Nigerian Photojournalist Yagazie Emezi on Covering the #EndSARS Protests in Lagos

Chelsey Sanchez
·14-min read
Photo credit: Getty / Photo by Benson Ibeabuchi - Getty Images
Photo credit: Getty / Photo by Benson Ibeabuchi - Getty Images

From Harper's BAZAAR

All across Nigeria, people are rising up to demand an end to the Special Anti-Robbery Squad (known as SARS), a police agency created in 1984 to combat violent crime but, in practice, terrorizes citizens with impunity. A June report by Amnesty International found at least 82 cases of torture, ill treatment, and extra-judicial execution by SARS officers between January 2017 and May 2020.

The mass movement erupted in early October, after a video of SARS officers killing a man in the town of Ughelli widely circulated over social media. Since, tens of thousands have taken to the streets, using the hashtag #EndSARS to disseminate information and rally supporters across the globe. Although President Muhammadu Buhari has agreed to disband SARS, his solution to replace the unit by installing Special Weapons and Tactics (SWAT) has left many incensed and exasperated with this seeming mirage of reform.

Nigerian photojournalist Yagazie Emezi has been covering the protests in Lagos, the country's largest city, since October 10. "Over the course of I believe a little bit over a week of covering the protests, they just grew in terms of numbers, in terms of efficiency," she tells of what she's witnessed thus far. "The different organizations that came up to support these protests–in my opinion–have proven more efficient than the government."

Photo credit: Courtesy of Yagazie Emezi
Photo credit: Courtesy of Yagazie Emezi

On October 20, Governor Babajide Sanwo-Olu imposed a statewide 24-hour curfew, escalating tensions between the government and its people. Then, this past week, eyewitnesses reported seeing Nigerian military officials opening fire on scores of unarmed and peaceful protestors without warning at the Lekki toll gate, leaving at least 69 people dead in what is now being called the Lekki Massacre.

In a televised address on Thursday night, President Buhari called for a halt to the protests against police brutality, but made no mention of what occurred at Lekki. "Our president essentially threatened us," Emezi says of his speech. "[He] threatened protesters not to do that again."

Below, Emezi opens up to about the president's disappointing response to the state's violence against protestors, the show of strength and community at demonstrations, the role of media, and the urgency to believe in Nigerian youth.

How have you been holding up?

I think, like many people, I'm just reeling from the president's address last night. It's quite disappointing and I think a lot of people are trying not to be disheartened by the current situation.

Since you first started covering the protests, how do you think the movement has evolved over the past few weeks?

I believe that the goals definitely expanded. Initially, they had been asking for justice and the disbandment of SARS. Then, when the government came out with their five-step plan of what would happen after disbanding SARS, the protesters countered that with their own five points, which was one of the chants that was going around quite a bit at the protests, which is, "Five for five." Then that's further expanded as well because a lot of people are realizing that it's not just a police brutality problem that we have here. It's a wide, far-reaching issue.

But, unfortunately, this is where we are right now, where we have a curfew implemented. Our president essentially threatened us, threatened protesters not to do that again.

Overall, I would say the growth of the protests were consistent. If anything, over the course of I believe a little bit over a week, they just grew in terms of numbers, in terms of efficiency. The different organizations that came up to support these protests–in my opinion–have proven more efficient than the government. There was an effective response with a helpline that was set up. Lawyers in the hundreds were volunteering their time to go out across the country to bail out unrightfully arrested protesters.

I never once witnessed any sort of violence at these protests. A few times it would be maybe one man who's threatening to slap a driver who's trying to go through the barricade and everybody stops him and is shouting, "No, no! Peaceful protest, peaceful protest." It was really fantastic to witness that.

Could you talk a bit more about that sense of community that you've witnessed while covering the protests?

