Matthew Blaise has first-hand experience of the notorious police unit that in October sparked the powerful #EndSARS protest in Nigeria. On 10 July, as he made his way to Victoria Island beach, he was arrested by men from the Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS) unit.
“They pushed me into their van and drove me away,” Blaise says. At the police station, officers badgered him with questions, trying to get him to change his legal statement. They wanted him to declare that he was homosexual and say that he had just had sex.
The 21-year-old gay rights activist says he was arrested for “effeminacy and perceived homosexuality”. Though being gay or effeminate is not a crime in Nigeria, it becomes one if you’re caught engaging in gay sex.
It wasn't the first time Blaise had been targeted by the SARS unit. On one occasion, he was accosted when going to buy food. On another, when he was returning home from visiting a friend.
“They messed with my mental health. I keep seeing those men in everything I do. On the street. In the face of people that genuinely love me. This is what they do to you. They break you until you are unable to pick up your shattered pieces any more,” Blaise said.
“They messed with my mental health. I keep seeing those men in everything I do. On the street. In the face of people that genuinely love me. This is what they do to you.”
Blaise isn't the only victim, nor the only queer one. The SARS unit and other police officers appear to have taken advantage of the 2014 Same Sex Marriage Prohibition Act signed into law by Nigeria’s then president, Goodluck Jonathan. Many Nigerians have accused SARS officers of torture, theft and rape.
Set up in 1992 to combat internal terrorism, armed robbery, kidnapping and other violent crimes, SARS is accused of having morphed into a bandit outfit itself, targeting young male Nigerians with iPhones, laptops, dreadlocks, flashy clothes and exotic cars.
In early October, young Nigerians rose up after a viral video showed SARS officers shooting a young man in an SUV. The protest began on Twitter under two hashtags – #EndSARS and #EndPoliceBrutalityInNigeria – with 28 million tweets appearing in 48 hours, and even catching the attention of international celebrities such as Dababy and Trey Songz.
Protesters took to the streets of Lagos, Africa’s largest city. Famous Nigerians, including musicians Falz (real name Folarin Falana) and Runtown (Jack Agu), joined them. Demonstrations soon spread to other cities in Nigeria such as Abuja, Ibadan, Port-Harcourt and Delta, and abroad including Canada, German, the UK and the US.
Blaise joined the protests, showing up as queer – as he always does in hs everyday life. On the third day of the #EndSARS protest, a video of Blaise in a cropped shirt, screaming “Queer Lives Matter”, in the middle of a crowd on a Lagos street, went viral. Over three million people viewed it. Sixty thousand liked it and 18,000 retweeted it on Twitter.
“I wasn’t expecting the video to go viral, but it did. I’m happy it did. It was about time,” Matthew says. The viral online reaction was a nice change from his offline experience. “Protesting with cis-heterosexual/homophobic people is far from therapy for me. They make it known to you that they’d kill you if they could. It’s crazy,” he says.
Gay rights not welcome
Amara, a gay rights activist and photographer who lives in Nigeria’s capital, Abuja, and is known by only her first name, experienced the homophobia more directly. She was one of the anti-LGBTQ protesters attacked during the demonstrations.
She was in a crowd, photographing what she thought of as a “fight against a common enemy” when the protesters turned into a mob angry at her. They surrounded her and other queer protesters, tore their placards and seized their rainbow flag.
“I went into autopilot. I moved closer to my girlfriend. One of the guys was shouting that I shouldn’t have him on camera. I switched it off. I stopped talking back. I realised it was unsafe. I held my girlfriend, so that she’d stop engaging,” Amara recalls.
Her rainbow flag was still around her shoulders. “I took the flag off my neck and put it inside my bag.” Her placard was grabbed. It read, in Nigerian pidgin, “Na lesbian I be, I no kill persin”, which roughly means: my being a lesbian harms no one. “I wasn’t even looking when I felt someone grab it and start to tear it. I did nothing,” she says.
