“We had ‘sold our death’…and ‘lent our fear’ to somebody…, so we did not care about death and we did not fear again.” Amos Tutuola, The Palm-wine Drinkard
“In honour of the comrades who died as a result of state massacre. We remember you”. These are the words on the dedication page of Sọ̀rọ̀sókè: An #Endsars Anthology, a collection of poems written in real time as the Nigerian #endSARS protests - which ended with the state-facilitated Lekki Massacre - spread through the country in the midst of the covid-19 pandemic in 2020. This book, like the many other artistic productions immortalising the protests and its martyrs, is much more than a memento. Among other things, it sustains the lives of our beloved dead, our heroes.
October 2022 marked two years since the Nigerian government, through its army, opened fire on innocent protesters at Lekki tollgate in Lagos. The protesters, who were mostly young people, gathered for days to protest bad governance, such as the brutal necropolitics of the national police’s Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS). Following a period of intense police brutality targeted at young people and aggravated by the dire conditions of the pandemic, a wave of dissatisfaction washed over youths all over the country. Young people took up placards and spoke with one voice. On the streets was a generation of people tired of seeing the usual, tired of seeing the bloodshed for “reasons'' as unreasonable as living a good life; for a long time, the SARS officers targeted young people who had the air of success by summarily categorising them as internet fraudsters. The #endsars protests were a moment like never before in Nigeria. Young celebrities were out on the street, speaking out despite the threat of ongoing arrests. For once, Instagram influencers cut down on skin care products and fast fashion; they were marketing hope for our sustainable future.
The Nigerian government grew apprehensive of our “natio-futurism”, the brand of hopeful nationalism that painted Nigerian streets green and white - that promised we could look into the future and see the good that would endure. For once, Nigerians refused to buy politicians’ instrumentalisation of tribe and religion, becoming our authentic selves - people who have lived together and looked after each other, people who now turned a collective eye and looked evil in the face. For this, Nigerians paid a price. On the night of October, 20th 2020, at the height of the protests, the collective courage was suspended in the violence of death. One picture from that night spread through social media like wildfire, an image of the unimaginable becoming real. It showed a violated Nigerian flag, the green and white steeped in blood. Maybe it had held together a gun wound, and had preserved the dignity of the dying. This picture, like the many others taken that night, stands witness to the Lekki massacre - negating the tons of denial from government agents that followed.
So the dead, are they gone?
Shortly after the massacre, Nigerian music star, Burna Boy, released the protest single “20 10 20”, to commemorate the dead. This is one of the many songs - including Chike’s “20.10.20 (Wahala Dey)” and Terry Apala’s “We No Want SARS” - that quickly came out to immortalise the moment. Nigerian artists of every form and medium, in every corner of the world were startled by what they saw either with their eyes or on Twitter, and could not help but respond with their art. Even writers, like the poets in Sọ̀rọ̀sókè, responded with the quickness of technology.
In his epilogue to the anthology, poet and lawyer Tade Ipadeola emphasises the significance of the poet's witness as willful truth-telling - this time not of soulless cameras, but of the heart. He describes the poems in the collection as “what endures beyond disputations and beyond slander…task of redress and rectification”.
Furthermore, Ipadeola quotes the poet J.P. Clark who wrote in a poem about the Nigerian-Biafra War that “the casualties are not only those who are dead/They are well out of it”. In writing this, it seems that Clark knows that in preserving the memory of the dead in his poem, they keep on living in a way. This radical change in normal time sequence is an idea that can be understood as “after-death”, according to S. Swackhamer. So instead of simply going from life to death, the dead are given new life in the stories we tell about them, in the cultural practices we perform about them. This is what the poets have done in the Sọ̀rọ̀sókè anthology. By dedicating their works to the heroes who died in the #endSARS protests, the poet's offer them a post-death universe, a resurrection. This optimistic sustenance of the dead is the major contribution of artistic and cultural productions on the #endSARS—they give life to our dead.
This is in no way to deny the tears that were shed for friends, siblings, lovers. Those whose blood ran. Those whose bodies never returned. This is not to deny the pain of dying. However, there is value in understanding that commemorative narratives are made of living words. If, as Clark writes, “We are all casualties”, then the bereaved too, in a way, are dead. This idea forms a major part of historian and theorist Achille Mbembe’s concept of necropolitics. The survivors too need resurrection. It is with the understanding that in their dying for a better future, the dead live on that the living will be able to take on courage to stand face to face with state violence and evil. If they did not fear death, then death was no victor. It is important to remember this, and remembrance is possible with telling their stories.
The youthful art and culture scene in Nigeria has taken this task of commemorative storytelling with dedication. Many are the productions that have emerged in this space in just two years. From poems and songs to paintings, body performances and film, the #endSARS heroes live on. Recently, after two years of work, Journalist and director Chude Jideonwo released his film "Awaiting Trial” which documents the #endSARS movement and the politics of state violence and injustice underlying it. Viewers are brought the voices of youths gone and many more inspired to keep living despite necropolitical structures. From all social backgrounds, the young people featured in this non-fiction film - be they music stars, “ex-prisoners” or students - speak with one voice, and in the spirit of “sọ̀rọ̀ sókè”, they speak loudly, fearlessly. And their words vibrate with life.
Death might have happened to Nigerians, Ipadeola concludes in his epilogue of the anthology, but “these poems here did not just happen”. The agency and power that accompanies the production of art - our storytelling - means that people can make use of this practice of mourning what they want, and Nigerian artists have chosen to sustain life.
Clark-Bekederemo J. P. Casualties; Poems 1966-68. Africana Publishing Corporation 1970.
Swackhamer, Sarah. “From Killing to Resurrection: Queer Death Narratives and Expanded Temporalities of After-Death in Anglophone Literature from the Global South.” The Comparative Literature Undergraduate Journal, 12: 1, 2021, pp. 11-21.
Verissimo, Jumoke and Yékú, James, eds. Sọ̀rọ̀ sókè: An #EndSARS Anthology. Ibadan: Noirledge, 2022.