The many arbitrary SARS arrests and harassment of queer Nigerian youth confirm bias towards and targeting of the queer community in Nigeria’s police system.
By Conrad Johnson-Omodiagbe
For queer people living in Nigeria, the chances of experiencing violence—and in some cases, death—at the hands of a police officer is uncomfortably high. Over the past couple of years, stories detailing assault on young Nigerians by different units of the country’s police force have cascaded social media, eliciting feelings of fear and distrust towards a people sworn to protect the community. Stories like this, as well as several personal experiences with the Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS), pushed openly queer human rights activist Matthew Blaise to the frontline of protesters in the city of Lagos on October 10, 2020.
In a now-viral video, they can be heard yelling “Queer Lives Matter” while holding a placard carrying the same message. “For me, when I came out that day with the placard, yelling, I was mostly filled with rage and sadness from not just my experience, but also the experience of other people whose stories I have heard and I wanted to do something about it,” they tell Wear Your Voice. Weeks later, that single act of defiance has influenced the #EndSARS protests that have flung Nigeria into the spotlight for various cases of police brutality, as well as negligence and complacency on the part of its tyrannous government.
Created in 1992 as an undercover tactical unit tasked with tackling rising violence and crime in the country, SARS has mutated into a mirror image of the forces it was designed to fight. With a proclivity for harassing young Nigerians, this unit arbitrarily arrests people under the guise of fighting crime for fatuous things such as driving “flashy” cars, using expensive mobile phones, or merely looking different in a way that deviates from approved norms or gender expressions within society—we’ve seen people get shot for having tattoos and, in Matthew’s case, get arrested just because they were “behaving like a woman” and “looked gay.”
Matthew’s arrest is one of several cases that confirm bias towards the queer community in Nigeria’s police system. Another instance can be seen in the widely publicized #Acquit57 case where 57 young men were arrested in Lagos state for allegedly organizing a homosexuality “initiation event.” Despite a recent ruling striking out the case, these men have been publicly paraded, resulting in loss of employment, evictions from their homes, estrangement from their families, and discrimination from other members of the society.
Despite demands from the general public, the Nigerian government has remained lethargic in its actions towards this rogue police unit, calling for a “reorganization” of the unit in 2017, an “immediate overhaul” in 2018, and an “immediate disbandment” in 2019—all weightless declarations that have done nothing to take these men off the streets or provide retribution for their victims.
While the protests leveraged technology, gaining traction internationally due to social media, there was overwhelming silence and an evident erasure of the queer community’s experience in the discourse surrounding police brutality. This was evident in Abuja, the nation’s capital, where Oluwa Dayo*, a closeted queer creative, recalls witnessing an incident at the protest ground that poked holes in the alleged united front Nigerian youths were presenting in this fight. He describes the disturbing event where a queer woman with a rainbow flag was violently attacked by protesters who felt she “was distracting people from the cause.” This sentiment has been echoed across Nigeria, especially at protest grounds where queer people have shown up to register their displeasure at the mistreatment we, just like every other Nigerian, suffer at the hands of this unit that operates with impunity.
At the height of the protests, homophobic “human rights” activist and self-proclaimed convener of the #EndSARS movement, Segun “Segalink” Awosanya, weaponized a now-deleted tweet supporting the rights of queer people to protest which was initially posted by Feminist Coalition, an organization supporting the #EndSARS movement. In a bid to discredit the work of this inclusive group, Awosanya banked on a community rife with homophobia, and once again, they didn’t disappoint. However, this was not the first time Nigeria’s penchant for homophobia has been used as a ploy for personal gain. In 2014, ex-president Goodluck Jonathan, in a last-minute effort to gain the popular vote, played the same chess move. Milking the obvious bigotry that united Nigerians regardless of religion, class, or ethnic group, Jonathan signed the Same-Sex Marriage Prohibition Act (SSMPA) criminalizing queer relationships or association of any kind with a 14-year jail term. Legitimizing violent attacks on queer bodies, this bill has often been used by officers of the SARS unit to threaten and extort members of the queer community.
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“When people were dreaming of a new Nigeria, I knew from the start that I wouldn’t be welcomed into this version of Nigeria. I knew my place, and Nigerians didn’t hesitate to remind me of it,” says Dennis Macaulay, a queer Communications Executive who refused to march with his “oppressors.” Dennis, who has been vocal about the movement online and its exclusion of queer people, cites the Civil Rights Movement of America where the queer community was asked to take the backseat and the Suffragette movement in Britain that saw white women relegate the rights of Black women to the back burner. “[Feminist Coalition] shouldn’t have deleted the tweet. I understood the necessity to take it down, but I just feel they chose the side of the oppressor. To me, an ‘ally’ is a verb, it’s a doing word, so you can’t choose to be one when it’s comfortable and then back out when it’s not,” he says.
While acknowledging the importance of this movement, Dennis also highlights the toilsome bottlenecks queer Nigerians have to navigate. “My problem as a gay man is beyond SARS. Look, even if the police are disbanded today, I’m still not safe. Most of the same people who are marching against police brutality now are the same people who will attack me tomorrow.”
As young Nigerians contemplate the next course of action following the massacre of protesters by officers of the army and a responding address from Nigeria’s President Muhammadu Buhari threatening the lives of protesters, Matthew remains determined in their quest to ensure intersectionality in whatever direction the #EndSARS movement takes moving forward. “We are all humans,” They say. “My humanity and queerness are one; I can’t separate them – both are equally important aspects of who I am.”
Conrad Johnson-Omodiagbe (@TheConradJay) is a Nigerian freelance writer and filmmaker trying to find a place in the world using the words in his head. Covering culture and entertainment, Conrad’s words can also be found in Mic, RestOfWorld, and OkayAfrica.
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