Akinkunmi Akinnola, MBA
Senior Manager, Marketing, Communications & Events, Canadian Centre for Diversity and Inclusion
Almost two months after the #EndSARS protests in Nigeria shook the world, Akinkunmi Akinnola writes about why diaspora activism in Canada is important to the human rights of almost 200 million Nigerians back home.
The last two months have been particularly difficult for Nigerians residing here in Canada. The COVID-19 pandemic and its concomitant restrictions have made it more difficult to travel to, or be visited by, friends and family. They’ve also witnessed remotely the truly shocking attacks on the human rights of fellow citizens back home which began to unfold at the beginning of October by the very law enforcement whose vision statement ironically reads, “To create a safe and secure environment for everyone living in Nigeria.”
Effects of #EndSARS felt worldwide
The events leading up to what is now globally known as the #EndSARS movement have been brewing for three decades. SARS, which stands for The Special Anti-Robbery Squad, was created in 1992 as a task force with a mandate to expel all acts of violent crime including armed robberies and kidnappings. Nigeria’s collective rebuke to the assault on human rights was triggered by an event almost 30 years later on October 3, 2020, when footage of SARS officers killing a man in the town of Ughelli, Delta State, emerged and went viral in the social sphere. This video was just one in a litany of recorded and unrecorded crimes against humanity, especially targeted at young people. The youth have been stopped, abused, or killed for “occurrences” including carrying an iPhone or being “unconventionally” dressed.
Protest gatherings and demonstrations started in Lagos and quickly swept the nation, invoking a level of activism amongst Nigerian youth that was as irrepressible as it was unprecedented. They stood up to the government and demanded accountability with regards to police brutality, inequality, and corruption — all of which have historically decimated the soul of the country and subverted any logical pathways to nation-building. The ripples of the movement were felt here in Canada, where protests and vigils were held in Ontario, Alberta, and British Columbia.
In what’s now being memorialized as a Black Tuesday, on Oct. 20, at least 12 protesters were killed at Lekki Toll Gate Plaza when army troops reportedly fired a mixture of live bullets and blanks on unsuspecting protesters. The military had allegedly tampered with security cameras and disconnected the lighting so they could surreptitiously execute sinister orders in the cover of dark.
The trauma of the event even to those who only consumed it via social media raised the level of diaspora activism across Canada to unprecedented heights. United in their outrage, Nigerians stood in solidarity and demanded action from both the Nigerian and Canadian governments.
Calling for transnational accountability
Blessing Timidi, an Ontario-based community facilitator said, “Irrespective of where you live, you cannot escape your ‘Nigerian-ness.’ I feel the Nigerian government should be subjected to international pressure. I expect the Canadian government to ask questions and get answers from their Nigerian counterparts.”
Diaspora activists in Toronto have actually petitioned the government of Canada and the Nigerian High Commission to ensure that the voices of Nigerian-Canadians are amplified to the federal government across the Atlantic. Immediate actions are being demanded, including the release of arrested protesters, the convening of an investigatory panel, and increased salaries to alleviate the economic hardships that drive so many law enforcement officers to turn rogue and extort money from civilians through intimidation and outright violence.
A similar petition was made to the Canadian Parliament through Change.org to utilize their powers in diplomacy and bilateralism to engage the Nigerian government and invoke changes for compatriots on the home turf.
Omorinsojo Spaine, a Toronto-based digital content creator who mobilized protestors via social media and documented the march, said, “Social media sustained the protests and offered irrefutable proof of Nigerians’ suffering. I struggle to imagine how this global awakening could have happened without social media.”
Some Nigerians have questioned the proliferation of images flooding international broadcasting media and digital channels which depict Nigeria as a “failed state.”
Responding to a heart-rending image of a SARS team brandishing automatic weapons and flogging a line-up of suspects as they wailed and wallowed face down in mud, one upper-middle-class Nigerian man domiciled in Lagos said, “Images like this devalue our country. Continuous negative proclamations beamed to a global audience makes it harder to salvage the reputation of Nigeria and do the work that is necessary to rebuild it.” It’s worth pointing out that citizens who are victims of such abject humiliation and violence are far less concerned with the finessing of graphic content than they are with surviving a culture that dehumanizes them and weaponizes their lack of opportunity and economic power against them, all with impunity.
Facing systemic corruption and demanding change
The remits of the #EndSARS protests expanded beyond ending police brutality to include a denouncement of the systemic corruption and the fiefdom of the political classes which are amongst the highest-paid legislators in the world, despite glaring inequity in the distribution of wealth and the over 5 million Nigerian citizens facing hunger every day (Oxfam International 2019).
Rank corruption at all levels of government continue to assault the fundamental rights of mostly poor, mostly young Nigerians who have never been able to reap the benefits of a hugely resourceful and highly intelligent entrepreneurial nation. Equity-seeking institutions, advocates, and activists agree that the struggle for human rights in Nigeria can only be achieved robustly if both the government and its citizens accord the same fundamental rights, respects, and considerations to all Nigerians. Lower citizen groups including women, people living with disabilities, and the LGBTQ2+ community who should be at the intersection of the human rights movement sadly still subsist within its life-threatening margins.
Nigerians home and abroad have never been more aware of their human rights or the need to invoke them. The brave “first responders” of this movement are in fact the civilians at the front lines of the resistance. That said, the importance of transnational solidarity and diaspora activism here in Canada and in other countries cannot be overstated.
Nigeria is currently at an inflection point. Human rights are firmly on the ballot of the 2023 general elections. The next phase in the EndSARS movement is critical; sweeping changes in governance and policing are inevitable.
A high-ranking Nigerian government official who asked not to be named said, “The message of EndSARS is clear: enough is enough. Enough with human rights abuses, bad governance, and a culture of impunity.”
It seems for once that enough Nigerians — home and abroad, rich and poor — may finally agree on one thing — fundamentally at least.