The use of music during the #EndSARs protests followed a long tradition passed down to young Nigerians who communicated through songs, the savage nature of those who hurt them and protested against that hurt in the very same breath—that they mattered and refused to bow to fear. 

When young Nigerians gathered in the streets in protest last October, why did we feel so compelled to sing?

Was it a choice? Looking back, I think not. You could not choose to sing the songs that we sang. I will never forget my first day at Lekki on the twelfth day of October: a Monday that was so unbearably hot that sweat pooled under my chest, when I arrived at the scene of protest only after an hour spent convincing my mother and father that yes, I did need to be there. Pushing past the red and white barricades, looking up at several youths hoisted on top of a platform, I heard them loudly sing:

How many people SARS e go kill o?

To this, the youths below responded in kind:

How many people SARS e go kill?

Ey, they go kill us tire.

Ey, they go kill us tire.

Eyeheyeheyeh they go kill us tire.

How many people SARS e go kill?

Angling my phone up to catch the group as they sang in unison, I was struck by both the simplicity and the necessity of the ask: how many people would SARS kill? This was a question that many of our lives depended on. But asking it also implied that the people we were dealing with were merciless and murderous, so much so that the number they had slain could not be counted or accounted for. We, in effect, communicated the savage nature of those who hurt us and protested against that hurt in the very same breath. We said that we mattered and that we refused to bow to fear, even in the face of the murderous.

Where did we learn this? Just what was the source of our bravery? It could be looked to as an isolated moment in history, as all things can. However, such an understanding does not do enough to highlight the historical weight of what took place in October. A braver and sweeter reality to consider is that in Nigeria, there is a tradition of singing against one’s oppression, a tradition of singing as protest. In the streets of Lagos, Ekiti, Enugu, Kano, Port Harcourt, and more, as we sang, whether we knew it or not, we were engaging in something that our ancestors have done, and have been doing, for a very long time. There exists, of course, the history to prove it.

A HISTORY OF SITTING ON A MAN

On a November night of 1929 in Oloko, Owerri Province, south-eastern Nigeria, a crowd of Igbo women collected before the doors of the British Niger Delta Mission to protest their taxation. At that point, the British government had only demanded that Igbo men pay taxes, but Igbo women began to suspect this would change once they heard that the Owerri Assistant District Officer planned to recount households and the property within them for the census. The census determined who would be taxed, and households strictly belonged to women. The Igbo women felt their fears were confirmed when the messenger of the Oloko Warrant Chief approached an Igbo woman named Nwanyeruwa and asked that she count some of her property. Nwanyeruwa, enraged, saw this as a threat to tax her and thus, the rest of the women of Owerri. Nwanyeruwa quickly sent word to the rest of the Oloko women, who then spread the news to even more women within and without their kinship group. They soon gathered to strategize. The rage had been incited, and with it, so had the dissent. The ỌguUmunwanyi, or the Women’s War, had begun.

Stationed in front of the Mission, the Igbo Women did not allow Mark Emeruwa, the messenger, to rest. They drew on a protest method born before the era of colonialism, a strategy used by Igbo women against men in the community who refused to accommodate the women’s rules, behaved rowdily, or mistreated women. The women would gather outside of the offender’s hut, dancing, gesticulating, chanting, singing songs that detailed the man’s wrongdoings, insulting the man, battering his door with yam pestles. The women would, as elaborated by historian Judith Van Allen, ‘sit on a man.’ ‘Sitting on a man’ was a central way that Igbo women aired their complaints, and sitting on a man was just what they did before the colonial officers.

The women sat in front of the Mission through the night, dancing, improvising songs, threatening the messenger, ‘drinking palm wine, and singing that Nwanyeruwa had been told to count her goats, sheep and people.’ By disturbing Emeruwa, a colonial agent, and keeping him from ‘carrying out his usual tasks,’ the women had literally paused and stifled colonial progress. Additionally, protesting before the British Colonial District Office, the women eventually secured the arrest of Okugo, the Warrant Chief, and received confirmation that they would not, in fact, be taxed.

This legacy of man-sitting was continued years later in Abeokuta, south-western Nigeria with Chief Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti and the Abeokuta Women’s Union. They protested oppressive British colonial taxes against Egba women and their markets in the late 1940s, decrying their economic exploitation in a system that granted them no political representation in return. Gathered in protest before the palace of Alake Ademola, the King of Egbaland and the ‘native’ administrator of colonial law, they sang in Yoruba:

Even if it is only one penny…Ademola, We are not paying tax in Egbaland. If even it is one penny. Ademola Ojibosho! Big man with a big ulcer! Your behavior is deplorable. Alake is a thief. Council members thieves. Anyone who does not know Kuti will get into trouble. White man you will not get to your country safely. You and Alake will not die an honourable death.

‘Sitting on’ Ademola once more, the women said:

‘If your hand should catch Ajibodu (Ademola) / Kill him, do not spare him / demolish him as you would demolish a good meal of eba.’

With their flair for the humorous, the Egba women also sang:

‘Ademola, your male organs are non-functional / like the size of a cat’s.’

These are only a fraction of the many songs the women sang. After days of protests, threats, and an arrest of Ransome-Kuti, the women finally received their request: a momentary end to the women’s flat tax and a voluntary abdication of the Alake from the throne. Here, the Egba women, much like the Igbo women before them, carried out change through community organization, refusal to bend to colonial rule, and, ultimately, through dance and song.

