Nigerian Diaspora Applies Pressure to #ENDSARS Campaign Against Police Brutality
By Laura Onyeneho
Nigerians across the world have taken to the streets to protest police brutality in their homeland.
For years, Nigerians have protested the unjust killings and attacks on its citizens at the hands of the abusive and violent police unit called the Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS) and the culture of impunity across the policing system.
SARS was created to solve crimes associated with robbery, kidnapping and firearms. Instead, the squad is infamously known for harassing, torturing, extorting, raping and murdering Nigerian youths and unfairly profiling people who wear piercings, dreadlocks, tattoos, or own luxury cars, iPhones, or major clothing brands.
The #ENDSARS hashtag recently attracted global attention on social media, revealing the unjust system of Africa’s most populous nation.
Protests have taken place in major cities across the United States and Europe. Large groups of Nigerians in Boston, New York City, Houston, Washington D.C., Atlanta and Los Angeles, as well as in London and Toronto, have demonstrated with the collective mission of applying international pressure on the Nigerian government.
“If you can’t get the African government to care and respect their Black citizens, how do you expect the U.S government to care?” asked Elizabeth Osa-Agbontaen, a University of Massachusetts Amherst graduate who gripped her Nigerian flag during the Oct. 18 ENDSARS protest in Boston.
“We have to lead by example,” said Osa-Agbontaen. “A threat to one Black life is a threat to all. This is what we spent all summer protesting for in the States through the Black Lives Matter movement. We can’t allow countless lives to be wasted so easily.”
On Oct. 3, just two days after Nigeria celebrated 60 years of independence, a video surfaced on social media of a young man, Jimoh Isiaka, who was killed by a SARS officer during an ENDSARS protest in Nigeria. The poster of the viral video claimed the man’s body had been left for dead at the side of a road, which triggered outrage along with a never-ending list of personal accounts of life-threatening encounters with SARS from Nigerians worldwide.
Between January 2017 and May 2020, Amnesty International documented at least 82 cases of torture, ill-treatment and extrajudicial executions by SARS. Their reports suggest that financial gain, rather than curbing armed robbery and other forms of criminal activity, appeared to be a motivating factor of SARS officers, who consistently raid public places frequented by young people in order to extort money from them. Those unable to pay were often tortured, either as punishment or to coerce them to find the money.
“My last trip to Nigeria was one of the worst experiences of my life. What was supposed to be a two-week trip ended in four days because of my encounter with SARS,” said Gabriel Olokunwolu, a big data engineer based in New York City.
In February, he traveled to Lagos, Nigeria to attend his best friend's wedding. The next day, he and his friends decided to take an Uber to a nearby restaurant only, to be flagged by several SARS officials.
“They asked me what I was doing in Nigeria and what I did for a living. Eventually, they ordered me to unlock two of my phones so they could conduct a search. I watched as they scrolled through personal and confidential emails, pictures and messages. I felt violated,” said Olokunwolu.
One of the officers thought they saw enough evidence to profile him as an Internet fraudster. They detained him in a minivan. Olokunwolu was in SARS custody for four hours, hopping from one police station to another as the officers attempted to intimidate, extort and force a false confession out of him.
“These men were armed so I was willing to do anything they wanted except confess to a crime I didn’t commit. Once I was no longer of use to them, they pushed me out of the van in the middle of nowhere around 2 a.m. Luckily, I had enough juice on my work phone to call a friend to send an Uber and take me home. Immediately, I booked a flight for three times the price and flew out the next day,” he said.
Olokunwolu said he may never recover from this trauma. However, he is using his expertise in computer engineering to help protesters from afar. He created free VPN connections for Nigerian citizens who may face limited access to social media and websites due to government restrictions.
“For example, that means you’ll be logging on to Instagram, but you will be logging in as someone who is somewhere in the United States,” he said. “It will be hard for government officials to track your exact location. They are using different ways to silence people and it won’t work.”
Boston artist Daniel Abbe said his traumatic encounter with SARS affected how he relates to law enforcement in his community.
“I remember when I first came to America and I walked by a police station and I started running. After a while I told myself, ‘Why am I running? No one is chasing me.’ We are told that police are supposed to be your friends. Their job is to serve and protect us. This is the result of direct trauma from police brutality,” said Abbe, as he testified in front of a crowd of Boston protesters.
He recalled a moment 16 years ago when he was pulled over by a SARS officer for matching the profile of an armed robber. They slapped him across the face and chest with a gun and threw him into a bus that held other Nigerians begging for their lives, driving them to a police station for questioning.
“The only reason I’m alive today is because the cell was too full, so they left the door open and I found a way to escape,” Abbe said.
So far, these demonstrations have affected economic activities in major cities. Flights in and out of Lagos, Nigeria’s largest city, have been canceled and daily protests have caused heavy traffic for commercial trucks, buses and motor vehicles. On Oct. 11, President Muhammadu Buhari announced that SARS would be abolished. Authorities later announced the forming of a new Special Weapons and Tactics (SWAT) team to replace SARS. The news didn’t satisfy protesters and they vowed to stay on the streets until their demands were met.
In response, the Lagos State Government imposed a state-wide 24-hour curfew on Oct. 20 and deployed anti-riot police to the city. Scores of protesters congregated at the city’s Lekki tollgate peacefully protesting until Nigerian security forces barricaded demonstrators and firedsporadic gunshots into the crowd, killing and injuring dozens. Protesters live-streamed the scene of wounded bodies scattered on the ground.
“We have to think about sustainable changes or actionable items to make a difference,” said Ayo Omotola, co-organizer of ENDSARS Boston. These actionable items, which protesters call the 5for5 Demands, include the release of arrested protesters, justice and compensation for families, an independent body to oversee the prosecution of officers, psychological evaluation of officers before redeployment, and increased police salaries.
“It’s beyond police brutality. It’s about the decay in government. We are scared to go home. The welfare of our families is at stake,” Omotola said.
She expressed the same concerns that many Nigerians in the diaspora have felt at not being on the ground to help demonstrators, but she hopes they all can apply pressure through higher educational institutions with large populations of Nigerians.
“Boston is a school hub. We have Harvard and MIT and many others. These Nigerian government officials are invited to these reputable institutions for courses or as speakers, and these schools make money off of it,” Omotola added. “This is the time for these schools to stand up for what’s right. Let us know that they don’t only care about their pockets. Put a ban on those government officials coming to your schools until we see change. We might not be on ground, but we will apply pressure where we can.”