After #EndSARS, community support helps Nigerians heal wounds

Weeks of dissent against police brutality in 2020 have left protesters struggling with mental health problems in a country with few formal resources to help.

A protester holds a sign in support of #EndSARS demonstrators, at a rally outside the Nigerian High Commission in London on October 25, 2020 [Ben Stansall/AFP]

Lagos, Nigeria – More than two months after she was attacked while protesting against the now-defunct Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS) in Lagos, Clara Igwe*, 23, still finds it difficult 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 happened on the night of October 20, at an area known as Seven-Up – a few kilometres from the protest ground in Alausa, a principal district of the state capital, Ikeja, that also houses the Lagos State secretariat and the governor’s office. Igwe and a number of others had fled there after security forces opened fire on their protest ground, leaving at least two people dead.

At the time, national attention was on events happening about 30km (18 miles) away, at the Lekki toll gate, where the Nigerian army had fired on peaceful protesters, killing at least 12.

After the police beat her until she was semi-conscious, they dragged Igwe out of their van and left her on the side of the road, she says. She hid under a car until the next morning when someone helped her. She spent the next two days in hospital, being treated for injuries to her head and body. She then moved to a safe house set up by protest organisers, as she feared the police could be looking 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, in comparison to the events in Lekki, not enough attention has been paid to the acts of brutality that took place in other parts of the country, including Alausa. Like thousands of Nigerians across the country who actively participated in the protests, she is traumatised.

A view shows a road blockade at the Lekki toll gate in Lagos on October 24, 2020, days after the army opened fire on protesters there [Afolabi Sotunde/Reuters]

Years of harassment

Although the daughter of a retired SARS officer, Igwe had also experienced harassment from the notorious police unit – which motivated her to join the protests last October.

SARS, which was formally disbanded on October 11 as a result of the demonstrations, was notorious for extortion, arbitrary arrests, torture and extrajudicial killings, with people aged 16 to 35 its main target. Young men would often be profiled as internet fraudsters, while women were accused of being prostitutes. Igwe experienced this when she was stopped by SARS while in a Taxify taxi in Lagos last year.

“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 attention to the driver who was extorted before the two were allowed to leave.

Igwe considers herself lucky. In similar cases, the outcome has been physical abuse or even death. Before the October protests, Amnesty International had documented 82 cases of torture, ill treatment and extrajudicial killing over the past three years. It reached a tipping point on October 5 after SARS operatives allegedly threw Joshua Ambrose out of a moving car in Ughelli, a town in Delta State. Footage of the scene made it to social media and went viral, which reignited #EndSARS, helping the movement spread to cities across Nigeria and abroad.

Despite her family’s misgivings about her demonstrating against SARS, Igwe went a step further: From being a protester to a volunteer. She shared food and drinks to keep protesters’ spirits up and then acted as security detail, helping regulate high-spirited protesters’ activities 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 did not only take a toll on those on the front line. Dennis Eguagie, a radio presenter in Enugu, southeast Nigeria, was in shock as he watched the October 20 attack on peaceful protesters in Lekki on Instagram, while on a music break. The 26-year-old was so shaken that he breached broadcasting rules by leaving his radio show unattended for over five minutes, before abandoning it altogether with two hours still 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 dead air was followed by the national anthem and an abrupt end to his show. But he stayed in the broadcasting booth for a while to think about what he had just seen, relating the events to past massacres he had read about or followed. Later, he called his father to talk 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 evening radio show in Enugu on December 23, 2020 [Photo courtesy of Dennis Eguagie]

The presenter says he remembers “just shutting down” after seeing the massacre on his social media feed. “I’m not someone that would cry. The last time I cried was when I lost my brother, maybe more than 10 years ago. I struggled because you cannot leave a radio show halfway. I realise that (the listeners) were expecting to hear an exciting voice on the radio, but here’s what I just watched, I can’t do this!

“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 found himself back in a familiar dark hole. His first experience with depression was in 2016 while his mother battled a chronic illness. Now it was back, and his request for a week-long leave from work was granted.

