A freelance photojournalist and entrepreneur, Etim-Inyene Akpan, tells OLUWAFEMI DAWODU he became a person of interest to security agencies after posting online pictures he took at Lekki tollgate on the night of October 20, 2020 when soldiers confronted #EndSARS protesters
Please tell us about yourself.
My name is Etim-Iyene Akpan. I am the founder of PhotoWaka Africa, Guinness World Records largest community of photographers. I am also the founder of Maverick Creatives Agency, a PR and communications agency located in Lagos State. I am 27 years old and I am from Akwa Ibom State.
What role did you play in the #EndSARS protests of last year?
I try not to call it a protest; I see it as a movement. As a visual storyteller I just wanted to go out on the first day to document history, as I believed that the protest would hold for only one day. In fact, before then, the feeling was that no one would come out for the protest. But the crowd that turned out for the protest on the first day was really massive and the energy was high. I remember when the images went out in the evening, people were amazed that a lot of people came out for the protest. I think this encouraged people to go out in their various locations to continue the #EndSARS protest beyond the first day. For me, I thought it was a landmark event in Nigeria, and for my career. I felt history was happening and I needed to document history for posterity sake. That was why I went out from the first day to the night of the shooting at the Lekki tollgate.
What was your experience on the night of October 20, 2020 at the Lekki tollgate?
My office is close to the Lekki Toll Plaza and I remember that my routine during the protest was to come to the office in the morning, reply some mails, get some work done before heading to the protest ground. I was in the office that day when I heard that a curfew had been announced, and I said to myself that I had to pack my things and head back home. It was at that same moment that I remembered that I hadn’t taken any photographs at the tollgate for that day. So, I decided that I would stop at the tollgate on my way home and take some photos. On getting to the tollgate that day, I saw a different kind of vibe, energy. So many people said they were going to remain at the tollgate despite the curfew; some gave genuine reasons like the fact that they would be stuck in traffic on their way home by the time the curfew would commence. They preferred to be at the tollgate observing the curfew rather than be stuck in traffic in the middle of nowhere.
Seeing them gave me hope, and I felt someone needed document those who had decided to stay back at the tollgate. I remember the organisers encouraged some people to leave, like the pregnant, sick or weak. For those who wanted to stay they gave them some instructions, they made sure that everyone at the protest ground had the Nigerian flag. Our assumption was that with the Nigerian flag in our hands the security operatives would not do anything untoward to us.
At around 4pm or 5pm, I called my friend who was at the Alausa protest ground, to ask for the situation of things over there. He said the situation was calm, that military men came, they drove around and left. This gave me a huge sense of relief; I thought they would do just the same at Lekki. I believed they won’t do anything funny when they arrive.
A few minutes later I noticed some people running from the Oriental Hotel end towards the tollgate, shouting: “They are here!” I decided to run towards Oriental Hotel to see for myself what was happening. On getting to the Oriental Hotel axis I saw soldiers getting down from their trucks and they began to take positions. I was thinking that after taking positions, one or two of them would approach us on the protest ground to talk to us. But that was not the case. The moment they took their positions, they started shooting. I never saw that coming. I immediately switched my camera to video. The soldiers were very strategic that day; they would shoot, and then stop for a while; then they would advance a bit. They kept repeating this process as they advanced towards the protesters.
At a point, I started running to take cover. I ran back to my friend’s car which was parked around the Lekki Concession Company office. I hid myself under my friend’s car from, where I continued to take pictures. I kept saying to myself, “I’m not supposed to be hearing this kind of sound in October.” I was really scared. I was just under my friend’s car thinking of so many things. The protesters at the tollgate were singing the national anthem and waving the Nigerian flag. Seeing this, I was encouraged to join the protesters. Then I heard someone scream: “My leg! My leg!” I brought out my phone to check what had happened to him, it was at this point that I realised that the screen of my phone had broken after falling into a gutter earlier. Someone put on his torchlight. It was then we realised that a bullet had gone through the laps of the person screaming. The fellow wore a jean and we had to pull off the jean when we saw the wound. I could see blood on the ground everywhere. It struck me that that could be me. It dawned on me that the soldiers were no longer shooting in the air. And I became really scared. The thoughts of my family, especially my mum, flooded my mind.
I noticed that the soldiers were trying to circle round the protesters. And I began to strategise how to leave before they circled us. I had to crawl from the tollgate towards Lekki Phase One; I saw bodies on the ground. On getting to Maroko Police Station I saw that police officers had already blocked the road. I said to myself: “We are not done here!”
What did you do next?
I ejected my memory card from my camera and I hid it in my ID card holder. I kept running from Lekki Phase One even up to the third roundabout; people were just running. I didn’t even know where I was going to. Luckily, I got a call from one of my mentors who asked me where I was. He said I should just start coming down to his house. I finally got his house after trekking for hours that night. I was in total shock; it all appeared like a dream.
