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Nigerian Obama Foundation Leaders band together to protest police brutality and corruption

When we designed our first international leadership program, Leaders: Africa, in 2018, our hope was to unite leaders across countries in the world's fastest growing region, so they could support each other, guide each other, and build skills that would help them deliver social change.

Two years in, as protests have gripped Nigeria over the conduct of its Special Anti-Robbery Squad, SARS, we’ve seen those hopes realized, as six of our Nigerian Leaders have come together to protest the brutality and corruption of a Nigerian police agency. Our leaders joined tens of thousands of Nigerians who have been demonstrating for weeks to disband SARS.

We spoke to them to learn more about the protests, how they’ve responded, and why a new generation of Nigerian leaders are central to the mission of changing the country.

This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

The End SARS conversation has spread throughout global social media. For people who may not be familiar with SARS or the movement, can you give us a brief history?

Oluwaseun Ayodeji Osowobi, 2018 Leader: The role of SARS is to get involved in high profile cases where you have robbery. It's something similar to what you have in the United States, called SWAT (Special Weapons and Tactics) teams. But unfortunately, SARS have sort of abused their power, where they now begin to harass and extort young Nigerians. For those who are not able to pay their way out, they are just thrown in a detention center and nobody gets to find them. And in the very extreme case, people are either killed on site or killed at the detention center or just kept in a place for a very long time, and their family members cannot get in contact with them.

As a young woman, it means I'm not safe in my country because SARS could see me on the road and profile me as a prostitute. And in some instances, they could rape me as a punitive measure or have me arrested and put me in a detention center and ask my family to pay a ransom to get me out. That's not the role of the police. I'm not an armed robber, I'm just a young Nigerian who works in the country and who's advancing the progress of the country.

Titi Ogunrinde Medunoye, 2019 Leader: I have personally never been stopped by SARS, but I have brothers who have. One of my brothers, he's just at a party hanging out with his friends and the police just came to every single person. And there are no conversations. You can't ask questions. Having to live with that horrid fear is crippling.

Nkemdilim Uwaje Begho, 2019 Leader: I run a technology business, and I'm involved in technology policy advocacy. I think everyone in the technology industry has been dealing with this SARS problem for a really long time because the majority of people who are targeted work in our industry—young team members, especially male team members, that have been stopped by the SARS unit and intimidated.

We need to make sure that all our laptops have labels on them, that we have ID cards for everyone and that our staff know who to call in case anything happens. I'm just very grateful that nothing has happened to any of my team members. Some of the stories that I've heard from friends who have businesses and what happened to their staff have just been really, really horrible.

Ogunrinde Medunoye waves a Nigerian flag and raises her fist.

Titi Ogunrinde Medunoye, 2020.

Tell us about the events that occurred on Tuesday, October 20th at the Lekki Toll gate. It’s been described as “Black Tuesday” in Nigeria.

Titi: It was a regular Tuesday. We'd been going out several times for the protest. We'd been hearing that in other protest locations, there had been a lot of hoodlums attacking the people who are protesting, hurting them. But the Lekki location had been so peaceful. You could feel the togetherness that people had come together, not just to end SARS, but to change governance in Nigeria.

Oluwaseun: These were civilians, young people and old people alike, who sat down at the Lekki tollgate with the Nigerian flag in their hands, chanting the National Anthem. What this connotes is that when an armed officer sees the National flag and hears you singing the National Anthem, they are not to shoot you or to harm you because doing that is against their policy. So young people sat down when they saw army officials, because they assumed that army officials will respect the law. And so they were waving their flags, singing the National Anthem and the army started shooting at them. And that wasn't bad enough for them, the Nigerian police force came back after the people from the military had left and also started shooting at protesters.

Alero Thompson, 2018 Leader: You could actually hear the gunshots from my house. We are at home when we are hearing people shouting, screaming, then the lights were off. Immediately they shut the lights off from the Lekki Toll Gate. We were watching everything from our balcony.

Lanre Oniyitan, 2019 Leader: One of the things I started to do is follow up on what people were saying had happened that day.The medical personnel were deprived from getting access to the toll gate, to get people out. Then the first public announcement claimed there was nobody that was killed. And then the Army came out and said they were not even there—there was no shooting; they denied everything that happened there. Only a few days later, we started seeing the truth unfold because of the pressure. But at the first instance, Black Tuesday was denied by the entire government.

Oluwaseun: One critical thing we need to note is when the army shot at peaceful protestors, they took the bodies. And what this signifies is, if there is no dead body, there is no claim that can be made that innocent people were being killed. People are still missing to this date. Families are still in pain, because they don't know if their child was among those who were killed or they've been taken into detention.

Alero: After [Black Tuesday], Lekki was very, very, very bloody and very, very hostile. People demolished all the supermarkets, ransacked them, took money, took all the valuables. Presently, right now in Lekki, we are just living by God's protection.

Can you share your response to those series of events and how you were engaged?

Oluwaseun: During COVID-19, my organzation launched an emergency hotline and a mental health tool kit where survivors of sexual violence could self-manage their mental health conditions. And so during the protests, we realized that a number of people kept tweeting #EndSARS and saying they were having anxiety, panic attacks, they were mentally drained. We realized that our service had hotlines and trained mental health clinical psychologists to provide mental health support. So, we decided to expand our service to ensure that protesters who are having panic attacks, who have families detained or those who have experienced police brutality, that they are able to self-manage their conditions.