I've traveled quite a bit around Nigeria and also extensively throughout Africa. And a lot of times with my work, I find myself in spaces where I definitely am more aware of the fact that I am a visitor or I'm a guest in this space. I went to Lagos to at least three different protests locations that were from different socioeconomic demographics. So you have Lagos island protests, certain parts of the island that have a higher socioeconomic background. You'll see kids whose parents are quite wealthy at the protests, then you go to the mainland and you see a different mix of people, that sort of stuff. But, wherever I went, I can say–and I'm saying this as a Nigerian–that I have never felt more at ease.

To be in this growing crowd of people, you can't not pick a side. At first, I went there and I was saying, "You know what, my job is just to bear witness, take pictures, document what's going on." Then by my second protest, I was chanting along. There's no way that you can't be present in these crowds and not know where you stand. It was contagious.

There was community. There were people who are constantly going around the area, cleaning up trash. No trash was left behind at the end of the day. Sometimes, someone out of the blue will appear and check on me and ask me if I needed water or if I'd eaten. People would put out social media calls saying, "Oh, this protest at this location needs food." And people will send money. I joined one of them and we went to pick up food from a fast food chain, like hundreds of containers to bring back to protesters. People were being taken care of. It was a true community. There's nowhere in those crowds where I would have turned and been met with hostility.

It's interesting what you said about noticing different kids with varying socioeconomic backgrounds still coming together. That elimination of different class barriers, it really seems to speak to the gravity of the issue.

Maybe I was just a bit naive because I remember when I was in one of the island protests, one of my friends told me to be careful. And my response was like, "It's the island, what's going to happen here?" You know? I would actually say I was less careful, to my own detriment, but nothing happened, as opposed to when I went to the mainland and I was a little bit more alert to my surroundings. But, no one would suspect that the Nigerian military would show up on the island and aim their guns at protestors.

On that note, do you feel like there are any challenges facing you right now as a photojournalist covering this movement?

For one, this lockdown. I'm just waiting for the Nigerian government now to come out with some sort of restriction on social media. It was as simple as me putting out a call and saying that after the curfew, just by the fact that I do have the ability as an essential worker to walk around, I can't because I don't own a private vehicle. There are no taxis around. Even if I do go out, it's a risk because I have no protective gear. Even if I have protective gear, that's also not a common sight to see. Am I making a vest and a helmet? So, those are some of the challenges. It's mobility.

And right before I hopped on this call, I was messaging some photographers because one had put up a story saying that he was going to go out and he needed to go out. He doesn't know what's going to happen. He could be killed. He hopes he doesn't get killed. And for me, sending him a message like, "Please don't take unnecessary risks." But I completely understand it–there is this pull and this pressure to witness what's going on. And that's a tactic that the curfew did, it grounded a lot of us. I've only been able to go out once since this curfew.

What role would you say the media plays when it comes to such large and undeniable mass movements like this one?

The media is powerful, in the sense that it can raise up and it can equally destroy. I do believe that's what's going on here, especially with the media in Nigeria. There's an erasure happening with the president's comment on television–even though I feel that was pre-recorded–and making no mention of what happened at the Lekki toll gate. No one is admitting anything. There's an erasure that's happening, and this is where the power of social media comes in. It was reported that security cameras were removed and it was photographed. The governor comes out and says, "Well, those weren't security cameras, those were laser cameras for the cars." There would be no record of this if we didn't have the generation that we have now, in which everyone was armed with their phones.

A young artist, DJ Switch, went on Instagram Live and was recording what was happening as she was running in the dark, as she was taking care of people who were falling. Thousands of people around the world watched on Instagram Live as they tried to retrieve a bullet from a man and he died on Instagram Live. So how do you deny these things?

But then you also have a larger population who's not connected to social media in that way, when it comes smartphone or Android use. Not everyone has the ability to load up their data plans and start watching videos or start looking at images. So they go to different sites that can load information faster. They'll go to Facebook, which now is censoring a lot of #EndSARS posts.

A lot of people also turn to newspapers, but a lot of the newspapers aren't covering it. There's always mixed information. And then you have international media. These protests have been going on for two weeks now and when people now get shot and killed, that is when–you know, personally speaking, I'm getting bombarded by all these press requests and so are other people who are working in the front lines. I mean, it's the media game that we're both very well familiar with. It can build and it can destroy.

