Notes on Leaving Home

Ọlákìtán T Ọlọ́fínmọ̀mí

“no one leaves home unless
home is the mouth of a shark” – Warsan Shire

For as long as I can remember, there has been a power tussle between the ruling class and the common people in Nigeria. As a child I heard stories of the mysterious assassinations and indiscriminate arrests of journalists and activists during the military era. I heard of protests against increased fees in public universities that later turned violent because the government sent police with batons and tear gas to converse with aggrieved students. I heard tales of a time when the naira had the same value as the dollar and witnessed, within 20 years, a decline in the value of the naira until 400 naira could no longer buy a bowl of garri in the market. For context, a bowl of garri was 40 naira 16 years ago. However, I never witnessed the struggle escalate into widespread civil unrest until the End SARS protests of 2020, which were calling for the abolition of the Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS) that had been subjecting young Nigerians to police brutality. 

I do not remember the exact day the protests started. I don’t think there was a designated start date; Nigerians simply got tired of dying at the hands of security forces funded with taxpayers’ money. They decided enough was enough and took to the streets. I can recall, vividly, the Tuesday everything went black. I was at home, oscillating between despair at the government’s lack of commitment towards meeting the five demands of the End SARS movement and hope at the tenacity of young people across the country. For the first time, I saw Nigerians from different parts of the country come together to demand that justice be served, without recourse to gender, ethnicity or religious background. I had never been more hopeful for a united Nigeria. 

Prior to that, I had concerns about the protests. I felt that the protests, while long overdue, had only garnered high levels of sympathy and outrage because the victims were largely male. Long before the brutal killing that sparked the End SARS protests of 2020, the Nigeria Police Force habitually targeted, arrested, and assaulted women under the guise of ridding the country of social nuisances. On one such incident, in Abuja, the capital of Nigeria, members of the police force arrested women on ambiguous moral grounds such as indecent dressing, tagged them as sex workers, and allegedly raped some of them while in custody, in exchange for their freedom. The situation was as horrible as it was silly. When did rape become the punishment for any crime? After that incident, local feminist groups took to the streets to protest the high level of gender-based violence in the country. Not only was the overall level of sympathy and outrage low, but on social media, Nigerian men also mocked the protests and resorted, as was their custom, to advising women to avoid going out at night, and to avoid dressing in such a way as to attract negative attention. 

Given that history, I was naturally jealous that the prevalent disposition towards police brutality was one of sympathy and outrage and not the usual victim-blaming that pervades the atmosphere whenever the victims are predominantly female. Nonetheless, I was also hopeful at the prospect of Nigerians putting aside our differences and finally agreeing on one fundamental issue that affects us all. But hope, they say, is a thing with wings. 

On Tuesday 20th October 2020, the world watched in horror as men of the force opened fire at peaceful protesters at the Lekki tollgate, effectively striking fear in places where hope once lived. 

They wounded some, killed some, threw some bodies into the water, and carted some bodies away. In the aftermath of the gunshots, some brave Nigerians banded together to remove a bullet from an injured man’s legs. We watched that man die, and we all came undone. 

Till now we have no explanation for the massacre, no apology, and no tangible acknowledgement from the government.

My energy level took a nosedive after that incident. My first bodily reaction was diarrhoea. I found myself running back and forth between the toilet and the living room like my mother often does when afraid. It was a mild comfort in that moment, to learn that I am like my mother in that regard. I thought that maybe, like her, I would survive the war between the Nigerian government and its people because it was not the first time the government would unleash terror on its citizens; I was born amidst similar nationwide unrest. My mother fondly tells the story of how she trekked around Jos Metropolis in anxious preparation for my birth after she woke up on her due date to find that economic activities within Plateau State had been brought to a halt due to widespread protests and violence stemming from people’s rebellion against a brutal dictatorship. 

The military government back then responded by further perpetuating abuse of power, using the armed forces, illegal decrees, and every other means available to attack and subdue citizens without offering any real solution to the problems that birthed the protests. The crackdowns were as lethal as they were unimaginative; illegal arrests, intimidations, contract and extra-judicial killings were the order of the day. In 2020, Buhari’s government borrowed a page from that playbook, starting with the shooting at Lekki on the night of 20th October, a move reminiscent of the Lagos Bar Beach executions of the 70s. 