When I got to my mentor’s house, I asked him to lend me his laptop to check the images I had captured that night, and to upload some on my social media platforms, which I did.
Because of what I had seen, I was traumatised and I couldn’t sleep. I was literally hearing sound of gunshots in my head. The experience lasted for days and I couldn’t go home. I stayed in my mentor’s place for weeks.
Then, one particular day, my mentor called me to come and listen to what his security guard told him. The guard said about three men came to the house the previous night asking for my mentor. Later I started receiving threat messages to pull down the images I posted on the social media. It was at this point that I had to leave my mentor’s house. I didn’t want to endanger his life and that of his family. From there, I started moving from one safe house to the other. I had a strong sense that I was being traced. Then my bank account was blocked. It was at this point that I knew that I was no longer safe in the country.
What then did you do?
I called some of my mentors and they advised me to leave the country. They raised some money for me to leave immediately. They advised that I should leave the country by road and not via the airport, as the security agents were seizing passports. I got in touch with the Committee to Protect Journalists. They played a huge role in bringing me out of Nigeria. I don’t even know where we passed. I was on a bike in the middle of a forest. When I got to Cotonou, there was a journalist from CPJ waiting for me, who took me to where I would take a cab to Togo. On getting to the border I had to cross on foot because the border was closed.
The moment I successfully crossed the border from Benin Republic to Togo, there was another journalist waiting for me. The time was around past 10pm. The journalist told me I wouldn’t be able to continue my journey that night. He had already arranged a place for me to spend the night. The next day he had also got a bike rider who would convey me from Togo to Ghana. I had never been to Accra before, but surprisingly someone was already waiting for me even before my arrival. That was how I found myself in Accra. I was in Accra for months; I left Nigeria on the 12th of November 2020.
Did your family know about your movement and what was their reaction?
My family didn’t know about my movement until I got to Ghana. When I got to Accra, I called my sister and explained everything to her. But I didn’t tell my mum. I only told her I was in Ghana for a project and I didn’t know when I would be back. She was very happy, even joking that I should buy something for her when coming back. But a week later I got a call from my sister asking me to call my mum; that she already knew the reason I was in Ghana. I had to call her to explain to her and to reassure her that I was safe. My family never wanted me to come back to Nigeria.
What was your experience in Ghana?
I am the kind who loves to explore but unfortunately I was just in one place in Ghana. And honestly, I was depressed, after the entire trauma I had faced. It wasn’t easy staying in isolation despite that I made friends who called me brother.
How did you determine it was safe to return to Nigeria?
At the time I came back to Nigeria, the heat of #EndSARS gone down. It was at a time when it was being rumoured that there was going to be another lockdown (for COVID-19) and I didn’t want to be under lockdown in another man’s country. No one knew how long the lockdown would last. This was what spurred me to come back to Nigeria. I sneaked back into my fatherland by road and I kept a low profile on return.
How did you feel being back?
Coming back to Nigeria gave me this sense of being in my own country, regardless of whether my country wanted me or not. I felt closer to family. Months later my account was unfrozen. I only returned to my office after one year.
Now that you are back, what will you do differently?
I am a fan of photography, using photography for social good. This is one of the core values of my foundation, PhotoWaka. I was thinking about what I could do to add value to my country, having been privileged to have documented the #EndSARS movement. That was when the idea of having a photo exhibition to commemorate 365 days of the #EndSARS movement struck me. I discussed it with my team members and we started working on it. The exhibition was to show the positive side of the movement. My team and I had put things in place and pumped resources into the exhibition. The exhibition was meant to hold between October 20 and 24, 2021.
How did it go?
We had everything planned; we were 80 per cent ready for the exhibition tagged: “Soro Soke #EndSARS Through My Lens”. On October 5, I had an interview on a national TV to talk about it. The interview finished around 12pm and 16 minutes later I got a call from the Department of State Services asking me to come to their office at Magodo Shanginsha the following day. I summoned courage and told them I didn’t mind coming to their office but they should send me an invite via email, with their letter headed paper. Around past 2pm that same day, I got a call from another number. The person introduced herself as being from the DSS and that I was expected to report to their office the following day. She requested for my email address, I told her. She asked me to send it by a text message; I told her she should get my email address the same way they got my number. I called my lawyers and my mentors and told them I wouldn’t honour a phone call invitation from the DSS; I said it had to be by mail. Then my mentors advised me to lie low.
This is the reason why the photo exhibition tagged “SoroSokeEndsars Through My Lens” was temporarily suspended. My mentors advised me to lie low.
Kindly contact us @ Naijalivetv@gmail.com
Call or Whatsapp: 07035262029, 07016666694, 08129340000