The most revolutionary thing we can do in the face of a state bent on denying our humanity, our existence, is what we have done since the protests began: insist on our role as active witnesses.
For too long the Nigerian state has been able to mask its malevolence as incompetence, as the kind of failure brought about by a lack of knowledge or skill—the result of simple, forgivable foibles, which befall anyone. This myth is useful for the simple reason that it allows people in power, the political elite, to evade responsibility. It allows them to hide behind the excuse of human error and fatalism, and most importantly to cultivate the kind of atmosphere in which ‘anything can happen’—Nigerian anyhowness, as it is popularly and often fondly referred to.
Nigerian anyhowness is the Nigerian state’s most consistent and most effective strategy in its defence. And it is a fairly simple one. It relies on the principle that: confronted with thorough and unrelenting dehumanization—with ordinary, everyday violations—a people will deny their own humanity and the better instincts it affords them. By withholding access to welfare of even the most basic standard of living, the state succeeds not only in constructing a ‘good life’ as an aspirational ideal but well-being—humanity—as an individual, external and ultimate pursuit. To be accorded the dignity reserved for human beings, a Nigerian born outside the political class grows with the overwhelming desire to attain wealth and the power associated with it. A humanizing power. Yet, her pursuit of this power is closely monitored, intercepted and sabotaged at every stage by the state who must, to maintain the purity of the class, keep its masses dispossessed. The attacks arrayed against her, subtle and overt forms of violence, work to desensitize her to her own reality, to her sense of what is good, normal, and acceptable; to distort her sense of what is real. She, like many others, enters a state of passive absurdism.
‘NOTHING MAKES SENSE IN NIGERIA’
Nothing ‘makes sense’ in Nigeria because nothing was designed to make sense. The denial of sense, of the reasonable and justifiable, of proportion, is critical to the status quo. The idea is this: if anything can happen then anything can happen. If nothing can happen then nothing will happen. If something can mean, without warning, what it might otherwise not mean, then everything is to be taken for granted. Dispossessing a people so thoroughly of their sense of reality makes it easy for them to alter or abandon it at the first hint of distress. Why know what you know when you could just survive? Why remember what you remember when you could just exist? Dissociate a people from any real scale of human tragedy, convince them that a world in which their lives are always forfeit is normal. And that every day, by no fault of anyone, they may lose their lives, loved ones, property, the value of any one life becomes negotiable. Accidents happen. A driver driving a fuel tanker so obviously unfit for safe storage on a road obviously unfit for travel might lose control of his cargo and cause an explosion whose victims will be sent to hospitals obviously unfit to treat them. A world where a plane might crash due to a lack of diesel fuel, or because the runway, always due for maintenance, was not maintained. A world where it is natural and expected to die in a stampede of twenty thousand people scrambling to secure limited seats for a recruitment test. In which an Air Force jet might ‘mistakenly’ drop a bomb on an internally displaced camp. Accidents happen. Anything can happen. Who can you blame?
The notion of blame presumes a chain of causation, but there is not one, we are asked to believe. Things happen because things happen. Naturally, because it is foolish and dangerous to expect order, one comes to terms with disorder. Because it is foolish and dangerous to expect sanctity, one comes to terms with danger. Because it is foolish and dangerous to expect normalcy, one comes to terms with absurdity. It becomes permissible to suggest in an official government statement, to a nation of over a hundred million people, that missing funds have been eaten by a snake. It becomes permissible to suggest that another set of missing funds was carted away by monkeys.
The paternalism associated with leadership in Nigeria has obvious patriarchal and colonial roots, but it also supports the foundation of anyhowness. Anyhowness presents a society whose grasp of reality is not only addled but infantile. Every government of Nigeria has treated Nigerians like children: people unable to make the fundamental ontological distinction between what is real and what is not; who cannot rely on themselves to interpret their present or recall their past.
In his seminal work Silencing the Past, Michel-Rolph Trouillot examines the role of power in historical narratives, particularly the ‘entanglement of historicity with power that applies not only in the archives but also dominates the processes and practices by which pastness is authenticated, ratified, and organized into fields of knowledge’. Power manifests in history through formulas of silence primarily the subjection of facts to erasure by denying the event occurred at all and banalization—granting the event may have occurred but denying its significance. The state’s monopoly on violence is constitutive of its monopoly on narrative. This can be seen in how much attention is given to the making and maintaining of monuments. They are claims on history on what has, to borrow from John Akomfrah, commemorative value. What is considered worthy of remembrance, and what is not. Nothing inscribed into the public memory of a people is innocent or neutral, and this is true as well for what is absent, what is missing or no longer in recollection. In the construction and representation of colonial histories, Ann Laura Stoler rejects the notion of ‘amnesia’ or ‘forgetting’ as too passive, invoking, instead, ‘aphasia’, which indicates a ‘calculated forgetting’. This explains to some degree the damage done by state-sanctioned and state-condoned violence. The catastrophe of the event itself is only one layer in an extended project. Our memory, as a collective, is defiled so also our affective capacity. Why are some details easier to recall than others? Why do we feel, in response to what is heinous, the need for grief or anger without the will to feel or express them?
