemi from watching the protest unfold online. She craved to be part of it; to be part of the peaceful protests that have been going on nationwide for about a week, including in her city.
“I am going to the protest, Mami.”
“The protest of the youths against SARS.”
Mami lowered her head and looked at her daughter from above her glasses.
“What is SARS and what did they take from you?”
“Ah mami, so you’ve not heard? SARS is a Special Anti-robbery Squad set up by the government to tackle fraud but it has turned against the youths. They harrass, intimidate and steal from young people. Ask Bro Dami, he was their victim, recently.”
Mami gently set down her phone and adjusted her glasses. “You mean my own Damilola?”
“Yes mami, Bro Dami suffered in the hands of those hoodlums in uniform.”
“SARS, SARS.” Mami muttered to herself. “Is that like the police?”
“Yes mami, it is a special unit in the police force.” Fayemi explained.
“But Dami hasn’t told me of any recent altercation with anybody.” (Her phone rings). “Good! It’s your brother. Hello omo mi, how are you?”
Damilola: Hello Mami. I am fine. How are you?
Mami: Errhmm…omo mi. What is your sister saying about you being arrested by the police?
Damilola: Oh about that? Mami I wasn’t really arrested. I was traveling to the East from Lagos, and was driving my Range Rover with friends. When we got to Benin, I was stopped by the SARS men and asked several questions to which I answered respectfully.
They requested for my work ID card as I had earlier told them I’m a Marine engineer. I showed it to them. They asked for my phone, and went through my pictures. After seeing pictures of me onboard my company’s vessels and other marine ships, Mami they still doubted me and insisted they will take me and my friends to their station for detention.
Mami: They will take you to their station on what charges?
Damilola: They say on suspicion of fraud.
Mami: What? Did they find any implicating item on you?
Damilola: No ma
Mami: How about your friends?
Damilola: Nothing implicating was found on them either.
Mami: So what happened?
Damilola: We were threatened and told that if we were taken to their station, anything could happen to us since it will be their word against ours. We were asked to give them a certain amount of money if we wanted to be let go. My friends insisted we didn’t do anything to warrant paying a ransom or being detained but that didn’t help. Instead they got agitated and readied their rifles to shoot. I had to find a way to de-escalate the situation. I offered to pay the amount they were requesting which was a sum of 80,000. Mami, this may be hard for you to believe but they drove me in their van to an ATM location to make the withdrawal for them. As soon as I gave them the money they let us go. They didn’t take a statement or sign anything as to the reason they were letting us go after their initial suspicion.
Mami: My Lord and my God! Dami, how did you not mention this to me.
Damilola: I didn’t want to have you worrying about me. I learned it is a pattern of harassment of young people and that some people are never so lucky to be let go unharmed.
Mami: So they steal from well-to-do young citizens through intimidation under the guise of investigating fraud?
Damilola: You summarized it well ma.
Mami: This is serious! Where are you now?
Damilola: Mami, calm down. I am back at my place in Ikoyi. I am safe. How did you get to hear about it anyway?
Mami: Your sister just told me. She said she is going for a protest. The Fayemi I know has never been in a fight before. So I was surprised to hear her talk about going for a protest.
Damilola: Haha…Mami, a protest is not a fight. The youths are gathering daily on the streets with playcards. The intention is to get the attention of the government against SARS harassment. As far as I know it has been peaceful.
Mami: I am still not comfortable letting her go. You and her are the only family I have. I cannot afford losing any of you.
Fayemi grumbled on the side. “Me, I want to go!”
Damilola: Mami. I think you should let her go. The people on the street now are people like myself and her. Besides, Fayemi could fall a victim one day if this menace is not curtailed and the only way to draw attention to it is by speaking up now.
Mami looked disgruntled. She’s still not comfortable with the idea.
Mami: How about you?
Damilola: Mami, I joined the protest yesterday. I am going again this evening. It is happening nationwide.
Mami: Omo mi, please be careful. I am proud of your generation speaking up against oppression but I don’t want any hurt coming to you. Promise me you will be careful.
