The most powerful movements in history have always been defined by images: portraits of the pains, attitudes, and resilience of the people calling for change. In Nigeria, the ongoing #EndSARS + #SARSMustGo + #EndPoliceBrutality protests have introduced a few, some of which have taken on greater meaning for the public. Most of them emerge from confrontations: the police trying to suppress protests, shooting protesters, the people resisting. All of them embody, in different ways, what it has meant to be Nigerian.
Folio Nigeria brings you the 10 definitive images from the protests so far.
10. Davido on His Knees
It is unclear the dialogue that happened in this moment, but the singer Davido kneeling before the police exemplifies the public demand that celebrities join the protests, which had already taken on an outsize life in the streets and online. It is sad that there had to be demands in the first place, because celebrities are citizens and shouldn’t need to be urged, but in the last few days, they have become more visible: from Runtown taking a proactive role to WizKid addressing protesters in London to Toyin Abraham using a microphone on a Lagos street to Phyno, Flavour, and Zoro taking part in the protests in Enugu. The Movement, however, is bigger than individuals; when celebrities speak, they speak not as leaders—the Movement has no “leaders”—but as members.
9. Look at Us
The boys sitting on this Mercedes, with their short dreads and schoolboy looks, are exactly the kind that SARS traditionally targets. They may not have intended this, but, with their placards and electronic devices and steady faces, Tamani the Photographer’s image could not be more revolting. On any day before the end of last week, they would have been staring at unspeakable brutalisation—or even their own end—just for being exactly where they are now. As if aware of this, the other boys and girls walk around the vehicle, surrounding it like guards.
The faces of each one of these young women and men, captured by Sir Inyene at the Lekki Toll Gates, show a multitude of attitudes. They are energetic, loud, tired, exasperated, insistent, hopeful. Their bodies say: we must, we have to—if we don’t, who will?
7. Enough Is Enough
A familiar image that could have been taken straight out of the Arab Spring: a protester says enough, and refuses to run, and picks the tear gas canister and throws it back at the police.
There is only so much the people can take.
6. F**k the Po-Po
This image might as well be a still from an African American neighbourhood in the USA, appearing in an unfiltered Kendrick Lamar video. Police brutality in America is race-based but in Nigeria—and most of Africa—it is class- and generation-based. It is calculated, timed, a young man making sure that the advancing police van sees its own filth, and sees that we despise it.
5. Eagle Lady
It’s certainly not an eagle, probably a hawk, but whichever it is, that bird of prey is now part of an iconic image. There is an eagle on Nigeria’s coat of arms, signifying strength. The woman in this photo is resilient. Her face says: you do not know how ready we are. The stains on her T-shirt show how far she has come, how long she has been waiting. They do not know that nothing could stop someone who carries the spirit of her country.
4. See What They Have Done
Even as a demonstration, this image could be terrifying, especially if you have witnessed a SARS assault. What these young men and women are showing the world is something that thousands of young Nigerians have experienced: forced onto the ground like criminals, their faces frozen in pain from a beating that never really stops mentally, not even after they survive the physical encounter.
3. Two Ladies
This image show a side of the protests that the police suppressors underestimate: enthusiasm. These are young people who have left their work and come out to the streets. The lady on the right is getting away not out of fear but because she knows she should. The lady on the left dials it up a bit, like it is a dance rehearsal. She points skywards, but the loop behind them now seems above them, and she is unknowingly pointing at it.
This image depresses me, though: with the National Assembly in the background and the police tank behind them, what this image captures are the two factors Nigerians are protesting: the laws and the people who carry them out.
2. Man with Flag
He is unknown, this man heralding the dawn of a new future. The two flags, the higher one saying END SARS and the lower one of Nigeria, hints at the tone of the protests: the SARS brutality is one with the brutality of Nigeria.
1. A Woman Is Power
It is a carefully taken photo: the political commentator Aisha Yesufu raising her hand in power. It just might be the most used photo of the last few days.
Many people have connected to the images, adopting them as symbols of boldness.
If you know the photographers behind the uncredited images, please let us know. If there are more you think have become symbolic, please let us know.
Otosirieze Obi-Young is a writer, editor, journalist, and curator. He is Editor of Folio Nigeria, where he profiles innovators and facilitators in culture: business, art, photography, music, activism, health, food. He has vast experience working in literature. He has sat on the judging panels of The Gerald Kraak Prize and of The Morland Writing Scholarship. He is an editor at 14, Nigeria's first queer art collective, and Curator at The Art Naija Series, a sequence of e-anthologies exploring different aspects of Nigerianness. For three years, Nov. 2016 to Apr. 2020, he led the transformation of the literary blog Brittle Paper into a continental powerhouse, ideating and administering The Brittle Paper Awards, the first by an African publication. His work in queer advocacy has been profiled in Literary Hub. In 2019, he won The Future Awards Africa Prize for Literature. In 2020, he was named among "The 100 Most Influential Young Nigerians." He completed a collection of short stories in 2016 and his novel in 2020. Find him on otosirieze.com or on Twitter & Insta: @otosirieze.