April 19, 2018
I lay there in a pool of my own blood. All around me I can hear the confusion, the stamping of feet as people ran. Some towards me, some away. The helter skelter sound of running feet dulling out my consciousness. The feet ran, ran and ran; far away from the bloodshed and death.
I hear the voices, but it is becoming distant. Mere whispers as I feel the numbness spread fast.
“Let us carry him,” I hear someone shout. The voice sounded like that of Tunji my neighbour. We had been standing together before the madness started.
“Are you crazy? Do you think this was caused by a rubber bullet? Let’s get out of here before they reload and start shooting again,” I hear another voice say. I couldn’t tell who it was. Everything was becoming an echo from a distant, far away land.
The stone rolls out of my hand. That stone was meant for one of the soldiers at the end of the street. Now, it rolled harmlessly into the side gutter, draped in a crimson rob made from my own blood. My dimming eyes trailing its slow travel all the way, till it was out of sight. The stone as ineffectual as the hand that once held it.
The numbness was clouding my head now…I try to shake it off. I try to think straight. My fading mind casting back to the events of the past few hours, how I had gotten myself to be convinced by Wole and Tunj to come out to this rally; to face the tyrants who were trying to force a very unpopular hike in petroleum prices down our collective throats. I try to remember my protestations about the uselessness of the protests, the insincerity of the organizers of the jamboree-like rally at the popular Kushimo round-about, the danger of violence.
All of my protestations had been brushed aside by Tunji. I was branded a “chicken” and a “closet critic”. It was a turning point in the history of the country they both argued, a final stand by the people against “oppression” and “repression” they said.
My eyelids droop closed.
I snap them back open. I must not let them close. No matter what I do, I must not let them close. I need to concentrate on other things, occupy my mind in the hope that I will be conscious when medical help finally arrives.
My mind race back over events of the past few weeks. Events which culminated in today and the now…..
“…in the interest of the economic sustainability of our dear nation, the Federal government has reached a decision to remove fuel subsidy on petroleum products in the downstream sector, ” the voice of the President boomed from the TV set. That rich, baritone voice that had entranced so many during the presidential election campaign. The head bobbing up and down from reading from a piece of paper outside of the TV frame.
I was watching my father as the voice continued on the TV screen. He looked like he had just been stoned or a dagger plunged into his heart. His face drained off life and his eyes turned a dull, clueless hue as he stared into space.
It was New Year’s Day, and we had gathered to hear the Presidential address. Hope was high, there had been talk of another salary increase in the civil service. My dad had speculated all week about the likely increases that his salary was about to witness. Now, with what we were listening to on TV that doesn’t seem likely…
“As part of our efforts to transform the economy and guarantee prosperity for all Nigerians, Government, a few days ago, announced further deregulation of the downstream petroleum sector. The immediate effect of this has been the removal of the subsidy on petrol. In effect, petrol pump prices will sell for N180 per liter while the price of other products will be announced….”
The TV was switched off, my dad rising angrily from the sofa and heading for the detached bar at the far end of the sitting room.
“Idiots!” He bellowed. We all knew him as a calm, methodical man. This was why it was clear to me that what just happened must be huge. He normally wouldn’t be this worked up – unless, it was really serious.
“How could he and his advisers even conceive this, at this time of the year? On the first day of a new year for God’s sakes,” he gulped the half glass of brandy.
I could relate with his state of mind. Things have been pretty tight since Tomi, my younger sister, gained admission into the university. Now, he has to cater for school fees for myself and her.
With just myself in school, it was not always easy. The school fees often late in coming.
Before he could say more, I stood and left the sitting room. I got my own thinking to do.
I lay on my bed, staring at the ceiling. It was New Year’s Day, but it no longer felt like it. The stupid man living in Aso Rock has decided to snatch the joy of the day out of our hands and lives. Now, he has replaced that joy for millions with sadness.
My thoughts were preoccupied and I was still hung up in it, when my phone buzzed.
“Hi,” It was Tunji. “Did you hear the broadcast?”
” Yes. I did,” I replied.
“That man is a fool o. How could he have done this? It is like he is playing a joke or something. Today na New Year’s Day na,” Tunji was getting worked up. He was a hothead and we all knew it. It is wise not to get on his wrong side.
“I hear that there will be some kind of protest tomorrow. I think it is time people should stand up and make this government listen to the masses. N180 is too much fa….” His voice trailed off. There were muffled voices in the background.
“That is Wole. He just came in now and he has also heard of the rally tomorrow, ” Tunji continued when he got back on the phone. “We both plan to go. Will you come along too?” He asked.
I didn’t answer immediately. I have never been one for mass rallies or protests. My conviction had always been that they don’t serve any purpose.
“Are you there? Helloooo…,” Tunji brought me back to the present.
