It has been one of the longest 24 hours of many Nigerians’ lives.

In shock, we watched as members of the Nigerian armed forces launched a live ammo operation to clear out peaceful demonstrators who had gathered at the Lekki tollgates.

They cut the CCTV cameras and the lights and killed the cell towers in the vicinity to slow the spread of information from the scene to the outside world.

Then they opened fire.

The protestors, hemmed in on all sides and with no way to flee, sat on the cold tar, draped themselves in Nigerian flags, and sang the national anthem, their sense of security inflated perhaps by an internet rumour that had spread in the days leading up to that fateful night, that the Nigerian army does not shoot at people holding the nation’s flag.

They were wrong. They shot at protesters with the flag, they shot at protesters without the flag. Protesters were killed, protesters were wounded. How many people have died, we do not yet know. How many are wounded is also unclear. We are still in the middle of the confusion of war where the wildest rumours abound and it is impossible to know what is true from what is not. There is a staggering amount of “fake news” out there right now, but also a lot of real stories about the tragedies of real people.

What have I not seen in the past 24 hours! Nigerian social media has been awash in gore. I saw a video of young woman with her head blown wide open like a headshot in Gears of War; there was a video of a young man throwing stones at the police only to take a straight bullet to the head and immediately crumple to the ground in a pool of his own blood; there was the now famous video on DJ Switch’s IG account showing an emergency surgery to extract a bullet from a protester’s leg using crude tools as gunfire still rang. I have seen far more close-range executions than any normal human is likely to see in a normal lifetime. All caught on camera, all evidence of the brutality and violence at the heart of the agitation to end SARS.

Beyond the loss of life and bodily harm, there has also been the vast and extensive damage that has been done to property. The courts, the media houses, the tollgates, the BRT buses, private property, police stations, various government offices, the Oba’s Palace, supermarkets, malls, etc., nothing has been spared the carnage that began yesterday. Lagos is in a state of what is beginning to feel like mob rule. And it isn’t just Lagos, in several states across the country, charged images of protesting youths, the rampaging disaffected, or murderous state agents have ruled the waves.

I feel sometimes that the reason the Nigerian state is instinctively unwilling to brook even the slightest dissent is its sure knowledge that should even one strand be tugged sufficiently hard, the entire fabric of our unjust society will unravel.

None of this is new to any Nigerian old enough to have seen the worst of the Nigerian military. I was a child during the June 12, 1993 crisis, so I never experienced it outside the shelter of parental care. But even then I could sense the mortal fear that hung low over Lagos. For many others, they do not have to go back that far to remember the feeling of a city teetering on the bring of anarchy. Many of my fellow citizens in the North East or in one of the many parts of Nigeria perpetually facing unrest know this feeling. Our tragedy is that each new generation must learn it, too.

And in all this, the brutality and excesses of the security services are on full display, once again underlining the urgency of the cause that started these agitations.

I don’t know what happens now. Perhaps the protests will continue perhaps they won’t. But what must happen is that we must find justice. We must know what took place on the night of 20 October, 2020 at the Lekki tollgates.

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