Official Nigerian history is replete with silences. Facts which have been devalued and distorted, rendered uncertain, dismissible and unaccounted for. In the wake of the #EndSARS protests and outbreaks of state-sanctioned violence, we are seeing the Nigerian government attempt to manufacture silence and authorize it as history. On 21 October 2020, the governor of Lagos State, refuting verifiable evidence and the eyewitness of Nigerians, claimed there were no casualties from the military assault on protesters at the Lekki tollgate the night before, earlier attributing the violence to ‘forces beyond our direct control’. The official Twitter account of the Nigerian army dismissed reports of the assault as ‘fake news’. In a Twitter thread, the vice president mentions ‘victims of Lekki shootings’ but makes no mention of the security forces who did the shooting, promising to ‘get justice for all of them’, and praying ‘we never see a repeat of these tragedies.’
In the president’s address the following day, he ignores the attack altogether, commiserates with security personnel, suggests the protests were a ‘play to mislead the unwary within and outside Nigeria into unfair judgement and disruptive behaviour’, and warning that continued protests ‘will amount to undermining national security and law and order…Under no circumstances would this be tolerated’. What is at play here is language in the service of power. Language intended to abstract facts while still seeming somewhat related to those facts. Language intended to antagonize and justify repression. Language intended to absolve responsibility. Language intended to suggest preventable deaths were unpreventable, and no one had the power to prevent them. Anything can happen. Anything will happen. Nothing will happen. Who can you blame?
That Nigeria has always been at war against its citizens is obvious. What might be less obvious is its war against our collective memory. With incredible audacity, Nigerian public officials tell us every time we demand explanations that we did not see what we saw, we do not know what we know and we do not remember what we remember. They would have us believe we are delusional—that Biafra did not happen the way its victims remember it and Chibok did not happen the way its victims remember it. Not Odi, not Asaba, not Zaki Biam, not Rann, not Otodo Gbame, not Lekki, not Alausa, not Mushin, not Yaba. The scale and consistency of these atrocities must force us to make a critical distinction between ‘bad governance’ and the clear-cut ruthlessness of oppressive power. The Nigerian state is not a failed state. It is not a rogue state. It is not dysfunctional. It is functioning very well within its design. Naiveté, Trouillot writes, is ‘often an excuse for those who exercise power. For those upon whom that power is exercised, naiveté is always a mistake.’ We cannot afford any illusions.
THE UNEXPECTED BURDEN OF FREEDOM
The making of history, Trouillot tells us, is material. It is made from and leaves traces in the physical world. We touch it and feel it and smell it. It is buildings and images and texts. It is also bodies, ‘living brains’, ‘fossils.’ The body is a source of fact. Our bodies. The history of this time is engraved in our bodies. The bodies of those injured, killed and of those yet alive. We are the history the Nigerian government is attempting to rewrite. The most revolutionary thing we can do in the face of a state bent on denying our humanity, our existence, is what we have done since the protests began: insist on our role as active witnesses. Witnesses of each other, of what we have suffered, the moments of joy, our courage and commitment, our belief, and our hope. And also, of our missteps, how we have failed and continue to fail each other. This too must be part of the story. How we defend, reinforce and even re-enact the state’s calculus of sustained vulnerability, of biological and social death. How we decide some people deserve mercy, and some don’t; how we decide some people deserve respect and some don’t. How we decide whose anger is valid and whose death is mournable. How we decide, in short, who can be considered a person, deserving of the life we ourselves believe we deserve.
The unexpected burden of any freedom struggle, when one chooses to bear it, is it reveals all the ways we act against that freedom. It reveals our desire for freedom is rarely as strong as our desire to determine who else can pursue and enjoy it. Thus, we must find a way, even as the full weight of the state is brought against us, to hold on to what we know is real: the fragile faith we have exemplified in these past weeks, a faith in which we have gathered amongst strangers, provided for each other, listened to each other, made room and time for each other, grieved for and with each other. A faith that says: we know what we know, we have seen what we have seen, we remember what we remember. We are a reckoning and the evidence of that reckoning. There is no wave of silence large enough to drown us out.
With deep admiration for the Feminist Coalition, their partners, volunteers, advisors, and everyone who has, in their way, met this moment. Thank you for showing us what is possible.
Jimoh Isiaq. Sleek. Ayomide Taiwo. Peter Ofurum. Chika Ibeku. Chibuike Anams. Ifeoma Abugu. Christian Onuigbo. Emmanuel Egbo. Victor Maduamago. Chidi Odinauwa. Stephen Agbanyim. Tony Oruama. Tiyamiu Kazeem. Mus’ab Sammani. Kolade Johnson. Onovo Matthew. Chinedu Ani. Precious Odua. Richard Gora. Chijioke Iloanya. Linda Igwetu. Daniel Tella. Harry Ataria. Johnson Nnaemeka. Femi Bello. Chima Ikwunado. Godgift Ekerete. Gabriel Owoicho. Tina Ezekwe. Tony Zitta. Modebayo Awosika. Daniel Adewuyi. Chukwuemeka Matthew. Chika Ibeku. Azuamak Madueago. Rinji Bala Uzziel. Joseph Eidonojie Ugbeni. Anita Akapson. Chiubike Daniel Ikeaguchi. Ifeanyi Ozor. Chinedu Meniru. Augustina Arebu. Anthony Nwokike. Paulinus Ogbonna. Ekena Isaac Egbe. Emeka Ojinze. Ademola Moshood. Ismaila Anyinla. Miracle Sunday. Solomon Yellow. Joy Ndubueze. Oke Obi-Enadhuze.
And every other victim of the Nigerian state⎈
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