L ast year in October, young people from across Nigeria joined protests against police brutality under the banner of #EndSARS. The outcry which gained global attention culminated in shootings, most notably at the Lekki Toll Gate in Lagos, of young unarmed protesters by law enforcement officers.
Recently, we asked our readers to reflect on the protests and its aftermath. Below are some of their responses:
Daniel Whyte. Abuja, Nigeria
Although the #EndSARS protests have been recurring for about three years, nothing significant has been done to truly put an end to the rampant and wanton brutality which SARS metes out to Nigerian youths.
It was on Friday, 9 October 2020. I was taking a night stroll after sitting all day working remotely. My earpiece plugged in while listening intermittently to ‘Abule’, (Three, 2020) by Patoranking and ‘Friday Feeling’ (Apollo, 2020) by Fireboy. Suddenly, my immediate elder sister called me and asked my whereabouts. ‘Why are you asking?’ I responded. She didn’t answer but insisted that I answer her question. When she wouldn’t relent, I told her not to worry, I was already coming back home. ‘Okay o. Be careful. There is #EndSARS in town,’ she said and hung the call.
This sort of thing usually occurs whenever I am at home with my family. My mum always tries to dissuade me from taking night strolls. This is understandable because in Nigeria if you are not harassed or robbed by opportunistic area boys, you may be harassed by the police. Since I turned 15, I have heard stories of people who have been mistaken for criminals by the police all because they were probably at the right place at the wrong time, or because the police desperately needed a scapegoat for an unfortunate event. ‘May we not look like the wanted person,’ my mum often prayed.
Aside from these incidents, another unfortunate thing is meeting the Special Anti-Robbery Squad or SARS, a unit of the Nigeria Police Force notorious for harassing and extorting Nigerian youths, especially those with dreadlocks, posh looks or cars under the guise of combating cybercrime which isn’t even their primary duty.
‘See my bro, no be once. It’s not twice. It’s not even thrice,’ one of my friends said recently when I asked if he had ever been harassed by SARS. One time, he said, he was told he was under arrest because they suspected he was a yahoo boy. He was eventually freed that day because they found nothing on his phone.
But on a different day, my friend wasn’t so lucky, and he paid N10,000 after he was initially charged N300,000. That day, they told him to confess to being a yahoo boy, in exchange for lessened punishment.
‘I said I am not a yahoo boy,’ my friend explained, ‘and they said that’s how people like us behave. One of them held me and then the other one took my phone. The guy came back with a hangout chat that I know nothing about and then started shouting. I was so scared. I was saying I don’t know anything.’
This kind of story, sadly, is all too common and some are disturbingly awful like the Awkuzu SARS Unit in Anambra State. For a commission that is saddled with the primary responsibility of protecting lives and property, the opposite has been the case in recent times.
Although the #EndSARS protests have been recurring for about three years, nothing significant has been done to truly put an end to the rampant and wanton brutality which SARS metes out to Nigerian youths. The stories are always the same; what changes is the year, and it often involves the needless death of innocent youth. As it did in 2017 when the #EndSARS first surfaced, so did it happen again in 2020.
Between January 2017 and May 2020, 82 cases of torture, extortion, extrajudicial killings and rape by SARS were documented according to a report by Amnesty International. Yet several cases aren’t often documented, and more people have had to endure undue emotional trauma and bodily harm at the hands of SARS.
What is most worrisome is that people protesting against police brutality are countered with even more brutality like the #LekkiMassacre on 20 October 2020 and several other shootings against unarmed protesters.
On 10 September 2019, two students of the Federal University Oye-Ekiti were shot dead by the security detail attached to Bisi Fayemi, wife of the Ekiti state governor. One, Kehinde Dada, died almost instantly and the other, Joseph Okonofua, died a few days later. Some others were also injured to varying degrees. Their crime was protesting inadequate power supply in the university host communities – Oye and Ikole Ekiti. Till now, nothing has been done and the police officers who shot live rounds haven’t been apprehended.
Similarly, during #EndSARS, several people were shot. Although Lagos state governor, Babajide Sanwolu, announced the arrest of four officers for brutalizing protesters, there has been no news on the court trials or prosecution. Yet, bank accounts of some protesters remain frozen and some key players in the protest still face prosecution. Citizens are quick to be arraigned but justice is delayed when it involves police or government officials. Yet, government leaders want Nigerian youths to believe that indeed the government is ready to effect change.
