On Sept. 30, 2017, Celestine Pratt had barely walked out of the Lekki toll gate before she witnessed her third teenage son being hauled to a local morgue.
Its entrails clutched together, he had sprawled on the ground, just a few feet from his mother, who was trying to comfort him. A attendant guided his head in her hand, then hauled him onto a stretcher and brought it to an ambulance, saying, “You stay there; you come out.”
It had been almost a year since Pratt’s eldest son, Tolani, had dropped out of Weaver Avenue Secondary School in Lekki, where he had dreamed of becoming a doctor, and boarded a commuter bus to go to work. As the bus pulled into the toll gate at 10 a.m., witnesses said, it drove right at a police roadblock across the road. Pratt said police officials had blocked the bus and imposed a charge of N50,000 ($157) to ride the bus.
But, as Tolani and two others boarded the bus, they pulled a lighter out of a bag and lit a cigarette. It was approximately 50 percent lighter than the charge. When they put it down, police opened fire, Pratt said. Tolani, 17, was hit in the neck and died in his mother’s arms.
“I told them it was a lighter,” Pratt said. “They were like, ‘What? You are OK, and you smoke. What kind of a mother could do that?’”
That Tolani had died in her arms of unknown causes had been news to Pratt ever since. Her surviving son, Tolani’s older brother Efe, turned 17 in a hospital bed.
People from the area said the police officials had made the 40-minute trip across the road before the bus picked up Tolani. Local newspaper photographs on the day of Tolani’s death showed the police officials, some in uniform, with their faces hidden by large baseball caps. Tolani’s parents left their tableau at the gate like an end-of-meal selection, as if they had come to tip their own servers.
Photos and accounts from children and police officials tell a strikingly similar tale of the shooting.
They all said that Tolani and his friends had arrived at the toll gate at 10 a.m. The officials made a brief stop to give the bus owner, Kehinde Oyedele, one of the four men he had boarded the bus with, N50,000. That has always been the official toll fee. But, as the attendant let Tolani and the other two passengers, Kazeem Aliu and Ajomara Tolani, join the bus, police officials stood across the road on purpose, according to various accounts of the day.
Tolani never had a chance to pay, his mother said. He and Aliu were shot when the train struck, later identified as a navy gunboat.
The sea still stained the bright, shiny gate of a small compound in Osokogbo, near the toll gate. Near the very guardpost of the toll gate, residents said a row of plastic containers — where children were shot in 2014 — had been placed outside an abandoned tin building. Also outside that building, tall trees lay stripped bare, their leaves tattered by the wind.
Across the road, a group of children, some barely a year old, played games and on the swings pulled at wooden handles.
But sometimes, it’s not the world beyond the toll gate that Pratt looks to. She wants the toll gate to change.
And she knows she can’t change the police officials who shot her son.
“He died in my arms,” she said, “but I would have been helpless in my own home.”