“No, I don’t think I want to.” I replied.
“C’mon! Will you bury your head in the sand like all the others too? We are the future of this country and we need to stand up and fight this flagrant abuse of power and ….”
“Tunji, please! Save me the sermon. I have heard it all before,” I cut him off. “You know where I stand in all this when it comes to political issues…especially as it concerns our dear country,” I finished sarcastically.
“OK. We will come over to your house tomorrow morning. We can play some video games if there is light; and if not, hopefully there is enough fuel in the generator. I am sure the filling stations will close shop or sell at well over the announced pump price tomorrow.”
I cut the connection. I am not ready for another tirade from Tunji. He and Wole can go to the rally if they want. I don’t care either way. I have stopped caring for a long time now. I returned to my thoughts.
What will happen to Tomi and I? Will this mean one of us has got to leave school or look for work. My dad has done all he could for us, not remarrying after my mom’s death three years ago. But, the strain had been showing for the past two years.
It has become even worse since Tomi joined me in the University. The good thing about the man is that he didn’t make things difficult for us. He respected himself and us that much. His drinking had increased, but he did it only at home and never made a fool of himself.
I have also noticed that his face had sagged worse than I ever could remember. He seemed to be falling apart in instalments. Life was rough.
And now, it looks like is going to get rougher.
Now, what will this new price regime do to him? What can I and my sister do in the circumstances to ease his worries and burden? What can Tunji and Wole hope to achieve by going to a rally?
A rally I was sure would be non-effectual in changing anything.
I was still pondering on these thoughts when I fell asleep.
My arguments and protestations had been worn thin by the collective heckling of Tunji and Wole. I had brought up all excuses and arguments, but they had trumped the argument by simply calling me a “closet critic” and a “chicken”.
“You just get mouth like Ajakara,” Wole crowed. “You will rather sleep, watch movies and play games while your mates are on the streets making the government know it is wrong this time…,” he said.
“Of course not, ” I interrupted. “That is not true and you know it.”
I was trying my hardest not to allow Wole and Tunji to goad me with their snide remarks and mockery. But I was beginning to get irritated and frustrated with how they were shaping out everything and misconstruing my reasons not to join them for the rally.
“I don’t know anything. If you will just put your money where your mouth is for once. Stand up and make a difference,” retorted Wole, his eyes angry and his voice betraying his anger at my feebleness.
I looked at my two friends. There was little else I could do. This battle was lost. I would never be allowed to rest if I didn’t go with them.
“Alright, I will come along with you. If only to make you guys realize am no chicken.”
We had set off for Kushimo roundabout. There was no danfo or okada so we had to walk. The streets were empty, except for places where they had been turned into makeshift football pitches.
People milled about with no particular intentions in mind, many discussing the announcements yesterday and the subsequently call by the labour union for a rally at the popular roundabout in downtown city center.
Kushimo Roundabout was where every dissident voice in the country were expected to converge to protest the latest government high-handedness.
We were still some distance from the popular roundabout when we started hearing the loud chanting of the crowds, an answering chant to a rally call by a woman on loudspeakers.
Greatest Nigeriaaaan Masses!
Greatest Nigeriaaaan Masses!
I looked quizzically at my two friends, my eyes telling them what I felt.
“Relax, it is just Gene. You know her na? The popular actress. She sef dey here,” Tunji punched my arm.
We eventually reached the venue and had stood with the crowd, singing and jumping. Shouting all forms of obscenities at the government…at all levels.
In the frenzied mass of bodies, the loud noises blaring from the speakers and the adrenaline-charged atmosphere, it was easy to lose oneself and forget one’s surrounding.
I was the first to notice the armored tanks and the stern looking soldiers taking up strategic positions at different points, a little distance away from the us.
Soon, other people noticed them too. In little time, the chanting had changed. The atmosphere even more charged and electric. The arrival of the uniform men seemed to have unleashed a beast in the members of the crowd. It was like a floodgate of bottled up frustration and emotions were let loose, and the crowd dynamic and expressions changed.
Heeei, dem go kill us taya
Heeei, dem go kill us taya.
How many people soja go kill?
In the mad frenzy of mass protest, I was among the first to pick up stones to throw at the invaders. That stone though, never left my curled fingers.
I feel someone trying to lift me off the ground.
“Leave him. We need to get out of here Wole. Before one of us gets hurt,” now I can reconnect who the second voice belonged to. It was Tunji.
“OK. But….” Wole was making a last effort at protest.
“No buts Wole. There is nothing we can do for him. Look at him now. See his head….do you think he can survive that?”
My fast receding mind tried to process that last thought….
My head? What is wrong with my head?
What are my two friends talking about?
Finally, I couldn’t resist the urge to close my eyes…forever.
December 4, 2023