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‘I was perceived security risk for taking #EndSARS protests pictures’

By Ijeoma Thomas-Odia
23 October 2021   |   1:52 am
I will say photography chose me. It has been there all the while and I will say it is a latent gift. I grew up with two amazing sisters and I remember that growing up, they would give me their phones...

Eti-Inyene Godwin Akpan

Eti-Inyene Godwin Akpan is a visual storyteller and photojournalist. He is the founder of PhotoWaka Africa, a large gathering of photographers. He is one of the photographers who documented the #EndSARS protests in Lagos and the only one who documented the shootings at the Lekki Toll Gate on 20th October 2020. In this interview with IJEOMA THOMAS-ODIA, he shares his ordeal on the night of the ‘Lekki massacre’.

Why did you choose photography?
I will say photography chose me. It has been there all the while and I will say it is a latent gift. I grew up with two amazing sisters and I remember that growing up, they would give me their phones, I would take about 100 pictures and they would delete 99 of them and with the reasons they gave me for deleting them. I was subconsciously learning perspectives. I also remember one of my sisters telling me to venture into photography because she has seen my passion due to my level of criticism. I am a huge fan of documentation. Photography found me and I’m glad to be doing what I’m doing right now.

You were one of the photographers who documented the #EndSARS protests last year. Why did you choose to do so?
Documenting the #EndSARS protests was one of the highlights of my profession; I have been a huge fan of using photography for social good, which is our core at Photowaka Africa. I remember the first day of the protests. Nobody thought it would be huge. Before then, the perception about protests in Nigeria was that nobody would come out. I said I should just go and have a look and document something. Surprisingly, on the first day of the protests, I left my office for the Lekki Tollgate where the protesters converged. The crowd was really massive, images were pushed out that day and people were surprised at the turnout that changed people’s perception about protests. From the next day, people took it upon themselves to protests at different locations. It wasn’t just a protest to me, history was happening and it has to be preserved, I took it upon myself to document the #EndSARS protests from the beginning till the night of the ‘Lekki Tollgate massacre’.

What was the experience like in taking pictures in such a chaotic situation characterised by sporadic shooting?
I remember they announced a curfew that day, and I planned to return home upon hearing the news. But I hadn’t been to the tollgate that day, so I decided to stop by to take some pictures before going home. On getting to the tollgate, I met a different kind of energy. Some people didn’t want to go because they didn’t want to be stuck in traffic when the curfew would starts, so I decided to stay back and document whatever would be happening. I didn’t expect that things would get as messy as it did. I just thought they would come in and use teargas to chase people away. I remember the organisers telling the crowd that there was curfew. Pregnant women and those who were not fit were advised to leave. Those who chose to stay back were encouraged to stay together and make sure they have a Nigerian flag, with the hope that even if the government doesn’t respect us they would respect the Nigerian flag. We were also told that when military personnel start approaching, we should kneel down and raise the Nigerian flag and be peaceful.

As evening approached, suddenly people started running down from the Oriental Hotel, shouting they don come o. While people were running towards the protest ground, I was running towards Oriental Hotel where they already had their vans positioned. That, for me, was an action I should not miss.

Unfortunately, not quite long after taking position, with all sincerity, they started shooting into the air. I was shocked because I was hoping one or two military men would come to the protest ground to talk to us, but they didn’t. The moment they started shooting, I switched my camera to video because I needed to capture it. Some peaceful protesters tried to put the red and white barricade to block them from coming in; they would shoot into the air for some time, stop and then move closer. And as they approached me, I ran back, fell into a gutter and then came out and hid under a car while still taking images. At that point, I was separated from the crowd that was giving me energy. Then I found my way back to the crowd who were already chanting the national anthem. The next thing we heard was someone screaming. Because it was dark then, we used light from a phone to locate the person screaming and saw blood dripping from the man’s lap. I remember taking some pictures of that, and then I told myself I needed to find my way out.

While I was taking the pictures, I was observing the military personnel; they started spreading out, and I told myself that if they should circle us, I was the only photographer there and a potential threat. I remember I had to crawl towards Lekki Phase One towards the sharp turn. That was how I escaped before the military men successfully surrounded the protesters. I remember calling a friend who told me he couldn’t move because they were surrounded. While I was running towards Oniru road, I met some policemen with guns. At that point, I didn’t really know who I would meet going forward, so I ejected my memory card from my camera because at that point it was more valuable than my camera due to its content. I hid it between my ID cards and continued running. When I got to the third roundabout, I received a call from one of my mentors – even though my screen was broken from falling into gutter, I managed to pick the call. He told me to find my way to his house immediately as hoodlums had started taking advantage of the situation. I got to his place and couldn’t sleep because I felt traumatised by what I had experienced. I used to be a fan of the military, but after that scenario I hated military officers. It got to a point that when I hear siren, I remember what happened that night.

While still at my mentor’s place, his security man came to tell us that three men in mufti came looking for a certain person; then I knew my location must have been compromised because I made sure some images went out that night through my social media platform. I got many threat messages and that was how I started moving from one safe place to the other. My account was frozen and that was when it dawned on me that some people were haunting for me. I left the country by road as passports were being seized. I left almost immediately even though I was not feeling too well and was on medication. Thanks to Committee to Protect Journalists who played a huge role of taking me out of Nigeria. I arrived Ghana through bushy parts. The journey took a few days, and I lived there for months – thanks to my mentors and my sisters who supported me at that time. I only returned to Nigeria when I felt safe.

It was challenging taking photos that night. At a point, I told myself to stop. I remember a guy that got shot. He wore a pair of blue jeans and we had to pull off the jeans. That was when I saw the wound: it was big. I thought bullets would just leave a small hole but it was a wide one on his lap. I am glad I was able to capture those images that night for posterity.

Would you say that the protest had achieved its mission?
The #EndSARS wasn’t just protests, it was a movement. As a movement, I don’t think it has achieved its aim: it’s just starting. It is going to birth something new in Nigeria.

What is your message to young people about the protest?
The government is putting out the perception that the protest is a bad one. But the #EndSARS protest has broken that misconception that Nigerians are divided. I like the energy and vibe that came with the protest. The vandalism of properties wasn’t perpetrated by the #EndSARS movement, it was the aftermath of the shooting that led to the vandalism.