The protests against police brutality have taken a toll on Nigerians’ mental health, says Amanda Iheme, lead psychotherapist and founder of Ndidi, a private mental health 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 country in the world, ranks 15th in the world (and seventh in Africa) for the number of suicides, according to a World Health Organization (WHO) report. With just eight federal neuropsychiatric facilities across the country, and 250 psychiatrists (and 200 under training) available to a population of 200 million, getting access to mental healthcare is difficult and expensive.

Initiatives like Mentally Aware Nigeria Initiative (MANI), a mental health advocacy group, have emerged to fill the gap, often bringing therapy to people’s doorsteps through 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 find treatment for her anxiety disorder in the city where she lives. “I have some underlying mental health issues and I needed to see somebody.”

A protester holds a sign critical of the Nigerian president, at a street rally in Calabar on October 14, 2020 [Kathryn Kubiangha]

The event photographer documented the #EndSARS protests in Akpabuyo, a town in Cross River State, in the south-south region of Nigeria. This triggered and heightened her anxiety. “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 recalls.

“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 could only attend three physical protests because of this. Helpless, she barely left her house and it worsened after October 20 when she started “hearing gunshots in my head”. She found one of MANI’s mental health calls on Twitter and sent a message during one of her panic attacks 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 executive director, says they began to pay attention to mental breakdowns linked to the #EndSARS protests after she witnessed a woman having a panic attack at the 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 woman down, she led MANI efforts to set up a dedicated channel to help those needing support, and to distribute panic cards – a first aid card with tips to combat mild mental health concerns such as sleep deprivation, panic attacks and anxiety.

Nigerian Police fire tear gas at people during clashes between youths in Apo, Abuja, Nigeria, on October 20, 2020, following demonstrations against SARS [Kola Sulaimon/AFP]

Counsellors and listeners

On October 17, protest organisers started a helpline so the End SARS Response Unit – an online platform created to provide social services including food, security, and medical aid – could better meet protesters’ needs. Of the six available channels people could call for help, three extensions were dedicated solely to mental health emergencies.

Eby Akhigbe, a customer care professional credited with setting up the helplines, led a group of volunteers who answered the calls. MANI and Stand To End Rape Initiative (STER), a sexual violence advocacy group, were at the fore. Distress calls landed on either desks or with Akhigbe’s team. They all provide Psychological First Aid (PFA), using task-sharing – a system used by MANI to fill the void in the Nigerian mental health sector.

With task-sharing, cases are handled in a triage manner, depending on severity: Mild cases like anxiety, trauma and loss of sleep get forwarded to trained mental health counsellors who engage in talk therapy, while more serious cases like depression and suicidal ideation are referred to psychotherapists and psychiatrists, who can run a diagnosis or administer drugs if needed.

“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 a sign calling for an end to police brutality in Nigeria, on October 21, 2020, in London [Hasan Esen/Anadolu]

Regardless, the calls poured in. Despite additional efforts from other outfits, the requests for help outweighed their manpower, thus highlighting the lack of capacity to deal with mental health issues in the country in general.

“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 those kinds of calls; people that couldn’t sleep at all or they were having panic attacks and what-have-you. Then we’ll just talk them through the process of relaxing and stuff. We just listen to them. It was majorly about listening, not majorly about what we were going to tell them.

“We even had one case where one guy wanted to commit suicide,” she continues. “In fact, he even drank something and then we had to send an ambulance to go and [take] him to the hospital. There were different cases like that but the majority of the cases, when they call to say, ‘I can’t sleep, my heart is aching’, we just calm them down.

“We’re not mental health professionals and there was a lot of helplessness during that period, but first we just calm people down and say: ‘See, we know what you’re going through. We understand.’

“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 night of October 20 and the following morning saw this reach a crescendo, after the killings at the Lekki toll gate. Members of the team, including herself, broke down. “Everybody too had a share of dealing with their mental health.”

