I remember that day like it were yesterday.
I was in Paris for an away game with my former team, Manchester United. It was the UEFA Champions League, and we had just played Paris Saint-Germain in a hard-fought match, which ended 2-1 in our favour, thanks to a brilliant last-minute strike from Marcus Rashford. I was on the bench the entire time, so it was a quiet night. When the match was over, I made it down to the dressing room, joined the post-game debriefing, and had my shower - you know, the usual stuff.
I switched on my phone and what seemed to be a lukewarm day immediately turned upside down.
My notifications were insane. I mean, the sheer number of messages and tags I received was ridiculous - the kind I usually get after a game where I scored a brace or had a great outing - only this time, I hadn't even played. So I panicked for a moment. With social media, one cannot be too careful. And the last thing you want is to trend for the wrong reasons or become the target of online trolls.
But as I read through my Twitter feed and messages to find out what was going on, I realized something had gone eerily wrong during the EndSARS protest. I saw hundreds of messages from people in Nigeria claiming the military was shooting at the protesters.
I remember logging into a live Instagram feed by a lady broadcasting from the Lekki toll-gate. It was pure chaos. In the video, I could hear gunshots ring from a close distance. I saw sparks go off into the night as the shots rang quickly. I heard young people screaming, wailing, and calling out for help. It looked like a scene straight out of a war film.
I was heartbroken, but I can't say I wasn't surprised by what was unfolding, given Nigeria's unpleasant history with the military and dictators. However, I couldn't wrap my head around the "why."
Why would anyone attack citizens in such a blatant manner? Why was there a visceral hatred for a group of young people who had marched for weeks and showed no appetite for violence? What was the end game? I didn't understand.
I had followed the protest online, albeit passively, for about a week, and it seemed relatively peaceful and relaxed. The photos that made the rounds on social media looked like the young people were having a ball. They were non-threatening and very organized. From the videos I watched, they sounded pretty educated about the demands they were pushing. And best of all, they found a way to draw the whole nation's attention to the issue of Police brutality and harassment - which I think many people, including myself, were still oblivious to how pervasive and entrenched the problem had become.
Although the Police have had a fair share of issues over the years, this protest was against a new type of abuse. It was against a new group within the Force allegedly executing illegal searches and seizures, torture and extrajudicial killings, and bias-based profiling targeting young men who looked a certain way or used a particular phone.
All signs pointed to a righteous protest in my judgment, which was why what I witnessed upset me deeply.
So I walked out of the dressing room for some air. I paced back and forth, and I walked out unto the pitch. A few people were loitering around, and a crew was packing up their equipment in the distance - no one paid me any mind. I kept reading through my feed. It was crazy that this was even possible in Lekki, Lagos - at a spot that was only a 15 minutes drive from my house.
I needed to do something; I needed to say something. People were being shot in the streets and losing their lives. I couldn't just stand by idly and behave as though it didn't affect me. And considering that it wasn't that long ago, I, too, was walking the streets of Ajegunle as an impressionable teenager. It could easily have been me in this position 15 years ago.
So I switched my phone to video mode and began to speak. I knew I had one chance to get my point across because if I didn't do it in one take, I perhaps would have begun to rationalize otherwise.
So I spoke from the heart as I began:
I'm sad and heartbroken. I don't know where to start. I'm not the kind of guy who talks about politics, but I cannot keep quiet about what is going on back home in Nigeria. I would say to the Nigerian government: you guys are a shame to the world for killing your citizens and sending the military to the streets to kill unarmed protesters because they are protesting for their rights. It is uncalled for.
Today, the 20th of October, 2020, you people will be remembered in history as the first government that sent the military to the streets to kill its citizens. I am ashamed of this government. We are tired of you guys, and we cannot take this anymore.
I'm calling on the United Kingdom government. I'm calling on all those leaders in the world. Please see what is going on in Nigeria and help us. Help the poor citizens. Our government is killing its citizens. We are calling on you, The United Nations, to see to the matter.
I want to call my brothers and sisters back home to remain safe, stay indoors - please don't come out because this government, they are killers, and they'll keep killing if the world doesn't talk about this. God bless you all, and remain safe.
When I shared the video, I didn't think anything of it other than it was my way of pledging my solidarity to a group of daring young men and women who had called out for help while doing something a lot of us Nigerians can only dream of. They dared to defy authority on issues that they felt strongly about. And they did it the right way, with class and dignity. Their message was clear. They organized, came together, and made a mark that would go down in the history of our country.
I felt stuck in Paris because my heart was in Lagos.
By the time I made it back to the dressing room, my video was already going viral. My teammates Eric Bailly, Jesse Lingard, and Paul Pogba reached out when they saw it. They were concerned about what was happening in Nigeria, and a few even reposted it on their Instagram stories.
The online response was overwhelming. I'm not sure how much of an impact it made on the ground with the actual people caught in the mayhem, but I'm glad it put a spotlight on the situation. I could only imagine what that experience was like for those young people carrying their national flag and singing the national anthem, only to be attacked by those sworn to defend the very rights they were fighting for.
I got backlash in some quarters and even threats on my life, but it was irrelevant. I said what I said. I'm neither a politician nor a party faithful, so my motivation came from a place of pure concern. There was no other way to say it. It was a shameful act and a mistake - whether or not those who gave the orders would admit to it.
I remember later seeing messages from other top athletes like Anthony Joshua, Chiney Ogwumike, and Victor Osimhen. I want to think my video had something to do with that. Perhaps, it normalized the idea of athletes standing up against what I can only explain as a callous abuse of power.
To reference Chiney Ogwumike's profound EndSARS message, "Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere." We cannot keep folding our hands for fear of retribution from a democratically elected government that has sworn to serve and protect us, the people. Whether you live in Houston, Ajegunle, London, Maiduguri, Dubai, or Aba, whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly.
Nigeria is our home, and as citizens, we have a social contract that implicitly establishes moral and political rules of behaviour for society to work. We must be law-abiding, but even more so, we must hold our elected leaders accountable. It has to work both ways, no ifs or buts about it. As citizens, we have a fundamental right to show our displeasure the same way passengers in a public bus have the right to rebuke a driver for driving recklessly.
Today, there are families around Nigeria grieving for loved ones that died during the EndSARS protest, and some are still struggling with closure. I lost my sister years ago, and I still can't say if I've found closure. That's real life, guys. It's not a statistic, and it's not politics either. When a loved one dies, opportunity dies, hope perishes, and life is never the same for those left behind.
So as we pay tribute to the lives lost on the 20th of October, let us say a prayer for their families while remembering that there's no real healing without accountability and justice. This is why I call on our leaders and people in authority to please ensure that we find closure with the judicial panels of inquiry, punish the perpetrators of this act, and compensate the families.
Today reminds us of how much we still have to do to build a just and equitable society. But I'm encouraged when I look around and see how young Nigerians defy the odds and push the boundaries in sports, music, entertainment, technology, entrepreneurship, and innovation. We live in an era of possibilities, and we must continue striving for change by inspiring those around us to improve - starting from within our homes, streets, and local communities. Only then can we ensure that our brothers and sisters sacrifices on that fateful day are not in vain.
Today reminds us of the power of choice and assembly and the power we wield when we combine our voices.
Today, let's remember, remember, the 20th of October.