AN ANCESTRAL PRACTISE

So, they may not have known it, but once the Nigerian youths in Ogbomosho, or Benin City, or Abuja, opened their mouths to sing and stretched their legs to dance, they were engaging in the ancestral practice of sitting on a man. When we were at Lekki on that sweltering Monday and demanded to know how many people SARS would kill, we were sitting on a man. When, in the sarcastic spirit of the young, protestors derisively sang that SARS operatives should go to Sambisa Forest if they really wanted to fight Boko Haram, we were sitting on a man. Humorously chanting that ‘Bubu has been a bad boy’ was not at all unlike the Egba women stating that ‘Because [Alake Ademola] misbehaves / He will lack honor.’ Much like the Igbo women who arrived in front of the Colonial District Office, the heart of the British administration in Oloko, Lagosians arrived at the Lekki toll gate, a source of revenue for the Lagos State government, and occupied it. Those in Ikeja stationed themselves before the Lagos courthouse; those in Awkuzu, Anambra state, collectively marched towards the SARS office there to shut it down. The office was a burial site for many of those that Awkuzu SARS had murdered, and the protestors marching on it was reminiscent of the Igbo women as they later marched on the hut of Warrant Chief Okugo and demanded that he resign.

The continuities do not cease. In Uyo, Akwa Ibom, when the governor attempted to bribe the protestors with a 4-million-naira offering and they chanted, in response, ‘Yahoo boy!’, was this not the same as the ỌguUmunwanyi, when a member of the Native Court offered to pay protesting women a three-pound bribe and the women angrily flung the money back into his face? And as the Igbo women ‘quickly improvised songs to meet their situation,’ did we not mimic them when a Yoruba boy in Bariga, impassioned by protest, stood on a vehicle and freestyled an entire protest anthem in a single breath?

And to refute the notion that police brutality is something that harms only boys and men, there was, of course, gender-based man-sitting during the #EndSARS uprisings, just like with the Igbo and Egba women who came before us. Phenomena such as the Mothers March Against SARS prove this. Even on that same Monday at Lekki, the youths had chanted,

How many women SARS e go rape o?

How many women SARS e go rape?

How many women SARS e go rape o?

How many women SARS e go rape?

Ey, they go rape us tire.

Ey, they go rape us tire.

Eyeheyeheyeh they go rape us tire.

How many women SARS e go rape?

Perhaps the most notorious display of man-sitting during the #EndSARS protests was in Lagos, when Governor Jide Sanwo-Olu attempted to deliver empty appeals to disgruntled Lagosians and the crowd (along with the DJ) responded with the words of Davido’s  ‘Fem’ (A Better Time, 2020).

Lagosians, quite literally, told a sitting governor to shut up. They said, ‘E be like you don dey talk too much,’ poking fingers at Sanwo-Olu’s empty promises. They asked of him, crooked politicians, stingy rich men, and killer SARS operatives, ‘Why dem come dey para for me?’. They stormed the ‘hut’ of their oppressor—Lagos, the toll gate, the courthouse, and sites beyond count—and insulted him, all the while declaring their humanity, and the fact that they mattered. This is the very essence of sitting on a man.

IN TUNE WITH HISTORY

As we protested each day, we not only communed with ancestors but also carried on their legacies for those who might follow us. Every statement made and every dance danced held immense weight. The Zanku danced at Lekki was not just ordinary dance; it was movement that actively halted cash flow into government coffers. Every gbese accomplished was meaningful and subversive, as though rejecting the very presence of oppression with its customary leg kicked forcefully into the air. Every breath breathed at any protest site was, essentially, resistance. Even drinking, smoking, and ‘chopping’ food and life, activity for which those at Lekki were chastised, were in line with tradition, in line with those Igbo women who slugged containers of palm wine before the offices of their oppressors. It was with this very dance and song that we were able to radically change our world: to divert traffic and stall work days, to supply food and water and community to our country people in every state, to sing so stubbornly at home that our siblings in London, Vienna, and Atlanta had no choice but to take up our call; to create hope in a country where hopelessness has, for the longest time, been the status quo. What transpired in October of 2020 must be stated so plainly that history may never even dare underplay what we were able to accomplish—simply by using our voices, hands, and feet.

This is all to say that I will remember every song, every chant that made up the sounds of our man-sitting for a long time. From chanting ‘We no go gree!, to yelling ‘Sọ̀rọ̀ Sókè’ until our throats began to ache, to dancing in a circle as we sang Fela’s ‘Water No Get Enemy’: everything will always remain within me. But the song that has stayed with me most of all, one that finds my consciousness at the oddest of moments, prompting me to smile, albeit sadly, is an exceedingly simple song—one that has nothing to do with our oppressors, and everything to do with us:

Solidarity foreever

Solidarity foreeeever

Solidarity foreever

We will always fight for our rights

Photographed by the author at Lekki Toll Gate on Monday October 19, 2020,day before the Lekki Toll Shootings.

Attached is a collaborative man-sitting playlist for ENDSARS. Please feel free to contribute

The views, thoughts, and opinions published in The Republic belong solely to the author and are not necessarily the views of The Republic or its editors. We want to hear what you think about this article. Submit a letter to the editors by writing to editor[email protected]