When Adaeze Feyisayo, 24, joined the protests against police brutality in Nigeria on Friday, October 3, she had just returned from a trip to the southeastern city of Aba, where she went to visit her friend, Tina*.
On her way back, at one of the police checkpoints in between Aba and Umuahia – where Feyisayo, a lawyer and writer, lives – the taxi she and Tina were riding in was stopped.
The policeman in charge singled Feyisayo out from the other passengers.
“He searched my luggage as if he was looking for something but I wasn’t bothered because there was nothing there,” she says. “After a few minutes, he reluctantly let us go. As we drove off, Tina* told me she suspected that the policeman had just profiled me as a prostitute because of my blonde haircut and, if he had found condoms or drugs on me, he would have arrested me.”
At first, Feyisayo thought this was odd. But after reading similar accounts, she realised the policeman’s actions were far from unusual.
“When the protests started, a doctor on Twitter shared her story of how she was arrested by the police because they found condoms in her bag,” she says now. “I began to understand how police brutality really affects everyone regardless of social status. They detained her even after she explained that she was a doctor. It’s things like these that made me join the protests.”
Feyisayo started by protesting against policy brutality online – using the hashtag #EndSARS along with tens of thousands of fellow Nigerians. They were trying to summon up an international audience, and signing petitions aimed at banning Nigerian government officials from international travel as a way to demand accountability. People created templates for others to use to send emails to international regulatory bodies asking them to come to Nigeria’s aid.The #EndSARS protests had initially been sparked by outrage over the death of a young man who was shot dead in Delta state. A video of the incident went viral and sparked a movement calling for an end to police brutality and bad governance in Nigeria. Protests quickly descended into violence when police forces hit back, such as during the Lekki massacre in October when they opened fire on peaceful protesters at the Lekki toll gate in Lagos. Authorities have still not disclosed the number of casualties.
Like other young people in Nigeria, Feyisayo was fired up by what she perceived as the injustice and heavy-handed use of force and oppression by police forces and, especially by the Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS) against ordinary people.
During a year working for the National Youth Service Corps (NSYC), from November 2019 to October 2020, Feyisayo worked with a team of lawyers on the Abia State Attorney General’s Prison Decongestion project – a series of state-sanctioned efforts aimed at depopulating Abia state’s correctional centres. “During this time, I was exposed to the level of damage the judicial system sustains due to police brutality,” she says.
She explains how lawyers and NSYC members like her have worked relentlessly to secure the release of people who have been remanded without trial.
“People are thrown in jail on the whims of policemen and certain privileged citizens, populating cells while ministries of justice across Nigeria are left to deal with an overflow of cases. Quite often, there are cases that have been filed in the wrong courts. When you follow such cases up, you find that it was filed by some greedy policemen who were not given [enough of a] bribe. So, when the #EndSARS protests started on October 3, I knew I had to be a part of it.”
Providing safety and care
Within the first two days of the protests, Feyisayo, who, as a lawyer, focuses particularly on feminist issues and queer activism, says she saw a need for funds specifically for queer Nigerians who were protesting. “It was important to me that queer people were also given funds to sustain the protests. Police brutality affects us, too. As a feminine-presenting queer woman, I could be stopped for looking like a prostitute. My phone could be searched and pictures of my lover and I could be used as a reason to arrest me,” she says.
“Queer Nigerians are often targeted by the police for looking too ‘masculine’ as a woman or too ‘feminine’ as a man. They are harassed, extorted and sometimes, arrested.
“Some people are even too afraid to tell their stories because of the Same-Sex Marriage Prohibition Act that has essentially legalised violence against queer people. #EndSARS is our fight too, but to participate in sustaining the movement, we needed funds.”