“The more you defend yourself, the more you’ll suffer, the more certain you are to die.” (Dorlin 2019, 4).
In the first 10 seconds of Burna Boy’s 20 10 20 you hear a melodious beat; it gives you a bouncy, almost exciting feeling. However, this positive excitement slowly fades into the background once Burna Boy starts rapping. His lyrics raise awareness and emphasize that we need to listen to his song to become aware of the suffering of his fellow Nigerian people. The suffering addressed in this song first emerged when the Nigerian government created a Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS) in 1992 with the task of fighting violent crimes (Amnesty 2020b). However, instead of reducing violence within Nigeria, SARS itself turned into a violent institution; reinforcing exactly what they were supposed to reduce. There are various reports on the abuse of Nigerian people by the SARS, including cases of harassment, beating, illegitimate arrests, and torture (Amnesty 2020b). These brutalities provoked a massive campaign against the SARS, which reached its peak in October 2020 when many young Nigerians gathered in the streets to raise awareness for the brutalities of the SARS and to demand both an abolishment of the institution and a prosecution for the crimes they committed. These protests refrained from any form of violence as can be seen in videos depicting groups of people harmoniously dancing and singing together (BBC Africa 2021). This peacefulness is emphasized in the bouncy beginning of Burna Boy’s song.
However, the passion and anger in Burna Boy’s voice increase throughout the song. Similarly, the violence by the Nigerian Government increased on the 20th of October 2020. The government announced a 24-hour long curfew in the morning, which was ignored by the peaceful protesters. The government’s reaction to this was brutal: without a warning, the Nigerian military and police opened fire on the crowd of protesters at Alausa and the Lekki Toll Gate in Lagos, killing at least 12 protesters (Amnesty 2020a). At the End of Burna Boy’s song, you hear live recordings of the shooting that are mixed over the bouncy beat. Gunshots, screams of fear, and a voice urging all the protesters to keep down again emphasizing that the protestors themselves did not engage in any violence. The combination of the audio recordings and the bouncy beat makes you feel the incredible unfairness and contractionary nature of innocent singing protesters being violently killed. In the very last seconds, Burna Boy sings with a hurt voice once again 20th of October; a phrase in which you hear his disappointment and pain. How can a peaceful fight against violence end in so much more violence?
I believe that the Nigerian government used both law-positing and law-preserving violence in Walter Benjamin’s (2021) terms. On the one hand, the government wants to preserve the law by setting up the SARS in the first place and by violently attacking the protestors who criticize these governmental decisions. On the other hand, the introduction of a ridiculous 24-hours curfew is a form of law-positing violence. However, for the protestors themselves, there is no room to defend themselves from this violence. The protestors are what Dorlin (2019) calls the undefendable. Despite protestors merely practising their right of free assembly and refraining from violence completely, their presence is a priori understood as violent and treated as such by the authorities (Dorlin 2019). This defencelessness is increased by the fact that the government removed cameras and cut off electricity the hours before their intervention ensuring almost no coverage of the massacre (Amnesty 2020a). The protestors are completely powerless and every attempt to resist the violence merely leads to a destruction of the self.
Vera de Wit
Amnesty International. 2020a. “What is the #endsars movement? November 10, 2022. https://www.amnesty.org.au/what-is-the-endsars-movement/
Amnesty International. 2020b. Nigeria: Time to end impunity: Torture and other human rights violations by special anti-robbery squad (SARS). Abuja-FCT, Nigeria: Amnesty International.
BBC Africa. 2021. “Lekki toll gate shootings: What really happened?” Video. January 20, 2021. 07:36. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lVxwVfZ1Uxg
Benjamin, Walter. 2021. Toward the Critique of Violence: Critical Edition. Edited by Julia Ng and Peter Fenves. Stanford: Stanford University Press.
Burna Boy. 20 10 20. 2020. Atlantic Records.
Dorlin, Elsa. 2019. ‘What a body can do.’ Translated by Kieran Aarons, Radical Philosophy 205 (Autumn): 3–9.