The reluctance to cast light on basic issues such as who ordered the shooting at Lekki Toll Gate, among others, makes one wonder if the Nigerian story isn’t like the existential Waiting for Godot by Samuel Beckett. If the government we have elected to safeguard our lives and property won’t put an end to police brutality, who will?
Oluwadolapo Ogedengbe. Lagos, Nigeria
The prejudices that emboldens the brutality from SARS officers ‘is only helped by the ultra-conservative attitudes upheld by an older Nigerian generation, who hold the majority of public office.’
The recent wave of protests online and offline has brought to the fore sad tales of abuse, extortion, and even death at the hands of SARS officers. One such case is the death of Chijioke Iloanya who was abducted by SARS officers in 2012. With no knowledge as to the whereabouts of his son, his father, Mr Iloanya, was made by the SARS officers to search a river full of corpses to identify his son. This was after he had to sell his land and other assets to raise N3 million so Chijioke’s body could be handed over to him.
Many young Nigerians and their loved ones live in a perpetual state of paranoia and anxiety because of the fear of encountering SARS officers. It is a regular occurrence for SARS officers to target young Nigerians because of the electronic devices they own, cars they drive, and clothing they wear. Officers also discriminate based on physical characteristics such as hair, tattoos, or piercings. Their ‘reasoning’ is that there is no way a young Nigerian could have acquired such possessions by legitimate means, or that no morally upright individual would have such an appearance.
This thinking is only helped by ultra-conservative attitudes upheld by an older Nigerian generation, who hold the majority of public office. With less than ten per cent of the population being over 60 years old yet occupying most of the more important offices in all three arms of government, one begins to understand why some outdated laws, policies and practices are still upheld in Nigeria. They enable the impunity of the police by tacitly agreeing that individuals who look ‘irresponsible’ deserve whatever misfortune befalls them, going as far as reporting their neighbours to the police on the flimsiest of premises, such as suspecting young working-class people who constantly have their generators running (in a country with abysmally poor power supply) of being involved in online fraud. These ideas remain further cemented in policy when individuals under the age of 40 are actively discouraged from political office.
Reasons vary on why the older generation continues to have such outdated attitudes. They come from a time where one received an often-subsidized education and then procured a job in a profession that maintained regular nine-to-five office hours. As a result, older Nigerians have an unfamiliarity and scepticism with the new unconventional ways in which people receive and create value in a precarious economy. Further, the older generation’s wholesale subscription to puritanical religious values makes them intolerant and resistant to the evolving views of the younger generation on sex, appearance, and lifestyle choices. They have a ‘their way or the highway’ attitude to what constitutes decent appearance and behaviour. Of the victims of police brutality, they ask: ‘What were you wearing?’, ‘Why were you out so late?’ and blame them if they don’t meet their arbitrary standards of decency. As if respectability makes people bulletproof.
Despite the many odds stacked against the Nigerian youth, young Nigerians have continued to push for change, with many young people fervently arguing for the need for youth engagement in politics. After aggressive lobbying as part of the global Not Too Young to Run campaign launched by the UN in 2016, individuals under the age of 40 were only able to run for certain public offices. Outside of political engagement, young Nigerians are taking charge of solving varied problems faced in a Nigerian ecosystem of inconsistent power supply, unreliable yet expensive internet, insane traffic, and constant harassment from the police. These have included establishing startups focused on payment services for businesses, other financial technology startups like this one providing digital banking services to SMEs and many more youth-run organizations solving problems in the country.
Yet the successes of some should not mask that for many young Nigerians with potential, the reality of life in Nigeria is often crippling. This is the highest freedom that Nigerian youth are denied: the freedom to self-actualize and be the best version of themselves, without fear of harm or molestation. Not only is Nigeria not conducive to personal development, but the government also seems to be actively invested in sabotaging our efforts and keeping its citizens impoverished and disenfranchised.
Consequently, Nigerian youths have demanded with one voice that they have a right to live, to breathe, and to be treated as human. Though the Nigerian government has responded with brute force, we can look at the words of Patrick Henry, an American ‘founding father’, who declared ‘…give me liberty or give me death’ to know that for a people oppressed, liberty is always worth the fight⎈
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