By Muyiwa Adetiba
We all have our different ways of coping with tragedy. We could go into denial and hope the pain would pass away on its own. We could confront it and let the pain sear through our being as we try to exorcise it. Or we could wallow in self-pity and indulge in temporary reliefs like drugs, alcohol and wanton sex.
I have never used the third option in my different experiences. But, depending on the severity of the tragedy, I tend to lean towards denial.
What happened from dusk on Tuesday to Wednesday morning was for me, a tragedy. I felt so numbed that my instinct was to shut it out completely. I determined not to open any more video clips and thereby shut out unverified images of people being shot at, youths screaming for help, emergency surgeries being performed without medical tools and buildings going up in flames. I succeeded. I also tried to shut out emotional and hysterical comments on the social media. I didn’t think they were helpful.
I thereafter determined not to write about it this week because that would mean a mental recall of the same images I wanted to put in the recess of my mind. In this I failed because the evidences of ‘the morning after the night before’ were all around me and they were graphic. So graphic that they crowded other issues out.
I heard gunshots till about ten in the morning. I saw dark smokes from fires of burnt or burning buildings. I saw clusters of young protesters walking the streets. Some looked subdued; some looked resigned; many looked defiant and even shouted slogans. Some were walking away from the Lekki toll gate while some were walking towards it. As a cluster passed, someone threw bottled water at it. The boys were instantly grateful as they stayed to catch a few more bottles.
It then occurred to me that many of them had probably not had anything to eat or drink since the day before.This was about noon. Even the dead silence that was only interrupted by occasional passing cars told its own story. But most telling of all was a bright yellow thirty litre jerry can in the middle of the road. The ground near the lip was still wet with what I suspect was petrol… That jerry can was to remain on the centre of the road all day as a poignant reminder of what might have taken place the night before.
I live a walkable distance from Lekki toll gate which was the main theatre of war for many days. I saw the movements of the protesters during this time.
I saw their enthusiasm. And even in their songs and jokes, I saw their resolve. Not once was I afraid of them. On the contrary, I was impressed by their organisational skills. When the gunshots started in the evening of Tuesday, I heard them. And when billows of smoke appeared later in the darkening sky, I saw them. My heart sank because the struggle had entered another level.
This was what I feared and cautioned against in my last article. In the said article, I had warned against the protesters staying too long on the streets. I had warned against changing the goalpost by asking for more demands. It would be I said, like trying to win a multifaceted war in one battle and could put the other side on edge.
I had warned against infiltration by hoodlums or bodies with different agenda. I had hoped for maturity on the part of the young protesters to prevent a descent into chaos. On the other side, I had praised the government for acceding quickly to their demands and urged a speedy implementation. I also suggested other reforms within the polity that needed to be addressed. I had hoped that government would have the skills and patience to handle the protest. Both parties failed in the art of brinksmanship and Tuesday,especially the events leading to it, confirmed my fears.
I felt the curfew coming when emboldened protesters started deliberately blocking main roads with some requesting ‘toll’ from road users. The signs became ominous when police stations were indiscriminately burnt down and some policemen were publicly humiliated.
The curfew became urgent when protesters threatened to shut down Lagos and its economic activities. It became inevitable when violence increased and fear of citizens being molested by protesters increased. Government’s announcement met me at home as going out had become stressful because one never knew where the road block would be.
So in a way, there was already a curfew before the official one. I told a close friend that the curfew could be a face saving one for the protesters to re-assess and re-strategize. In re-assessing, they would have realised that they made more gains in ten days that they thought. They would also have realised that many of those who joined them to make a critical mass don’t have a laptop, an expensive phone or a decent car. So their relationship with SARS will be different from that of #ENDSARS initiators.
They could therefore have their own agenda some of which had played out. All told, these youths have entered the polity as a veritable counter-force which can no longer be ignored. They should not allow themselves to be crushed by fighting government on its turf. Cyber space is the turf of the young. It is where my generation can’t fight them. They should take their battle there and use their skills to influence future elections.
Lagos State government on the other hand should have let the protesters stay at the toll gate if they wanted to with the understanding that those who stay will not leave or be joined by others as that would be considered a violation of curfew. Two days -and nights- in one place without refreshments would break even a steely resolve.
If the officials concerned had applied some maturity and emotional intelligence, perhaps the resultant bloodletting, looting and arson would have been averted. My last word goes to the protesters. They should be prepared to negotiate. All resolved conflicts end up on the negotiating table. As for those pushing for violence, let me quote Russell ‘war does not determine who is right; only who is left’.