We do whatever we can to stay alive - Nigerian actor recounts encounters with the policeOct 21, 2020 02:51PM ● By Belinda Nzeribe
Horrific human rights abuses by SARS, a special police unit sparked youth protests across Nigeria. As the largest black nation the demonstrations by its massive young population is drawing international attention. With no true leadership, the protests are a form of chaotized beauty, led by young people once considered a phone-obsessed generation. The youths are awake and have one goal – end police brutality. They have become a headache for politicians who can find no true leaders to broker with. Perhaps the success and sustenance of this agitation lies in the disorganization, but coherence in messaging. #EndSARS #ReformThePolice.
SARS was created as an undercover police unit undertaking operations against crimes associated with firearms. Over the years it has morphed into a dark machine perpetuating a war against youths on street corners in the guise of fighting cybercriminals. There is systemic bias against youths built on a baseless system of profiling. Displaying tattoos, dreadlocks, driving a flashy car or owning an iphone is indicative of criminal activity and a justifiable cause for arrest. Getting stopped by SARS is a sour experience.
From unjustified arrests, extortion, kidnapping, to assault, rape and even murder, SARS operatives have become an existential threat to youth across the country. The youth are fighting the blatant abuses of power via street demonstrations and online activism. Think what you will but the young ones have finally found their voice, and you can close the door all you want but the horse has already left the barn. Just as like the black lives matter movement gained global traction, the diaspora community is advocating that Nigerian lives matter becomes a movement to activate social reforms in the country.
Olumide Oworu stars on The Johnsons, a popular TV series on cable. But his television success has not shielded him from run-ins with the SARS operatives. He has been arrested over nothing – taking pictures on the street, chatting with a female friend in the back seat of a taxi at a checkpoint. His car has also been searched roughly for non-existent weed. In his encounters with SARS, all he is interested in is staying alive and coming home without injuries.
What is propelling these youth protests?
As a younger generation we have been complacent with the government process. That’s what we met on ground. There has never been a time where we wholly felt a part of the process. We haven’t been taught to have a nationalist outlook, what it means to be Nigerian. I feel like we are getting to a point where on our own we are looking for a formation, trying to learn from the mistakes of the past, so we can tweak things moving forward.
This anti-robbery squad is supposedly trying to root out online fraudsters. Do you think we have challenge with internet scams?
We definitely have a problem with online scamming. But this should not be an excuse for policemen to be emotionally unintelligent. How do you explain stopping unarmed civilians at night, and driving them to ATM machines to extort them? Online fraudsters are not armed, if you are trying to curb the crime, they are not armed robbers, I don’t see why brutality is used, if you claim they are online criminals. These scammers are usually at home with their computers and you can’t label everyone you see with a laptop as an online criminal. You might as well arrest all the country.
What has been your experience with SARS?
I have been stopped multiple times for flimsy reasons. One time, they stopped us while I was talking with a friend in the back seat of a taxi. The officer was like, "Why do you have a girl friend at the police checkpoint and you are still chatting, you are not afraid?” Other times, I’m fortunate that it didn’t get too extreme where I was physically assaulted. But I have friends that this has happened to. I have had my time wasted – officers searching my car, insisting that I had weed in the car. How can you assume because I’m alone, driving at night and maybe my ears are pierced that I must be a weed smoker or a scammer? “Open your phone, open your messages.” This profiling right here, there is no excuse for it. They also need to figure out that whole process of recruitment into the police. It just feels like anyone can just stroll in and become a police officer. I have been stopped by drunken officers and it’s scary when you are stopped by two drunken officers and they are threatening to shoot you – they literally cock their guns. Why do they carry those combat rifles on the streets? You can’t just have regular police officers carrying AK47 on the streets.
We live in a time where every young man seems to be profiled, harassed and even brutalized. This is your reality. But this is your country. You were born here, raised here, you work here. What does this do to your psyche?
It’s crazy. Sometimes I go out and on my way back, I have to go through a longer route, where there will be fewer stops. These guys have specific checkpoints and when possible you avoid those areas. On your way home, you are taking off your wrist watch, your jewelry. You are deleting your bank app from your phone, bank statements and alerts. You are going through your messages to make sure there is no word like money, yahoo or cash app or anything that looks like a scamming terminology as far as they are concerned. You are also deleting chats; you call people to let them know where you are. Send live locations, as soon as you are approaching a checkpoint. It still comes down to the fact that the system doesn’t even punish officers when abuses occur. They have those big guns and they just feel more empowered. They make you sign false statements and extort you and most times we give in, just to stay alive. Give them the money. That’s what they are after. We do whatever we can to stay alive.
Is it a case of ending SARS or reforming the police?
This thing is bigger than just ending SARS. When you end it how do you reform their mentality or will they just be integrated into the police force? What are the sanctions in place? They arrest arbitrarily, one time I was out with a friend of mine taking pictures, and we were arrested for taking pictures. When we got to the police station the officer behind the counter did not even ask what we’d done, he didn’t even know if we were coming to make a complaint. As soon as we entered the station, he was like, “oya all of you enter the cell.”
Why now? There is a pandemic after all.
There is only so much that we can take, if it has not affected you directly, then it must have happened to a friend or a family member. In the past two years the amount of extortion has been enormous. They stop you, they bill you, and it’s standard procedure, especially at night. A lot of the time they don’t stop older people, so the older guys seem to be oblivious, and it looks like we are just making noise. They are not directly affected. But if they have had a loved one affected by police brutality then they shouldn’t mind the few hours of traffic caused by our protests. I feel like they target young people because we are more vulnerable. It’s easier to use physical force to bully us.
My friend was stopped and in the pretense of searching her, they were literally molesting her sexually. It’s 2am; she is stopped at a corner in an Uber, surrounded by three policemen. What is she supposed to do?
It’s remarkable how 2020 has turned out, the year of youth protests
The year has had a weird feel to it. Life is so fast-paced and you never really have time to take stock. But we have all been at home now and because of social media, we have become aware of the number of cases and the fact that it’s happening everywhere. It very frustrating and people are like, it’s now or never. Clearly, the older generation will not speak up for us because they are not affected. We either continue business as usual or we attempt to do something. This is us trying to look out for ourselves, our friends, and family. A good number of us have experienced this first hand, we are protesting for our lives. At this point it can be anybody at any time. It’s gone beyond “he is wearing dreadlocks and tattoos.” People in knotted ties and suits get pulled over too.