Kimora Omotosho, a university student at the #EndSARS protest in Port Harcourt, said her friend’s mother did not allow him to leave the house to join the protest until he threatened to kill himself.
On the evening of 12 October 2020, a series of tweets from the governor of Rivers State, Nyesom Wike’s account, drew a hail of abuses and condemnation from Twitter users. They were angry at his decision to ban protests against police brutality in his state.
Wike’s announcement came one day before an #EndSARS protest was scheduled to hold in the state’s capital, Port Harcourt, as part of the multi-city demonstrations happening around Nigeria. The governor’s message alluded to President Muhammadu Buhari’s recent dissolution of the notorious Special Anti-Robbery Squad, popularly known as SARS, a move the president affirmed in a speech only hours before. Regardless, the following morning, a handful of youths convened at Pleasure Park, the designated meeting point in the city centre, where police officers were already stationed in anticipation of their arrival. Following conversations with the police, demonstrators began their march, amassing a following as they proceeded towards the governor’s official residence.
Neither police presence nor vehicular barricades mounted on the road leading to Government House seemed to faze the protesters, most of whom were in their twenties and thirties. For several hours, they sang protest songs and jeered at the governor for his attempt to ban the protest. They hoisted signs, in addition, that read: ‘We’re tired of being oppressed,’ ‘Stop police brutality’ and ‘Dreadlocks isn’t a crime.’
Kimora Omotosho, a university student at the #EndSARS protest in Port Harcourt, said her friend’s mother did not allow him to leave the house to join the protest until he threatened to kill himself. She added later that her own mother did not know she was in attendance. ‘I feel my mum wouldn’t understand, that she might say “This isn’t your fight”,’ Omotosho said, admitting she had not had any run-ins with SARS herself. ‘But everyone here is a brother and sister, and as a citizen, I stand for everyone who’s been harassed.’
Trina Jones also kept her family in the dark about her decision to protest, fearing they would have dissuaded her. The law student narrated how, in 2019, SARS officers detained her and her brother at a checkpoint in Delta State for six hours despite producing a valid driver’s license as requested. ‘They asked for N100,000, but my brother said he had only 50,000,’ said Jones. ‘Then they drove us to the ATM. The road was lonely and we were scared they might kill us.’
Jones said her brother gave the SARS operatives N50,000 before they let them go.
Her second ordeal with SARS that same year happened in the commercial city of Lagos, where she claimed they sexually harassed her and her friends after searching their car. ‘It’s become a norm for these people to harass citizens because you can’t turn to anyone,’ she said. ‘Will you go to the police to tell them that they are molesting, extorting, robbing and assaulting you?’
Minutes later, at the entrance to Governor Wike’s official residence, a feeling of unease shifted the mood as a bullion van with a trailing police caravan, attempted to make its way through the crowd. Because it is not uncommon for police officers escorting these armoured vehicles to shoot sporadically to clear their path, protesters scampered in different directions for safety. Others yelled for those on the road to make way, which they did almost immediately. Once the vehicles zoomed past the crowd, protesters resumed their positions.
At one point, a man on a van clasping a bullhorn directed a call and response. He yelled out to clusters of responsive protesters: ‘iPhone na gun?’ To which they chorused a resounding ‘No’. Then he led them in songs, demanding that the governor come out and address the crowd. Not that this mattered to Joy Okotie.
‘Protests [across Nigeria] have been peaceful, so why was he trying to shut us up?’ Okotie said. ‘We have every right to exercise our fundamental human rights. Shutting us up is dictatorial,’ she added. Asked her motivation for protesting, the chef and caterer said she was doing it for her daughter and younger brothers, stating they could be future victims. In addition, like many tattooed Nigerians, Okotie said SARS operatives had previously harassed her on the pretext that she was a cult member. In order to gain her freedom, a friend gave them N5,000, much to Okotie’s chagrin.
‘I don’t work hard for my money just so one useless police officer can extort me,’ she said. ‘Enough is enough.’
Protesters across Nigeria are not under the illusion that scrapping SARS—per President Buhari’s pronouncement—is the final solution to all that ails law enforcement. It also has not helped the government’s case that the unit has been disbanded several times over the years only to rear its head again. To this end, protesters are demanding among other things, psychological evaluation, rigorous reform and better pay for the police. They also want deviant officers punished in a bid to ensure accountability. Another motif among protesters is the realization that power resides with them, that they have a voice, and that government officials are, in fact, their employees. For her part, Okotie believes a revolution is on the horizon. ‘The government is next. We’re coming for them soon if they don’t stop this [oppression].’
It is a sentiment not lost on Jones.
‘We only have one Nigeria and we have to fight for our country,’ she said, stating she did not care about the consequences of protesting. ‘I am going to fight for my country, no matter what’⎈
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