Lanre: When the Africa Leaders had our graduation Zoom with President Obama, he shared a story about people who had fallen into a river. The first line of action is for people to jump in and help those people. But he said that you can also be a leader if you go back to the bridge to find out why people were falling into the river in the first place. Both people are leaders—those jumping into the river to help and those that were going to the bridge to find out what was going on. For me, I thought, if I couldn't be a first responder, if I couldn't help immediately, what else could I do to be able to support the movement and still be able to achieve something towards the greater goal?

President Obama participates in a service project to commemorate Mandela Day with Obama Foundation Leaders in Johannesburg, South Africa

President Obama participates in a service project during the Leaders: Africa convening in 2018.

When did you all decide as a group, as Obama Foundation Africa Leaders, that you wanted to connect and find a way to mobilize to respond to this issue?

Lanre: When the whole End SARS movement started, Nkem had asked, what are we going to do together? We need to speak up about this. The easiest first step was to communicate that we do not accept what is going on and we want the government to do better. We're also considering a joint video at the moment to be able to put our word out there on the issue of #EndSARS, similar to what was done by the Obama Fellows for Black Lives Matter. (Opens in a new tab) Another thing we've done is looked at our individual projects and how we can support each other—how can we contribute and donate to other Leaders’ efforts so that we can make this a collective effort.

There’s no defined leader in the End SARS movement. Can you talk about the importance of that approach?

Oluwaseun: When you have one leader, it's easy for that leader to be targeted. Then the entire movement is cut down. So, the idea for this movement is to ensure that everyone feels like a leader—everyone takes ownership of the advocacy. One for security, but importantly, to prevent bribery because one of the strategies that the government has used in the past is if they don't kill the leader, they get them to sit on the table with them and cut a deal.

The idea for this is, we do not want to continue activism the way it has been done in the past. One person's life is not at risk. The risk is being shared across board every young person can mobilize in their community and have adequate support from every other protestor around them.

Lanre: Social media has helped to bring forward the scenes of what really happened [on Black Tuesday]. You cannot take away the power of the phone. Without social media, we probably wouldn't have gotten the real truth because in other protests before, it's what the government tells us that we accept.

Oluwaseun Ayodeji Osowobi speaks to a crowd during an event.

Oluwaseun Ayodeji Osowobi, 2017.

What role has social media played in driving attention to this movement and raising awareness about what’s happening in Nigeria?

Nkemdilim Uwaje Begho, 2019 Leader: I think social media was really the driving force that made this protest so powerful, not just in terms of people being able to get information of where the protests are, but also sharing information about the response. Donations were being arranged through social media. There was a call for blood donations. People were riding around to find a drone that could airlift the blood.

Isabella Akinseye, 2019 Leader: I believe that as young people, we have the tools of technology, and we need to lend our voices. I didn't feel like this was a time to keep quiet.

The Nigerian poet and playwright Wole Soyinka once said, "The man dies in all who keep silent in the face of tyranny." If you don't speak up, then you're almost supporting what's happening.

Isabella Akinseye smiles while waving a Nigerian flag.

Isabella Akinseye, 2019.

How can this movement succeed? And how can the movement ensure people’s voices are heard?

Isabella: I think the way going forward is to have that renewed hunger, that renewed desire of the youth to participate in the affairs of their country. What can I do in terms of educating people on “What's the role of a Senator? What's the role of your House of Representatives?”

Lanre: We need to continue to encourage people to go into public office. We need to be able to encourage them to register to vote because in Nigeria it is so difficult. Youths are the largest subset of voters, but we do not go out to vote. So, I think that's the solution and we need to get the right people there.

How can people outside of Nigeria help leaders like yourselves who are on the ground?

Nkemdilim: I think the fact that there has been a lot of global exposure to this topic, and celebrities are speaking out against it (Opens in a new tab), both in America and around the globe. I think that has actually created a lot of pressure on the Nigerian government and also the international press. Lagos Governor Babajide Sanwo-olu was on CNN (Opens in a new tab), and that's where he finally admitted that, yes, it was indeed the military that shot protestors, after denying it. Without international pressure, that wouldn't have been possible.

That's, again, where we can see the power of social media. So, my plea to everyone out there would be to keep the pressure on. Keep talking about it, keep sharing information that comes out of credible sources in Nigeria so that we can keep the pressure on the government.

Nkemdilim Uwaje Begho speaks to a man at a table.

Nkemdilim Uwaje Begho, 2019.

To close, are there any closing thoughts or a message you'd like to share?

Nkemdilim: What does ending SARS mean for us? For me, it's basically accountability and leadership. So, ending SARS means holding those who have perpetrated evil and injustice accountable, but also, importantly, for the Nigerian government to take leadership in compensating people who have either lost their relatives or who have been maimed as a result of police brutality.

Lanre: This is personal to me. I have a set of twin girls, and the two of them just got elected into leadership positions in their school. And after the events of [Black Tuesday], they came to me and said, "Is it worth it to be courageous in Nigeria? Why would I want to be courageous and then I would be shot at?"

For me as a mother, at first I couldn't answer that question. She then asked me, "Please, can you tell me the heroes in Nigeria that are like Malala, like Mandela, and like Mother Theresa, that I can look up to and continue to be courageous?” I could only give her one person, which was Mrs. Ransome-Kuti, but I know that there are more people out there.

I also think that we need to document history. We need to tell more stories. We need to encourage more young people to be courageous and stand for what they believe in. So I want to change the narrative. I want children to understand what true leadership is, and I want them to be able to do so without feeling like they need to be timid.

You can learn more about the Obama Foundation Leaders: Africa program by clicking here.