After #EndSARS, community support helps Nigerians heal wounds

Lagos, Nigeria – More than two months after she was attacked whereas protesting in opposition to the now-defunct Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS) in Lagos, Clara Igwe*, 23, nonetheless finds it tough to sleep.

“Four [police] men cocked their guns and were facing me [saying] that I should lay down,” she recounts to Al Jazeera. “The next thing, the other one used the gun to hit me; another one was using a stick to beat me; one was using koboko (a whip made of animal skin); one of them came down from the van and just used a bottle to hit my head … The beating was mad.”

That all occurred on the evening of October 20, at an space often called Seven-Up – a number of kilometres from the protest floor in Alausa, a principal district of the state capital, Ikeja, that additionally homes the Lagos State secretariat and the governor’s workplace. Igwe and a lot of others had fled there after safety forces opened hearth on their protest floor, leaving a minimum of two individuals useless.

At the time, nationwide consideration was on occasions taking place about 30km (18 miles) away, on the Lekki toll gate, the place the Nigerian military had fired on peaceable protesters, killing a minimum of 12.

After the police beat her till she was semi-conscious, they dragged Igwe out of their van and left her on the aspect of the street, she says. She hid below a automobile till the following morning when somebody helped her. She spent the following two days in hospital, being handled for accidents to her head and physique. She then moved to a secure home arrange by protest organisers, as she feared the police could possibly be on the lookout for her.

“I hardly sleep because I’m too scared,” she says. “I see myself running from people with guns and then I see myself kneeling before people with guns around me and they’re threatening to shoot me and one of them is beating me, one is hitting me. I hear some stupid things like: ‘You this girl, we go kill you finish, we go throw your body, they no go see you.’”

Igwe believes that, compared to the occasions in Lekki, not sufficient consideration has been paid to the acts of brutality that passed off in different elements of the nation, together with Alausa. Like hundreds of Nigerians throughout the nation who actively participated within the protests, she is traumatised.

A view reveals a street blockade on the Lekki toll gate in Lagos on October 24, 2020, days after the military opened hearth on protesters there [Afolabi Sotunde/Reuters]

Years of harassment

Although the daughter of a retired SARS officer, Igwe had additionally skilled harassment from the infamous police unit – which motivated her to hitch the protests final October.

SARS, which was formally disbanded on October 11 because of the demonstrations, was infamous for extortion, arbitrary arrests, torture and extrajudicial killings, with individuals aged 16 to 35 its predominant goal. Young males would typically be profiled as web fraudsters, whereas girls had been accused of being prostitutes. Igwe skilled this when she was stopped by SARS whereas in a Taxify taxi in Lagos final yr.

“They stopped the car and asked us to come out,” she recounts. “I was dressed up and the (officer said) I was looking like a prostitute, that I should bring my phone (so they could search it)… When I refused, he was like, if I don’t, he’ll slap me.” After harassing her, they shifted their consideration to the motive force who was extorted earlier than the 2 had been allowed to go away.

Igwe considers herself fortunate. In related instances, the result has been bodily abuse and even loss of life. Before the October protests, Amnesty International had documented 82 instances of torture, unwell therapy and extrajudicial killing over the previous three years. It reached a tipping level on October 5 after SARS operatives allegedly threw Joshua Ambrose out of a shifting automobile in Ughelli, a city in Delta State. Footage of the scene made it to social media and went viral, which reignited #EndSARS, serving to the motion unfold to cities throughout Nigeria and overseas.

Despite her household’s misgivings about her demonstrating in opposition to SARS, Igwe went a step additional: From being a protester to a volunteer. She shared meals and drinks to maintain protesters’ spirits up after which acted as safety element, serving to regulate high-spirited protesters’ actions and restore order when hoodlums infiltrated protests at Alausa.

“My dad did not like it one bit because he said I was protesting against his [former] job. My mom and everybody was just against it and he stopped talking to me,” she says.

Protesters on the streets of Calabar in Cross River state on October 14, 2020 [Kathryn Kubiangha]

Triggers and trauma

The protests didn’t solely take a toll on these on the entrance line. Dennis Eguagie, a radio presenter in Enugu, southeast Nigeria, was in shock as he watched the October 20 assault on peaceable protesters in Lekki on Instagram, whereas on a music break. The 26-year-old was so shaken that he breached broadcasting guidelines by leaving his radio present unattended for over 5 minutes, earlier than abandoning it altogether with two hours nonetheless left on air.

“I remember turning off the mic,” he says. “I said [to myself] I don’t know how I feel, I’m going to need a while to process how I feel. And I said: ‘This is it for the night.’”

The useless air was adopted by the nationwide anthem and an abrupt finish to his present. But he stayed within the broadcasting sales space for some time to consider what he had simply seen, relating the occasions to previous massacres he had examine or adopted. Later, he known as his father to speak about it.

