Oakland Artists Join Nigeria's #EndSARS Movement Against Police Violence

Activist and singer Nkan Eledua at the #EndSARS rally in Oakland on Oct. 24. (Benito Martin)

When Nigerian soldiers shot at a crowd of protesters at the Lekki Toll Gate in Lagos on Oct. 20, killing at least 10 people, Renua Giwa-Amu knew she had to do something—even if that something would happen all the way across the world, in Oakland.

The Bay Area artist and animator grew up in Lagos, and she passed through the Lekki Toll Gate every day on the way to school. News of the massacre horrified her. “It’s heartbreaking even if you were disillusioned before,” she says, adding that her cousins back home have been attending the protests against police violence. Thankfully, none of them were hurt.

Artist Renua Giwa-Amu speaks at the #EndSARS rally in Oakland on Oct. 24. (Benito Martin)

Now, Giwa-Amu has joined a global movement of the Nigerian diaspora organizing in solidarity with those on the ground her home country. Last Saturday, Oct. 24, she helped plan a protest that drew hundreds of Nigerian Americans and their supporters to Oakland’s Lake Merritt amphitheater. Its goal was to amplify the #EndSARS movement, which calls for the dissolution of Nigeria’s Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS), a police unit that has been accused of extorting, brutalizing and sexually assaulting young people in Nigeria without accountability since the 1990s.

Peaceful protests against SARS have been going on since 2017 but picked up momentum this October after the police killing of a man in Ughelli was captured on video, drawing comparisons with the Black Lives Matter movement in the U.S. Though the Nigerian government announced that it would disband SARS on Oct. 12, demonstrators question whether it’s an empty promise and have continued marching. They see their movement as a referendum on corruption, inequality and oppression in Nigeria. Amnesty International estimates that Nigerian police killed over 56 protesters and injured dozens more in the most recent uprisings.

“In Nigeria everyone is Black, so people socially profile [instead of racially profiling],” says another organizer of Saturday’s protest, Jeffrey Amechi Enebly, who DJs and throws events as Flygerian Jeff. Born and raised in Oakland, Enebly says he was harassed by police officers last time he went to Abuja to visit family in 2015. He says that Nigerian police often extort young people who look wealthy, or simply untraditional, under the pretext that they’re suspected thieves or scammers.

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“It comes from colonial times where people were judging each other based on what they wore, how they presented themselves—there’s a saying in Nigeria: you’re addressed how you dress,” says Enebly. “And that speaks to the fact that, if you look like a scammer or something like that, you are [treated as] a scammer. So pretty much, if you have an iPhone, or you have locs, or tattoos, and you drive a nice car or you dress really nice, they’re going to harass you. If you’re a woman with colored hair, they may extort you for sexual favors.”

Flygerian Jeff, a.k.a. Jeffrey Enebly, DJs at the #EndSARS protest he helped organize in Oakland on Oct. 24. (Benito Martin)

Activists see the protests as bigger than just SARS: to Giwa-Amu, they’re part of an international movement of formerly colonized people fighting for self-determination and dignity. “The fate of Nigeria affects everyone globally,” she says. “If white people are tired of seeing Black people as refugees in their countries, guess what? We’re tired of being put in that position. We would like to be empowered in our homes and in our communities and not have to do the undignified thing of begging to be given the permission to live. I would like to see Black people of all walks of life and all backgrounds to come together and realize we are fighting the same problem, it just has different faces.”

Though the protesters are drumming up international solidarity and media attention to the humanitarian crisis, Giwa-Amu says they aren’t calling for an intervention from the U.S. or U.K. governments. “Someone always gains from the conflict, and Black bodies or bodies of color are the collateral damage,” she says.

At the rally on Saturday, she was heartened to see a crowd of hundreds of people. Immigrants like her joined forces with Nigerian Americans born in the U.S., whose parents fled the Nigerian Civil War of the late 1960s. The Nigerian diaspora united across class and ethnic lines, and supporters of other backgrounds joined in solidarity. The activists lent their various talents to the movement: Giwa-Amu designed the flyers; Enebly activated the network he built with his dance parties; and Nkan Eledua, an Afro-jazz singer who came to Richmond from Nigeria three years ago, was the emcee.

Eledua was inspired by the solidarity she witnessed at the event; she believes the momentum of this summer’s Black Lives Matter protests helped activate supporters. “George Floyd’s spirit woke up every nation,” she says. “When George Floyd died, there was no Black, there was no white—everybody who wants the change of truth came out all over the world.”

Demonstrators at the #EndSARS rally in Oakland on Oct. 24. (Benito Martin)

Eledua, Giwa-Amu and other activists are organizing another rally in November. This one will be led by Nigerian women, and will highlight the ways they and LGTBQ+ people are doubly marginalized by sexism and homophobia. Giwa-Amu says that she was sexually harassed and physically assaulted last time she visited Nigeria and went to a government office to renew her driver’s license. She says that “sounding or looking gay” is also often a pretext for police extortion or harassment.

“Women and queer people were the first to speak up online because we are most vulnerable,” says Giwa-Amu. She points to the leadership of queer, non-binary activist Matthew Blaise, who wrote a column in Out about the #EndSARS movement, and the Feminist Coalition, which has raised hundreds of thousands of dollars for medical help, legal support and funeral services for protesters.

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“All of us are asking that question, where is the next thing?” says Giwa-Amu. “We’re going to see lots of individual efforts online and in the streets.”