That night, in between my trips to the toilet, I screamed, cursed, covered up my windows in panic, curled up on my bed and cried. As I cried, it occurred to me that most of the upheavals that had plagued my country since its inception were a result of the insecurities of power-drunk, egotistical men. And I wondered whether I’d ever be free of men and their wars, whether the time would ever come when men would stop dragging women into their battles. I wondered whether bad governance was the curse of living in a country rich with mineral resources and whether my generation would be the one to break this curse. 

Online, there were reports of gunshots in different parts of the city, and images of burning buildings. I imagined the gunshots were happening behind my house, that the fire was burning just outside my door. When my nerves calmed a bit, the only thought I could hold was how to leave Nigeria as soon as possible. I wrote a long-winded letter to the admissions committee of a university in North America, requesting for an application fee waiver. The thought consumed me in the days after the massacre. I put out word to my friends that I would gladly marry a citizen of any developed country so I could escape Nigeria. I told an older friend that I would leave my job in the IT sector and take a less paying job in a developed country just to leave Nigeria. I saw pictures of people leaving the country, and I got angry with my parents for not bequeathing me dual citizenship.

*

A couple of hours after the massacre, a dear friend of mine shared a note she wrote to her family, in case Nigeria killed her. I read the opening paragraph and told her, “You will not die in Jesus’ name!” It was a phrase I often heard my mother use in circumstances beyond her control, one I had grown to be mildly irritated and amused by. But in the wake of the massacre, I understood its significance. 

As a Nigerian, one is often confronted with situations beyond one’s direct control. Like the Saturday afternoon when members of SARS stopped my partner and me on our way from his house, searched our bags and the car, and on finding nothing interesting, proceeded to ask for our identification cards while carrying out an illegal search through my partner’s phone. What saved us that day was the presence of my work identification card because I had accidentally taken my work bag with me. The police officers kept telling me, “Madam na you save this bros, na because of you we dey release am.” And I kept stroking their ego, assuring them that we were good citizens of the country with legal means of livelihood and reminding them that I was their sister, a fellow Yorùbá person. 

Another instance was the Thursday morning during the first Covid-19 national lockdown when an irate policeman stopped my partner and me on our way back from the store where we had gone to get some food. The angry man waved us to a stop in the middle of the road, forcefully tried to open my door, and on finding it locked, cocked his gun at me and threatened to open fire if I did not step out of the car immediately. His eyes were bloodshot – the stuff of nightmares – and I nearly peed in my dress as we made a run for it. I shudder at the thought of what could have happened if we had not run away from that man, or if I had stepped out of the car to explain that we had only gone to buy bread and sausages, or if my partner had not used the central lock, or if my window had been a bit lower so the officer could have successfully opened the door from inside, or if the officer had fired his gun just a second before we drove off.

When I narrated the ordeal to a friend that evening, she remarked that I was lucky to have survived as several others had died during similar encounters with the police. But I do not feel lucky. Instead, I am angry. I am angry that a policeman’s first response to a locked car door was a cocked gun. I am angry that random and illegal searches have become a thing in this country. I am angry that I am more afraid of a police van than a common tout. I am angry at my helplessness in the midst of it all.

*

The helplessness I felt during my brush with the police was a trifle compared to what I felt in the days after the massacre. Nothing could have prepared me for the terror of those days.

The first day after, the state governor came on television to tell us the incidents that led to the massacre at Lekki tollgate were beyond his direct control, and that nobody died. Next, members of the police force went on a rampage, assaulting unarmed citizens with such brazen cruelty one began to doubt whether they were still funded by taxpayers’ money. Videos surfaced on the internet of men of the force shooting and killing people and shaking hands over the dead bodies. It was as though Nigerian youths had stepped on the scorpion’s tail and now had to deal with its anger. 

Barely two days after the massacre, the president, who, ideally, is the only person with the power to order the kind of operation that happened at Lekki, recorded a 13-minute video where he basically told international bodies to back off, told Nigerians to go about their business as usual, and issued veiled threats to protesters. And I couldn’t stop thinking about how we had only requested that the government stop a unit of the police from killing us, and how the government had reacted as if we had asked them to stop looting the national treasury for their personal purposes, as if we had asked them to give up the riches they got at our expense, like we had asked them to explain how government officials of the world’s poverty capital could be so highly paid, as if we had asked them for something so radical that we had to be killed for asking. 