“[My dad] was quiet. Why? Because he experienced the civil war as a young boy … It was sad for him because the son who he [brought into the world], years after that experience, is still experiencing a glimpse of how Nigeria can scar her citizens,” Eguagie says.

Dennis Eguagie presenting his night radio present in Enugu on December 23, 2020 [Photo courtesy of Dennis Eguagie]

The presenter says he remembers “just shutting down” after seeing the bloodbath on his social media feed. “I’m not somebody that might cry. The final time I cried was once I misplaced my brother, possibly greater than 10 years in the past. I struggled since you can’t go away a radio present midway. I realise that (the listeners) had been anticipating to listen to an thrilling voice on the radio, however right here’s what I simply watched, I can’t do that!

“Something in me was at that Lekki toll that very day,” he continues. “It was like a version of me that was represented, got hit. So it was like I was alive but I was not.”

He discovered himself again in a well-known darkish gap. His first expertise with despair was in 2016 whereas his mom battled an sickness earlier than her loss of life. Now it was again, and his request for a week-long go away from work was granted.

The protests in opposition to police brutality have taken a toll on Nigerians’ psychological well being, says Amanda Iheme, lead psychotherapist and founding father of Ndidi, a non-public psychological well being service in Lagos.

“Everyone has a similar story, the difference would be the context of their experience,” she says. “The way they present the effect it had on them: feelings of anxiety, panic attacks, depressive symptoms, PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder), they are human response to trauma and human response to negative, emotional and difficult experiences.”

Feeling helpless and afraid

Nigeria, the seventh-largest nation on this planet, ranks fifteenth on this planet (and seventh in Africa) for the variety of suicides, based on a World Health Organization (WHO) report. With simply eight federal neuropsychiatric services throughout the nation, and 250 psychiatrists (and 200 below coaching) out there to a inhabitants of 200 million, gaining access to psychological healthcare is tough and costly.

Initiatives like Mentally Aware Nigeria Initiative (MANI), a psychological well being advocacy group, have emerged to fill the hole, typically bringing remedy to individuals’s doorsteps via platforms like WhatsApp and Twitter.

“It was quite hard to find a psychiatrist or therapist in Calabar,” Kathryn Kubiangha, 19, says of her battle to seek out therapy for her anxiousness dysfunction within the metropolis the place she lives. “I have some underlying mental health issues and I needed to see somebody.”

A protester holds an indication important of the Nigerian president, at a road rally in Calabar on October 14, 2020 [Kathryn Kubiangha]

The occasion photographer documented the #EndSARS protests in Akpabuyo, a city in Cross River State, within the south-south area of Nigeria. This triggered and heightened her anxiousness. “Basically at every turn where we see police officers, I was just like: ‘Ha, is it the time where they finally shoot us?’ or ‘what’s going to happen?’” she remembers.

“Whenever I left the protest ground it was a struggle getting home. I just kept looking at everybody, checking if I’m being followed. Literally, almost every single one on the street [while] walking back home [was a suspect] because aside from taking cabs, at some point I have to walk to get to my house. So I was like ‘am I going to be grabbed?’”

She may solely attend three bodily protests due to this. Helpless, she barely left her home and it worsened after October 20 when she began “hearing gunshots in my head”. She discovered one among MANI’s psychological well being calls on Twitter and despatched a message throughout one among her panic assaults when she “could barely breathe”.

“They helped out,” she says. “Somebody called from there, he was trying to get my mind off the whole thing. It was a very long call and it worked better than I expected.”

Ifedola Ward, MANI’s government director, says they started to concentrate to psychological breakdowns linked to the #EndSARS protests after she witnessed a girl having a panic assault on the web site in Alausa, on October 7. “They didn’t know what was happening to her and labelled her a [protest] disruptor,” she says.

After calming the girl down, she led MANI efforts to arrange a devoted channel to assist these needing assist, and to distribute panic playing cards – a primary assist card with tricks to fight gentle psychological well being issues equivalent to sleep deprivation, panic assaults and anxiousness.

Nigerian Police hearth tear fuel at individuals throughout clashes between youths in Apo, Abuja, Nigeria, on October 20, 2020, following demonstrations in opposition to SARS [Kola Sulaimon/AFP]

Counsellors and listeners

On October 17, protest organisers began a helpline so the End SARS Response Unit – an internet platform created to supply social providers together with meals, safety, and medical assist – may higher meet protesters’ wants. Of the six out there channels individuals may name for assist, three extensions had been devoted solely to psychological well being emergencies.