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

Education gap

One positive outcome of #EndSARS has been furthering mental health awareness in a country where psychological ailments are often not treated seriously. The volume of requests for support during the protests – although overwhelming for counsellors – was a good sign that people are seeking help, but the education gap remains wide, says Angel Yinkore, STER’s mental health unit lead.

Mental healthcare is stigmatised. Often, rather than seeking medical help, issues are either ignored or seen as spiritual attacks that can be treated by turning to religion. “This is something that needs discussion,” she says.

In Calabar, photographer Kubiangha was faced with stigma and told by a doctor to “try Jesus Christ” during one of 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 before she found MANI on Twitter. But people who are not on social media might not have access to the education and treatment they need.

A Nigerian woman based in South Africa weeps as others comfort her during 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 government intervention at the grassroots level.

But societal perceptions around mental health, and the public’s level of education on the topic, is enabled by the law – or the lack thereof.

In 1916, the Lunacy Ordinance, Nigeria’s first mental health legislation, was enacted. The laws were then amended in 1958, while the country was under British control, conferring power upon medical practitioners and magistrates to detain patients with mental illnesses.

In 2003, the National Assembly received a Mental Health Bill, which outlined principles for the delivery of care to people with neurological and psychological conditions. But failure to act on it saw it withdrawn in 2009 while a reintroduction in 2013 was met with the same languid energy.

“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 continue to try to fill the gap. Several initiatives have sprung up during and after the protests to help combat mental health complications. For queer Nigerians – who face additional trauma because of the country’s homophobic laws – the Safe House project provided tailored mental health guidance over the phone.

On November 8 in Lagos, Tiwa, a community of Nigerian female photographers, held a care event that they opened to photographers of any gender who covered the protests. Umar Faruq Akinwunmi, who documented the protests, attended. He told Al Jazeera he was on edge during the protests and experienced “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 recalls. On November 7, a day before the care event, he had another encounter when he was pulled over by policemen on his way back from a date with his girlfriend.

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

Available at the care event were massage sessions, painting 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 event 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 saw a similar pattern emerging, 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 every Nigerian to go and see a mental health professional, due to the peculiarity of traumatic experiences in the country – including economic hardship, government oppression, violence and heavy-handed policing. But on average a therapy session costs 10,000 naira ($26) – a significant amount considering the country’s minimum wage is 30,000 naira ($79) a month.

The cost of care

Mental healthcare is a luxury 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, provides free support group sessions for people needing mental healthcare in Lagos. Their last session saw the highest turnout for groups in support of anxiety, depression and grief. Virtual tools like Google, wikiHow, Quora and YouTube videos on mental health also come in handy, offering free and more accessible streams of advice, 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 at the Tiwa care event on November 8, 2020 [Enoabasi Nta for Tiwa]

At Ndidi, she offers a package tailored for artists, including writers and sculptors, where they can either get a discounted session or apply for financial aid to get free sessions.

“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 help from other organisations, MANI has continued its advocacy for a mentally healthy country. In conjunction with STER – which sponsors 10 clinical psychologists – they facilitate private therapy sessions for victims of police brutality. Global Shaper sponsors weekly group sessions called Healing Together, for people yet to recover from the windfall of the #EndSARS protests – a six-month project aiming to reach 5,000 Nigerian youths. And She Writes Woman, an advocacy group giving “mental health a voice”, launched its toll-free mental health helpline.

The importance of seeing a mental health professional cannot be overemphasised, says Iheme, urging people to take advantage of the current upheaval and interest, and book a session.

During radio host Eguagie’s week-long break from work after the Lekki shooting, he was able to stabilise his emotions with the help of a mental health recovery coach, while in the aftermath of her traumatic encounter at Alausa, young protester Igwe has considered reaching out to MANI for professional help.

Despite the government’s lackadaisical approach, advocates, practitioners and volunteers continue to champion the cause for a mentally stable country, hoping every Nigerian regardless of their social class – especially in light of the widespread #EndSARS protests – gets help.

*Name has been changed to protect the person’s identity.

Source: Al Jazeera