We only asked for our lives, and they responded by killing us.

*

After the president’s apathetic address to the nation on 22nd October, a forced sense of normalcy returned. I ventured out of my house to find some shops reopened, all road blockages removed, and other vestiges of the protests cleared off. On street corners where men once gathered to drink to a better Nigeria, men gathered with long faces and spoke in hushed tones. Their despair was palpable. Online, people had returned to regular programming. The optimism that once pervaded Nigerian Twitter had degenerated into petty squabbles and tasteless jokes. Some people accused the Feminist Coalition of some sinister agenda for their role in crowdsourcing and managing funds to sustain the protests, while some resorted to making jokes about the situation in the way that we make jokes about atrocities we cannot comprehend. The massacre was a national tragedy for which we had no one to hold accountable, and being the supposed happiest people on earth, we used our wit to mask our pain.

*

I found succour in music. 

In the space between distressed recollection of the massacre and remembrance of the hope that coloured Nigeria before it, I listened to songs by African Americans on YouTube. For some reason, I am drawn to the heart-rending vocals that characterise those songs. And I heard the lyrics for the first time. When Jennifer Hudson sings ‘A Change Is Gonna Come’, I imagine a Nigeria like the one I grew up in – in Ibadan. A Nigeria where garri is not too expensive for the common man, where neighbours do not knock on my parents’ door to beg for food. A Nigeria where we do not live in fear of coming across policemen every time we step outside. A Nigeria where nobody is above the rule of law, where laws are fair, and protests are peaceful, and the government does not hire thugs to disrupt and discredit those protests. I imagine a Nigeria we do not have to flee from because, as Warsan Shire puts it, “home has become the mouth of a shark.” 

But I am jolted back to reality, quickly, by news of another extra-judicial killing in Oshodi. A video of two boys crying over their elder brother’s dead body, fatally shot by men of the force, surfaces on the internet. News of the illegal arrests of prominent figures in the protest, seizing of passports, and freezing of bank accounts filters through social media. I have come to understand why my parents always warned me to never participate in protests. I also understand why they never said much about the rising levels of insecurity in the country. I used to think of them as unbothered, but I know better now because, like them, I now know what it is like to endure a war between the government and the citizens.

Sadly, with this understanding comes the realisation that dreaming about a new Nigeria is an exercise in futility. But unlike them, I will not stay in a country that eats its young. I would rather dream a new dream. I listen to Cynthia Erivo sing ‘Stand Up’ and I imagine going to a brand-new place, a country where the son of nobody does not have to know anybody to become somebody. I imagine living in a country where members of the armed forces do not routinely dehumanise citizens, where systems work. 

I am not alone in this dream. In the evenings, my neighbour teaches her baby girl to say “End SARS.” She calls and the child responds with all the childish energy she can muster, “End SARS!” She does this while discussing with her partner how to raise money to move to a stable country, so their daughter won’t have to live through the horrors they have witnessed. Outside the country, Nigerians are rallying together, intensifying their efforts to help other Nigerians leave the country. Posts are springing up online, detailing permanent residency application processes for different countries. And I know without a doubt that I must push through my feelings of helplessness and leave. Not only because I am tired of living in fear of people who are supposed to protect me, but also because I now realise that leaving home is first an act of survival. 

And I must survive, if I intend to be useful to my country, or the world at large. I must leave this country and with it, the wars of its men. I must build a decent life for myself in a country where I can live without fear, without the viciousness of war wrapping around my neck like a hangman’s noose.

Ọlákìtán T Ọlọ́fínmọ̀mí writes poetry, fiction, creative nonfiction, and drama. Her work has appeared in African Writer, Agbowó, Prairie Schooner, Newfound Journal, Watershed Review, The Lit Quarterly, Kalahari Review, Best New African Poets Anthology, Praxis Magazine, and others. In 2019, she took part in the Afro Young Adult Workshop organised by Goethe-Institut. In 2020, she won the award for best story in Prairie Schooner.

 

*Image by Joshua Oluwagbemiga on Unsplash

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