Eby Akhigbe, a buyer care skilled credited with organising the helplines, led a bunch of volunteers who answered the calls. MANI and Stand To End Rape Initiative (STER), a sexual violence advocacy group, had been on the fore. Distress calls landed on both desks or with Akhigbe’s workforce. They all present Psychological First Aid (PFA), utilizing task-sharing – a system utilized by MANI to fill the void within the Nigerian psychological well being sector.

With task-sharing, instances are dealt with in a triage method, relying on severity: Mild instances like anxiousness, trauma and lack of sleep get forwarded to educated psychological well being counsellors who interact in discuss remedy, whereas extra critical instances like despair and suicidal ideation are referred to psychotherapists and psychiatrists, who can run a prognosis or administer medication if wanted.

“That’s because we have a wide gap we need to bridge. If we have to rely on people that studied psychotherapy or psychology, then it would mean that we’ll have a lot of people with mental health issues that would never get attention,” says Ward.

A protester holds an indication calling for an finish to police brutality in Nigeria, on October 21, 2020, in London [Hasan Esen/Anadolu]

Regardless, the calls poured in. Despite extra efforts from different outfits, the requests for assist outweighed their manpower, thus highlighting the dearth of capability to take care of psychological well being points within the nation on the whole.

“I and some of the members of my team took calls for mental health, especially at odd hours of the night and early hours of the day,” says Akhigbe. “We had these sorts of calls; those that couldn’t sleep in any respect or they had been having panic assaults and what-have-you. Then we’ll simply discuss them via the method of stress-free and stuff. We simply take heed to them. It was majorly about listening, not majorly about what we had been going to inform them.

“We even had one case where one guy wanted to commit suicide,” she continues. “In truth, he even drank one thing after which we needed to ship an ambulance to go and [take] him to the hospital. There had been completely different instances like that however the majority of the instances, after they name to say, ‘I can’t sleep, my coronary heart is aching’, we simply calm them down.

“We’re not psychological well being professionals and there was loads of helplessness throughout that interval, however first we simply calm individuals down and say: ‘See, we know what you’re going via. We perceive.’

“We’re getting these kinds of calls. People are dying and all. Just take a deep breath. Be calm. Shut down your social media, shut down your phone. Listen to calming music to take your mind off the whole situation. I had an ‘End Sars’ playlist. I was even sharing it on Twitter.”

According to Akhigbe, the evening of October 20 and the next morning noticed this attain a crescendo, after the killings on the Lekki toll gate. Members of the workforce, together with herself, broke down. “Everybody too had a share of dealing with their mental health.”

A protester within the UK holds up a home-made Nigerian flag with the date October 20, 2020, written on it, the day safety forces opened hearth on peaceable demonstrators within the centre of Lagos State [Ben Stansall/AFP]

Education hole

One optimistic consequence of #EndSARS has been furthering psychological well being consciousness in a rustic the place psychological illnesses are sometimes not handled severely. The quantity of requests for assist throughout the protests – though overwhelming for counsellors – was a great signal that individuals are searching for assist, however the schooling hole stays huge, says Angel Yinkore, STER’s psychological well being unit lead.

Mental healthcare is stigmatised. Often, slightly than searching for medical assist, points are both ignored or seen as religious assaults that may be handled by turning to faith. “This is something that needs discussion,” she says.

In Calabar, photographer Kubiangha was confronted with stigma and informed by a physician to “try Jesus Christ” throughout one among her visits to the hospital.

“When I told my mother I needed to go to a psychiatric hospital, she just screamed, like I told her I want to do drugs. She was like ‘God forbid.’ Hers was out of concern for what people would say, but other peoples’ [reaction] was worse,” Kubiangha says.

That was earlier than she discovered MANI on Twitter. But people who find themselves not on social media won’t have entry to the schooling and therapy they want.

A Nigerian girl based mostly in South Africa weeps as others consolation her throughout an #EndSARS rally in Pretoria on October 21, 2020 [Phill Magakoe/AFP]

“Obviously you have to be of a certain literacy level and social class level to be able to access initiatives like MANI and STER. People that don’t have access to that, how do they know about them?” asks Yinkore, who campaigns for presidency intervention on the grassroots stage.

But societal perceptions round psychological well being, and the general public’s stage of schooling on the subject, is enabled by the legislation – or the dearth thereof.

In 1916, the Lunacy Ordinance, Nigeria’s first psychological well being laws, was enacted. The legal guidelines had been then amended in 1958, whereas the nation was below British management, conferring energy upon medical practitioners and magistrates to detain sufferers with psychological sicknesses.

In 2003, the National Assembly acquired a Mental Health Bill, which outlined ideas for the supply of care to individuals with neurological and psychological situations. But failure to behave on it noticed it withdrawn in 2009 whereas a reintroduction in 2013 was met with the identical languid power.

