Police brutality in Nigeria has sparked huge national protests. There should be international outrage too
Last Sunday, wearing a face shield, a protective mask and a waist-pouch full of hand sanitiser, I stood in front of the Nigerian high commission in London with hundreds of fellow Nigerians. We held up placards, raised our fists and chanted: “End Sars,” over and over again.
The cry had first begun in Nigeria, when a video emerged of special anti-robbery squad (Sars) police officers shooting a man on the streets of Lagos. Though the date of the video is unknown, as is the name of the victim, Nigerians are no strangers to police brutality. It has either happened to you, or to someone you know. The police are notyour friends, we often joke, with our special blend of black humour.
And yet somehow, something was different this time. Musicians like Runtown and Falz tweeted about a protest. The next day, the streets were full of young people chanting “End Sars”. Almost everyone had a story about being assaulted by a Sars officer, of being extorted, sexually harassed, or wrongfully detained.
Soon, US celebrities such as P Diddy, Trey Songz and Viola Davis had picked up the hashtag and were tweeting their support. In the UK, actor John Boyega, who is of Nigerian descent, also used his social media page to support the protests. What these stars realised, before most of the western media did, was that this was another iteration of the Black Lives Matter movement.
Nigerian police officers are black, you may say. How can this be a BLM issue? Well, imagine New Zealand police officers shooting, maiming and killing unarmed white citizens because they were well dressed, because they had flashy phones, because they worked in the tech industry and therefore assumed they must be involved in fraud (all reasons used by Sars). Imagine if there were video footage of all these atrocities happening in leafy Christchurch. There would be global outrage. International sanctions. World leaders rushing to condemn these acts.
Yet the world seems curiously indifferent when the victims are black. Part of the reason African leaders get away with atrocities on African soil is because they know the world will turn a blind eye to them. Murderous despots will still be granted visas to Paris, London and New York. They will spend their loot on property and gaudy Rolexes, propping up foreign economies instead of building their own.
The Black Lives Matter movement began because the deaths of innocent African American men and women were ignored, in the same way the deaths of young Nigerians at the hands of Sars have been ignored.
Black lives matter everywhere that black lives are found: be it on the streets of the US, in rubber dinghies on the Mediterranean Sea, or in the towns and cities of Nigeria. Nigerians cried over the killing of George Floyd. And we hope in America, in Brazil, in Britain, in France, in China, in India, the African diaspora will also stand with us as we mourn the protester Jimoh Isiaq, who was shot last Saturday, and others killed by Sars.
When one of us hurts, we all hurt. When one of us wins, we all win. This was the Pan-African dream of Marcus Garvey, of WEB Du Bois, of Constance Agatha Cummings-John, of Edward Wilmot Blyden, of Abdias do Nascimento, of Kwame Nkrumah and of many others.
The protests continue daily in Nigeria. There will also be one in London on Sunday. The government has promised to dissolve the Sars unit and replace it with a Swat team, but many people feel it’s just renaming rather than resolving the problem. The mistrust is warranted. The Nigerian government has promised to disband Sars before. Protesters continue to ask for tangible steps, such as the release of all detained protesters and the setting up of an independent body to investigate police misconduct.
Already, heroes have emerged. The Feminist Coalition has raised millions of naira for protesters’ legal and health bills. The podcaster FK Abudu and a host of Nigerian lawyers, such as Moe Odele and Tola Onayemi, are coordinating the release of protesters who have been wrongfully detained. Young Nigerians have marched in the sun and in the rain, and have done so peacefully, picking up their litter at the end of each day.
Yet there are no leaders in the #EndSARS movement: as protesters reiterate, this is an organic, spontaneous eruption of the will of a young Nigerian population. No one knows what the movement will lead to. Some say it is a Nigerian version of the Arab spring. I say, we don’t want a spring. Spring is a brief season that passes away. We want a new Nigeria that will last for generations.
What can people in the rest of the world do? If you engage with Nigerian culture, if you dance to Afrobeats stars like Wizkid and Burna Boy, if you eat jollof rice and watch Nollywood movies on Netflix, then please show your support for #EndSARS. Black lives matter everywhere that black lives are found.
• Chibundu Onuzo is author of The Spider King’s Daughter and Welcome to Lagos
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