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‘They need our backing’: Ontario’s Nigerian community reflects on #EndSARS police protests

With thousands of residents across Nigeria demonstrating against police brutality and the widely condemned Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS) over the past few weeks, expats and community members who live in Canada are rallying to support friends and loved ones who are protesting overseas.

“Watching from here, we are not at peace. We are not happy because especially when we heard about the shootings, they were shooting live bullets at our young guys and young girls — that was unimaginable,” Kemi Amusan, president of the Greater Toronto Area branch of the Nigerian Canadian Association, told Global News in an interview.

“So many Nigerians were crying, people were scared, and we weren’t able to get back to our people back at home. The internet was not functioning properly, so the feeling was that of rage, anger, fear and hopelessness.

“No one knows what is happening next. We are afraid, we are scared, we are unhappy.”

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Read more: Nigerians in Edmonton show solidarity with youth in home country protesting police brutality

Amusan is one of about 10,000 Torontonians and 52,000 Canadians who, according to the 2016 Census, are believed to have Nigerian origins based on sample data collected. She and others are the latest to speak out against police brutality in Nigeria.

“At first, it was like, ‘At last, somebody’s doing something and it’s the youth.’ As of that moment, there was really no problem. They came out to peacefully demonstrate and air their feelings,” Amusan said, adding those protests were infiltrated by others associated with politicians.

“Things changed overnight and we’re scared.”

The #EndSARS campaign, which has been widely shared on social media, erupted in the country in early October after a video circulated showing a man being beaten by apparent SARS officers. The peaceful, organized protests disrupted traffic in Lagos and many other Nigerian cities. Advocacy groups have accused SARS of extortion, harassment, torture and murders over several years.

Protests rage on in Nigeria over police brutality

President Muhammadu Buhari’s government agreed to disband the SARS unit, but the protests continued with participants demanding sweeping reforms of police and action against corruption.

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Although the protests were largely peaceful, at least 56 people have died across the country since they began, according to Amnesty International, which accused security forces of using unnecessary force.

At least 10 protesters were killed in a shooting at Lekki plaza on Oct. 20, according to Amnesty International, which said Wednesday that army troops opened fire on protesters without provocation. Earlier in the day, the government imposed a curfew, ordering everyone to stay at home. For two days after that, Lagos saw widespread rioting. To restore order in Lagos — Nigeria’s largest city, with more than 14 million people — officials imposed a curfew between 8 p.m. and 6 a.m.

The army previously maintained that its troops were not at the site of the shooting, but on Tuesday, a military spokesman reversed that position, saying soldiers had been deployed there to enforce a curfew. However, the spokesperson denied that the troops shot at the protesters.

Read more: 12 peaceful protesters killed by Nigerian forces, Amnesty International says

George Okafor told Global News he’s had first-hand interactions with SARS officers. The 24-year-old Toronto resident said when he was 15 in Lagos, he had a terrifying encounter after the taxi he was taking to school was stopped.

“He had a long gun on his shoulder, and with the other hand, he was telling me to get down. I was scared,” he said.

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Okafor said he was randomly asked to give his name and ID, and show the bag carrying his laptop.

“He went through my laptop and told me I’m under arrest. I told him, ‘For what?’ He said he feels that I might have some hidden documents in my laptop,” he recalled, noting that he gave the device to the officer.

“He said, ‘That’s not good enough,’ [and] that I have to follow him. He arrested me.”

Read more: Witnesses report Nigerian soldiers shooting protesters at anti-police brutality rallies

After being taken to a police station by motorbike, he recalled how he was put in a room and a second officer was called in.

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“The officer was searching my whole body to know if I had anything on me. I told him, ‘I’m just a student. I don’t have anything on me,'” Okafor said.

“I was scared. I was nervous because I was not guilty of anything. He couldn’t tell me why he was detaining me or why he arrested me.”

He said he inevitably offered almost all of the money in his pocket — 2,800 in Nigerian Naira, which is worth less than C$10 — to leave.

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“’This is all I have. Please, do you mind taking this so I can go back to school?’” Okafor recalled, adding he was asked if he could access more money.

“I had to bribe them right in that room after they found nothing on me.

“The guy was telling me they were going to keep me to one side, they’re going to keep me in one corner until I’m ready to sort myself out.”

Read more: Anti-police protesters storm prison in Nigeria, freeing some 200 inmates

He said he kept a very small sum so he could get to school. Okafor said he was eventually released.

“When I got to school, my teacher was so mad at me … I had to lie because I didn’t want anything that would damage my image in school,” he said.

When he was 18, Okafor said he came to Canada in a bid for a safer future. He briefly spent time in British Columbia before settling in the GTA.

“At first when I came to Canada, I was terrified. I felt unsafe after that. Going out every day, I was looking over my shoulders,” he said, noting it took a couple of months for him to feel at ease.

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READ MORE: Demonstrators protesting against Nigerian police take to the streets

“Growing up, I never had a voice, and most youths right now in Nigeria, it is the same thing right now … In this country, youths and people have a voice, and back home, people don’t even have a voice.”

Okafor said he has been following the situation at home through social media, hoping the world is watching and willing to take action.

“There might be something that comes out of it, but that also boils down to the leaders of the nation,” he said.

“If they’re willing to sit back and watch the thousands of lives of the youths killed without an answer, that’s just going to be so bad for us all.

“If we all can come together and hold the same hands and actually fight this, it’s going to benefit us all.”

Emmanuel Adegboyega, a Grade 12 student in Toronto, recently wrote an open letter in The Toronto Star to raise awareness about the #EndSARS movement.

“Why I wrote that piece was to really open people’s eyes to what is going on outside of Canada and the western world. Not everyone has the opportunities we have out here. Not everyone has the opportunities to do whatever they want to do,” he said.

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The teen moved from Nigeria to Canada in 2014 and told Global News he is concerned about the well-being of his family and those who are protesting.

“Even though I never had a personal experience, I think people [are] getting attacked by this misuse of power … That could also easily be me in that position,” he said.

“Being around SARS, I think youths especially, which are the people targeted by SARS, I think they were always looking over their shoulders. They weren’t sure if they were going to come home to their parents.”

Adegboyega said in the current climate, there isn’t “a trustful relationship” between Nigerians and the government. He encouraged people to “dig deeper into humanity” by sharing on social media the messages of Nigerian residents who are protesting, working to educate people “outside of our comfort zones” and signing petitions calling for the Canadian government and others to take action.

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“Even though you might not be Nigerian, even though you might not have people out there you care about, just think whatever you do it’s going to impact if Nigeria gets the change it is looking for,” Adegboyega said.

“They need our backing to keep going. This is something they haven’t had the strength for a long time and… people are really able to stand up now.”

Amusan reflected on recent anti-racist and police defunding protests being held in Canada that have drawn thousands.

“They are not just making noise for noisemaking sake. They want to see changes. Nigeria is a country that is blessed with a lot of human capital and a lot of human resources,” she said.

Amusan said if Canada doesn’t take action to help Nigerian residents, there could be effects felt closer to home. She said in addition to the humanitarian impacts, exports such as cocoa and minerals could be affected.

“If we have major war break out in Nigeria today, about 200 million people… the western world would be highly impacted. Canada would be highly impacted,” Amusan said.

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On Oct. 21, Foreign Affairs Minister François-Philippe Champagne said he contacted Nigeria’s foreign affairs minister to “express Canada’s deep concerns following reports of excessive use of force, injuries and deaths during the ongoing protests.”

“Those responsible for human rights violations and abuse must be held accountable,” he tweeted.

— With files from The Associated Press and Reuters

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