“In primary healthcare centres, what the government should be doing is introducing mental health programmes. So that in the grassroots, people have access to it because it’s not just people in the middle class that are being affected by police brutality,” says Yinkore.

“While our services are open to everyone, not everybody still knows about the existence of such services.”

Filling the void

NGOs proceed to attempt to fill the hole. Several initiatives have sprung up throughout and after the protests to assist fight psychological well being issues. For queer Nigerians – who face extra trauma due to the nation’s homophobic legal guidelines – the Safe House challenge supplied tailor-made psychological well being steering over the telephone.

On November 8 in Lagos, Tiwa, a group of Nigerian feminine photographers, held a care occasion that they opened to photographers of any gender who coated the protests. Umar Faruq Akinwunmi, who documented the protests, attended. He informed Al Jazeera he was on edge throughout the protests and skilled “a mild trigger [every time] I spotted the police”.

“On the third mainland bridge, before the Adeniji diversion, my car stopped and the police were there. I got really agitated, I was worried that they could just do something,” he remembers. On November 7, a day earlier than the care occasion, he had one other encounter when he was pulled over by policemen on his approach again from a date together with his girlfriend.

Umar Faruq Akinwunmi at his Lagos residence on December 23, 2020 [Tolu Olasoji/Al Jazeera]

Available on the care occasion had been therapeutic massage periods, portray and a psychotherapy session led by Iheme, the psychotherapist from Ndidi.

“The spa session was good for their body. It was a way to relieve physical tension and just relax, and the psychotherapy – getting people to talk,” says Aisha Ife, the group occasion convener. “Most times, people don’t want to talk. That day, it was a really nice thing for people to just be able to speak freely about their experiences, how they’ve been coping so far and also how they can cope better with their trauma.”

Iheme noticed an analogous sample rising, she says. “A lot of people who spoke and shared their feelings had their challenges ranging from editing photos, fears about going outside, panic attacks whenever they saw a police truck or police cars. They are very similar, it wasn’t different from the other person.”

She urges each Nigerian to go and see a psychological well being skilled, as a result of peculiarity of traumatic experiences within the nation – together with financial hardship, authorities oppression, violence and heavy-handed policing. But on common a remedy session prices 10,000 naira ($26) – a major quantity contemplating the nation’s minimal wage is 30,000 naira ($79) a month.

The value of care

Mental healthcare is a luxurious in Nigeria. However, “one can stick to NGOs like Mentally Aware, Anti Suicide and Depression”, Iheme says. “I work with an NGO called Listening Ear Africa, they pay for people’s therapy sessions.”

Obodo, a subsidiary of Ndidi, gives free assist group periods for individuals needing psychological healthcare in Lagos. Their final session noticed the best turnout for teams in assist of tension, despair and grief. Virtual instruments like Google, wikiHow, Quora and YouTube movies on psychological well being additionally come in useful, providing free and extra accessible streams of recommendation, she says.

She advises: “Deep breathing exercises for panic attacks, grounding techniques for panic attacks, exercises for when you’re dealing with depression and anxiety; and [the] importance of allowing their emotions to flow rather than holding them back.”

Painting session on the Tiwa care occasion on November 8, 2020 [Enoabasi Nta for Tiwa]

At Ndidi, she presents a bundle tailor-made for artists, together with writers and sculptors, the place they will both get a reduced session or apply for monetary assist to get free periods.

“Even as a private practice, the goal is to make it affordable, even though we are trying to be profitable. The goal is to create resources where people that can’t afford to pay a single dime can just show up and get help.”

With assist from different organisations, MANI has continued its advocacy for a mentally wholesome nation. In conjunction with STER – which sponsors 10 medical psychologists – they facilitate personal remedy periods for victims of police brutality. Global Shaper sponsors weekly group periods known as Healing Together, for individuals but to get better from the windfall of the #EndSARS protests – a six-month challenge aiming to succeed in 5,000 Nigerian youths. And She Writes Woman, an advocacy group giving “mental health a voice”, launched its toll-free psychological well being helpline.

The significance of seeing a psychological well being skilled can’t be overemphasised, says Iheme, urging individuals to benefit from the present upheaval and curiosity, and ebook a session.

During radio host Eguagie’s week-long break from work after the Lekki capturing, he was in a position to stabilise his feelings with the assistance of a psychological well being restoration coach, whereas within the aftermath of her traumatic encounter at Alausa, younger protester Igwe has thought of reaching out to MANI for skilled assist.

Despite the federal government’s lackadaisical method, advocates, practitioners and volunteers proceed to champion the trigger for a mentally steady nation, hoping each Nigerian no matter their social class – particularly in gentle of the widespread #EndSARS protests – will get assist.

*Name has been modified to guard the particular person’s id.