Damilola: I will be fine Mami. I have to go now. I love you. Tell Yemi, I love her too!
Mami: Okay, I love you too my dear.
When the call ended, Mami sat still looking thoughtful. Fayemi wasn’t sure if she had gotten her mother’s approval to go or not. To find out, she could ask or make a move towards the door and see her mother’s reaction. She chose the latter. She has only taken a few steps when she was startled by Mami’s brash outburst.
“Where do you think you are going?”
“I…I…thought I could…uhmm..the protest.”
“My friend, will you go back inside this minute?”
“But Mami.” Fayemi tried protesting.
“If I repeat myself, young woman, you will have yourself to blame this evening.”
Fayemi stomped back to her room grumbling and complaining while Mami returned to looking listless.
* * *
In Ikoyi, Damilola is still on vacation from work and will not be returning for another 2 weeks. In the meantime, he felt motivated to support, in any way he could, to the protest. Online, he had contributed some funds. His friend Ola and his girlfriend printed T-shirts with inscriptions like ‘#EndSARS’ and ‘#EndPoliceBrutality’ and distributed them for free to youths on protest grounds. For three days in a row, Damilola went out to the streets with his friends. The daily pattern is to walk to the city main toll gate with placards in hand chatting ‘EndSARS.’ When they encounter armed policemen, they sit on the floor or raise their arms in the air signalling they were peaceful.
The long walks the last 3 days were physically exhausting even though he was excited to be part of it. He lay in bed this morning scrolling through his news feed when Ola’s text popped in.
Ola: Dude, where are you?
Damilola: At home. What’s up?
Ola: Jess and I are going out at 3 pm. You coming?
Damilola: I’m having muscle aches, man.
Ola: Sorry bro. Jess is here. She’s suggesting you take some painkillers.
Damilola: Thanks. I have done that but I think I need some rest too.
Ola: Okay, get some rest today, tomorrow we move.
Damilola: Guy, I saw a statement online from the Nigerian military earlier. Something about starting an operation ‘crocodile smile.’
Ola: Really? I haven’t seen it. What is it about?
Damilola: Not sure but the statement reads that they, the military, are starting cyber warfare.
Ola: Haha…what are they now? Some kind of internet crime police? Metcheww. That is the problem with this country. People don’t know their job description. Imagine the army spending time on the internet searching for criminals.
Damilola: But on a serious note Ola, I have a gut feeling that it is a tactic to scatter the protest.
Ola: How do you mean?
Damilola: You know that the strength of our protest is majorly online. With some incredible youths starting and organizing the entire peaceful protest online, including health aid for the injured and bail for the arrested protesters.
Damilola: I think the army involvement is so bizarre that I suspect it is targeted at the prominent youths using the online platform to organize this protest.
Ola: Hmmm…you have a point there. So you think the army might be used to hurt some youths thereby inducing fear in the populace and crushing the protest?
Ola: When did they say they will start the operation?
Damilola: It reads here October 20th.
Ola: That’s four days from now. Well, I don’t know what to say. It is certainly concerning. In the meantime, I know the youths are not backing down. For now, the focus is on the candlelight vigil tonight. (Damilola phone rings. He excused himself from the conversation to take his call).
Damilola: Sup Yemi. Everything okay?
Fayemi: Yeah, everything is okay. Just feeling cooped up indoors.
Damilola: Mami still won’t let you go?
Damilola: Well, it’s for your safety, at least as Mami sees it. You can still protest online, you know.
Fayemi: (She feigned crying) I know! But it’s not the same as being out there in the crowd.
Damilola: There’s nothing I can do Yemi. It appears Mami has made up her mind; just roll with it. She needs your company anyway.
Fayemi: I have an idea. Can I come over to your place? That way I can go to protests with you.
Damilola: No. Besides, most roads are blocked due to the protest.
(Fayemi feigned crying again but soon gave up after sensing Damilola is not being affected by it)
Fayemi: Bro Dami, I heard that SARS has been disbanded.
Damilola: Yes it has, on paper.
Fayemi: What do you mean ‘on paper?’