I think, right now, what a lot of people are doing online is trying to keep #EndSARS moving and trying to keep the information accurate. But, as we know–especially with social media–things will start to get oversaturated with time. We can only be hopeful that people will be able to know which are their reliable sources.

What would you want people to know that we might not get from looking at social media or looking at news reports?

This is, for me, on a very personal level. I've spent the majority of my life in Nigeria and a large chunk of what I was conditioned to believe of my neighbors and my own people–in terms of walking out on the streets and being a naturally anxious person and being threatened of people–is completely not true. Especially about the youth. It's the current generation of Nigerians who have this wild ambition and hope for a better country. And we tried. We genuinely, genuinely tried. The largest Black population in the world stood up. The youth all stood up. And in my opinion and for many, it's not over.

I can't really tell people, "This is what I would want you to know." I can only say do your research. Dig deeper. These are the reliable sources: Feminist Coalition, the End SARS Response, and then all the other people that fall under that. These are people, reliable sources, that can give true accounts of what's happened–because it's only going to get more muddled with time. And the fear is it's going to die out, as many hashtag movements do.

Right. Like social media burnout.

To be fair, I think a lot of people tend to disassociate when things get overwhelming. A lot of tragedies happen constantly around the world and sometimes people say, "I can't deal with this because we're already dealing with something here," or whatever the case may be.

But I would say when it comes to this Nigerian generation of youth, the people who push this protest forward–believe them. It's like with every movement, give them that at the very least. Even if you're unable to give a helping hand, whatever space that you find yourself, believe the youth. Believe younger Nigerians and know that they're absolutely right in their demands.

Going back to your photography, there are a lot of things going on in these protests. Do you have a plan of action when you go out to cover the protests? How do you choose which moments you want to capture on camera and what are you hoping to evoke with your photos?

When I go out to these protests, I really never have a plan of what I'm going to capture–outside of just safety procedures–because I can't anticipate a lot of what's happening. For the most part, I usually tend to go right at the beginning. These protests have times because they're organized, so they have a meet-up point at 9:00 a.m., 5:00 a.m., 4:00 a.m., whatever the case may be. It's best to be aware of what's happening as it rolls out versus coming in the middle of the day and you meet a big crowd and you can't tell heads or tails of what's going on.

When the crowd gets heavy, I tend to stay on the outskirts. It's usually also about sensing things that may be happening. It's a feeling. The way I can best describe it, it's like the crowd breathes in and out. Sometimes I'm able to sense when the crowd is about to take a deep breath and I'll dive in, and usually the exhale comes with a certain moment. It can be a joyful moment, it can be people crying or praying, whatever may be. I grab some shots and then I come out again, because I also just have to be careful for my own safety. I don't want to be caught in the middle of any quick movements or emergencies that might happen.

With the curfew imposed now in Lagos, what are you hoping to see come next out of the movement, especially as different organizations are beginning to adapt to these new circumstances?

Honestly, I'm still wrapping my head around what the president left out last night. I, myself, was asking, "Well, what now?" I don't know, to be honest. I don't know if the protests are going to pick up while the president threatens us. I don't think so. But, I know for a fact that doesn't mean that this fight for what is right–and, to be quite frank, for true and just democracy–stops here.

It's just about restrategizing. It's about registering to vote. It's about actually getting ready for [Nigeria's 2023 presidential election]. But in terms of what comes immediately after this, I really don't know.

There's a lot of uncertainty right now.

Yeah. Personally, I'm still processing. It was such a long rise and a quick fall, with the shootings and the curfew and then the president's statements. That happened very quickly.

Is there anything else you'd want to note?

At all these protests, especially the ones that I went to right at the crack of dawn or the start time of the protest, it was always women at the forefronts. It was always women organizing, leading with the megaphones, cheering on people. I think that's very important to note.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

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