Fortunately, volunteer stewards appeared to rescue them. “This was a peaceful protest, don’t get me wrong,” Amara insists, adding that it was other protesters who “shielded us from those who were filled with homophobia, shouting and threatening. People came and did their best to make it go away, and it did.”
After this frightening encounter, Amara went home. “I couldn’t be there without my placard. It didn’t feel right. Nothing felt right. I just needed my bed,” she says.
On her way home, Amara narrated her ordeal in a video on social media. It sparked an online debate in which #QueerNigerianLivesMatter hit number one on Nigerian Twitter (though other protesters accused the community of taking away from the #EndSARS cause).
Queer Nigerians began to show up at the protests in ever larger numbers, more loudly ‘out’ than before with their placard messages addressing both the SARS unit and homophobic protesters. Many carried the rainbow flag. They refused to be silent, even though they were painfully aware that their actions may incur an even higher cost. Enter ‘Safe Hquse’.
Adaeze Feyisayo, who in mid October launched the online platform for queer people needing aid, says: "Safe Hquse was set up to initially provide two days’ temporary safe housing to queer #ENDSARS protesters because there had been increased reports of homophobic harassment of queer protesters”.
Eventually, 220 persons benefited from the Safe Hquse’s housing fund, with 89% being queer. It closed on 4 November after the #EndSARS protests petered out.
Feminists and lawyers add their support
Nigerian feminists also threw themselves behind the #EndSARS protests, with fervour and ingenuity. No one has been as industrious as the Feminist Coalition, which was formed in July 2020 by Damilola Odufuwa and Odunayo Eweniyi and 11 acclaimed feminists. They want “a Nigeria where equality for all people is a reality in our laws and everyday lives.
When the protests began, the coalition decided they would “contribute towards Nigerians exercising their constitutional rights safely by providing food, water, masks (for COVID-19)”, Odufuwa told openDemocracy via email. They started raising and distributing funds. “We do not plan protests, we simply donate to the needs of peaceful protest organisers so that they are safe.”
Yet the Nigerian government didn’t like their involvement. “We’ve had restrictions placed on our bank accounts and many people who have donated to us, or received donations from us, have also alleged and complained of restrictions placed on their accounts by certain banks,” said the group. Cleverly, they switched to taking donations in bitcoin.
The group says it received more than NGN 147m (about $387,000) in donations and by 22 October had disbursed more than NGN 60m. The rest was used for medical and legal aid, burial expenses and mental health support services for families who lost loved ones during the Lekki protests.
The protests lasted for about two weeks and had hundreds of thousands of participants. Meanwhile, solidarity protests took place all over the world. In the end, SARS was disbanded. But the government’s response became increasingly brutal in the process. In one incident at the Lekki Toll Gate in Lagos on 20 October, the army opened fire on demonstrators. Amnesty International says at least twelve people died and many others were badly injured.
Lawyer Moe Odele founded EndSARS Legal, a network of more than 800 volunteer lawyers ready to respond to legal issues emerging for protesters and victims. The network says it has secured the release of 81 of the 88 protesters reported to them as arrested. They are also offering to support victims who wish to submit to the judicial panels that the Nigerian government has set up in response to the protests.
As happened for queer Nigerians, the involvement of women’s rights groups in the #EndSARS protests ended on a bitter note. A tweet from Feminist Co – which was later deleted after hours of online backlash – said: “You can’t be what you fight against. We stand with every single one of our queer brothers and sisters in this fight against police brutality.”
Human rights activist Segun Awosanya was among those unhappy with the tweet. His Twitter bio claims he was the “convener” of the #EndSARS protests. In a tweet thread, he accused feminists and queer protesters of hijacking the protests against police brutality for a “demonic” agenda. Four days later, just two days after soldiers shot and killed protesters at the Lekki Toll Gate, the Feminist Coalition ended its support for the #EndSARS protests.