Damilola: Yemi, SARS has been disbanded annually since 2017. Yet, the unit has continued operation. We will continue the protest until it is effectively done this time.
Fayemi: Hmmm….I like the idea. Also I learned some women online coordinate funds and care for protesters.
Damilola: Yes, that is true.
Fayemi: Bro Dami, I am so excited about what is happening. I just wish I could go out.
Damilola: Me too, but remember it’s not about excitement but the end goal for greater good. Where’s Mami now?
Fayemi: She’s in her room. I think she is taking a nap.
Damilola: Okay. I’ve got to go now. Let me know if you need anything and be a good girl, okay?
Damilola: Bye bye now.
* * *
Two days later, Damilola, Ola and two of their friends were standing together on a protest ground in the midst of a crowd when someone complained of thirst. Ola offered to go find some drinks. One of the other young men joined him to help. Some 20 minutes later Ola ran back to Damilola’s location panting hard.
“Dami we need to leave here now?”
“Are you okay? Why?”
“Some hard looking boys carrying crude arms just drove in, in buses. They are chasing and hurting people.”
“Why? Are they part of the protest?”
“Dami, I don’t know but we need to go now! And we can’t go in that direction. Let’s find a way out the other way.”
“(Damilola, still looking very confused) Should we atleast alert these other people so they don’t get hurt?”
“Dami, lets go. We will shout as we run.” (And so they did until they were safely out of harm’s way).
(Inside Ola’s living room, Damilola slumped into a couch breathless. A young man had followed them into the apartment running for his dear life. He is a complete stranger to them but understanding he was seeking shelter, they accommodated him).
“Ola, why did you say we should run again? Oh my God! I have never run the way I did today since high school. (Ola who is more physically fit was least concerned about the marathon they just did rather he looked distressed and focused on his phone) Ola?”
“Jess. Dami, I haven’t heard from Jess. I left her here for the protest this afternoon.”
“Did you call her number?”
“Yea, but it’s switched off.”
“I hope she’s fine but you need to calm down so we can think. (Damilola gestured to Ola who paced back and forth restlessly. A couple seconds later, there’s a loud bang on the front door making all three men jump).”
“Ola, Ola. Please open the door!”
On hearing Jess’s voice Ola raced to the door. Jess walked in with two other ladies and they shut the door behind them. Ola hugged his girlfriend without another word.
“Thank God you’re okay. What happened?”
“My mom called me to help distribute the food she prepared and packed for protesters on the street. (She starts to explain. Stopping momentarily to catch her breath) We drove together to Alausa protest Center to drop them off. We had started distribution when people started running. It was confusing at first but soon we got tips that hired thugs were hurting people. So mom, I and these two women left in her minivan. She just dropped us off.”
“(Ola looked on thoughtfully) Who would hire thugs to disrupt a peaceful protest?”
“I suspect it is the handiwork of some politicians.” (The young man among them who has been quiet all the while chipped in. Everyone turned in his direction and nodded in agreement. Damilola walked up to the man, introduced himself and offered a handshake. The young man rose to his feet, accepted it and introduced himself too. His name is Maxwell. Soon, the introduction went round and everyone got a little more comfortable with each other. They got the understanding that they are on the same side of the fight against police brutality. Ola generously offered to accommodate everyone until morning but the two ladies declined and soon left on their own while Maxwell stayed. That night, Damilola, Ola, Jess and Maxwell stayed up late reminiscing the events of the past days. Everyone shared their experience of police brutality. Jess recounted the emotional story of Chijoke – the young boy killed unjustly by a SARS group called awkuzu SARS. Damilola asked if anyone knew the story behind the photo of a young woman, widely circulated online, who sat on a lion statue holding the national flag wrapped around its pole but refused to let it fly. Maxwell explained that the young woman lost her brothers to police violence on the same day and justice is yet to be given to the family. Finally, they pleasantly recollected the memory of the candlelight vigil held two nights before, nationwide, in honor of the deceased. Before going to bed that night, the meeting seemed to renew a resolution inside everyone to continue with the protest until tangible reform is done within the police and justice is given to families of victims of police brutality)
CLICK TO READ PART II HERE