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Monday, May 10, 2021

‘The level of inhumanity is just unbearable’: Nigerian faculty and students speak up on police brutality in their home country

Photo of vigil for brutality in Nigeria

Masked UF students with Nigerian flags in hand stand in solidarity against police brutality in Nigeria and other forms of injustice throughout the continent. 

UF junior Oluwapemisin Bandy-Toyo was in Lekki, Nigeria, visiting family when peaceful protests turned violent 10 minutes away from his home.

The Oct. 20 Lekki protest began as a united fight to #EndSARS, a movement to disband the Special Anti-Robbery Squad, a police unit known for extorting, assaulting and murdering citizens. Later that evening, Nigerian soldiers fired rounds into the crowds of peaceful protestors.

“They cut people to bits with bullets, and they were stopping emergency vehicles from coming,” said Bandy-Toyo, a 19-year-old computer science and Nigerian-American student.

As the Lagos State Government investigates the Lekki protest and violent incidents involving SARS, Nigerian students and faculty at UF are demanding an end to police brutality in Nigeria and solidarity within the Black community.

Nigerian students gathered in a candlelight vigil on Oct. 24 to amplify the voices of African people as well as provide a space for healing and unity. Many students who have signed petitions and shared on social media still feel that more needs to be done in order to enact change in the country. 

Bandy-Toyo has been in Lekki since Oct. 11. On the night of the massacre, messages saying “Did you see what happened at toll gate?” and “There was a shooting” flooded his phone. 

Videos of protestors lying lifeless on the ground and others running and dodging bullets within the tear gas haze circulated on social media. 

“I can't believe this,” Bandy-Toyo said. “They’re actually killing us.” 

The #EndSARS protests began on Oct. 8 after a video of a SARS officer allegedly killing a young man was shared online. The movement, led by Nigerian youth, chanted, danced and sang in the streets advocating for an end to SARS. Amnesty International, a global research campaign, has reported at least 82 cases of torture and illegal executions by SARS from January 2017 to May 2020, many of which were men between the ages of 18 and 35

The UF African Student Union hosted a candlelight vigil at the Plaza of the Americas on Oct. 24 to recognize the African lives lost to injustice and provided resources for students to donate and support Nigerian protestors.

At the vigil, masked students stood in a circle observing a moment of silence as UF doctoral student and Nigeria native Mmadili Ilozumba called out the names of 52 Nigerians killed by police. 

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Students also spoke up on issues occuring outside of Nigeria as well such as child slavery in Ghana and Ivory Coast, rising numbers of sexual assualt in Namibia and Liberia, and the children being forced to work in cobalt mines in the Democratic Republic of Congo, a metal used in the production of cell phones and laptops. 

The night concluded with the singing of “We are the World” and the swaying of Nigerian flags symbolizing hope and unity. 

Mmadili Ilozumba, a UF epidemiology doctoral third year, said the police unit designed to protect and prevent violent crimes have acted as the perpetrators for years.

“The response we are getting is more killing,” the 29-year-old said. “We are just helpless.”

Anyone who owned something flashy such as an iPhone or a nice car could be stopped and harassed by SARS. Ilozumba said a friend of hers was stopped by SARS in 2019 and had to pay 10,000 naira, about $26. In Nigeria, that’s enough money to feed a family for a week, she said.

“The level of inhumanity is just unbearable,” she said.

SARS has existed since 1992, and Nigerian police announced Oct. 11 that SARS would be disbanded and be replaced by SWAT, but Nigerians argue SWAT will recycle the same officers who make up SARS. So far, no SARS officers have been convicted

Ilozumba has signed petitions to sanction the government and raised awareness on social media but said it would take a miracle to see government and police reform. 

“I want an end to this, and I want accountability,” she said. “I don't know how possible that is, but that is all we are asking.”

Olamide Oyadiran, a Nigerian-American UF student and the African Student Union president, said ASU raised $700 in donations for medical aid and support for #EndSARS protesters but more can be done. 

Oyadiran, a 21-year-old health education and behavior senior, said people haven’t allowed African lives to matter because it’s outside of their geographic location, but that has to change. 

“If we are Black, whether it be in America, whether it be in France, whether it be in U.K., whether it be in Africa, you're still Black,” she said. “And you have the opportunity or privilege to be able to say something.”

UF Yoruba lecturer Kole Ade-Odutola who studies the culture and language of the Yoruba people in Nigeria, said the youth have begun to Soro S’oke or “Speak Up” against social injustice.

“The only time we get heard is when something like this happens,” he said. “And even this End SARS thing, it has taken weeks before it seeps into the consciousness of the rest of the world."

Abdulquadri Abiru, a 21-year-old UF electrical engineering junior, was doing homework in his Lakeside dorm when he tuned into Nigerian artist DJ Switch’s live stream to watch the protest. He watched for about 10 minutes as a man suffered from a shot to the leg. 

“I saw somebody die on Instagram Live with my own eyes,” the international student said. “I was just mortified.” 

At least 12 people were killed by the Nigerian army at Lekki Toll Gate and Alausa in Lagos, while hundreds were injured, according to Amnesty International. Abiru said he cried the next day. 

He felt helpless being about 5,700 miles away from his home in Lagos where his mother, father and two brothers live. 

While he has donated to organizations like the Feminist Coalition and Beezus Kitchen, which provide food for protestors, he still feels like he’s not doing enough.

“I feel a sense of guilt like I'm living a good life here in a good country with good infrastructure that I know people back home can have,” he said. “It hurts me so much.” 

Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari told protestors to leave the streets but failed to address the Lekki Toll Gate massacre in an Oct. 22 presidential address. The Nigerian army initially denied being at the toll gate, but a military spokesman, Maj. Osoba Olaniyi, on Oct. 27 said they were deployed to enforce the curfew. Olaniyi denied that his troops shot at the protestors.

Abiru couldn’t help but think about his father who is a legislator for the Lagos State House of Assembly. While he trusts his father, he’s part of a force that’s failing the nation, he said. 

“Your bosses are murderers,” he texted his father the night of the massacre.

Lagos State Gov. Babajide Sanwo-Olu released a statement Oct. 27 saying that the government would investigate protest killings and abusive force by SARS, as well as listen to those who survived the bullet wounds. The nine-person judicial panel made an unscheduled visit to the Lekki Toll Gate and a morgue within the military hospital on Oct. 30 as part of their investigation. 

Oluwaseun David, an 18-year-old UF information systems freshman, was stopped by SARS in 2008. While driving to a relative’s house with her father and older sister, she was woken up by SARS officials dressed in black uniforms and armed with assault rifles.

“They'd randomly stop us and tell us that they want to check our trunk,” she said. “Sometimes we have to appease them with cash.”

David said young Nigerians supported the Black Lives Matter protests and he asks Black Americans to support Nigerians the same way. 

“Our lives matter just as much as Black Lives Matter,” she said. 

The Black Lives Matter hashtag and the end SARS hashtag say the same thing: Stop killing us, said UF Yoruba lecturer Kole Ade-Odutola. He is urging for Black support, including UF students and faculty. 

“I've always believed in the solidarity of people, whether they're young, or whether they're old to come together because our struggles are the same,” he said.

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