Lagos, Nigeria – On a sizzling October afternoon final yr, Felicia Okpara left house to attend a job interview in Surulere, only a quick distance away from the place a crowd of peaceable #EndSARS demonstrators had gathered.
Moved by the defiant spirit and camaraderie among the many youth protesting towards police brutality, the 27-year-old, after her interview, determined to hitch in. Little did she know that that may later flip into probably the most traumatising day of her life.
“There was a lot chaos occurring: police shoot-outs; SARS had been taking pictures; gunshots in every single place. Folks had been operating for security, I used to be additionally operating for security,” she recounted to Al Jazeera.
Whereas in a nook hiding for security, Okpara took out her telephone to file the violent occasions happening. Nonetheless, she was abruptly stopped by a plainclothes police officer who demanded she cease filming and hand over her gadget.
When she refused, he initiated her arrest. “One different policeman got here [over] and held me they usually [both] dragged me throughout [the street] to the police station. Different policemen had been gathered on the gate and that was the place the extreme beating began,” Okpara stated. She and another arrested protesters had been dragged into the Space C station, the place the beating continued.
That was on October 12, 2020, simply days into the #EndSARS protests the place younger Nigerians assembled in unison to demand the abolition of the Particular Anti-Theft Squad (SARS), a unit infamous for alleged abuses, unlawful detention, profiling and even extrajudicial killings.
Based on Amnesty Worldwide, individuals between the ages of 17 and 30 had been most vulnerable to arrest, torture or extortion by the unit’s officers. “Younger males with dreadlocks, ripped denims, tattoos, flashy automobiles or costly devices are ceaselessly focused by SARS,” it stated in a June 2020 report.
Mobilised via on-line platforms, equivalent to Twitter and Fb, the youth-led protests rocked the nation for days. The demonstrations pressured the federal government to disband SARS on October 11, however protesters refused to let up as they demanded extra governmental reforms. The protests got here to an abrupt finish after October 20, when troopers opened fireplace at a peaceable crowd on the Lekki tollgate in Lagos, in an incident that Amnesty says killed at the very least 10 individuals.
All through that interval, the youth led many efforts to organise and fundraise the motion. However maybe probably the most distinctive attribute of the protest was the prominence of younger girls in steering and sustaining the mobilisation. “Even when males would suppose they’re the only real focus of police brutality, girls had been nonetheless affected by it in very distinct methods,” stated Tami Makinde, a Nigerian feminine journalist who extensively lined the protests. “If something, we had been impressed [to come out] by our lived realities of being girls and current in a patriarchal society.”
As such, girls had been an integral a part of the protests. Like their male counterparts, girls equivalent to Okpara trooped out en masse to lend their voices to the trigger. “[Police brutality] is one thing that occurs to all people, whether or not you’re a lady or man,” she defined. “On the protest grounds, there have been so many women. Most of them are moms or sisters to [sons and] brothers who in all probability have dreadlocks, so if girls [kept] quiet about this, it [was] positively going to have an effect on them. Quite a lot of girls had been additionally being arrested [by the police].”
This can be a sentiment 22-year-old Treasure Nduka, a protester in Lagos, shares. “It felt highly effective as a result of the phrase ‘girl’ has been simply related to fragility and that’s why prehistorically they’ve made girls all the time take the backseat when it [comes] to sure issues. However seeing girls take cost and seeing as the vast majority of us had been the driving pressure behind the protest it felt like a shift in historical past and it was so stunning,” Nduka informed Al Jazeera.
Like Okpara, Nduka joined the ladies who got here out in droves to problem injustice – however that isn’t all these two girls have in frequent. Nduka was additionally among the many feminine demonstrators who had been arrested and underwent the identical therapy throughout the protests.
“They beat us they usually requested us to take away our bra, they checked our pants and searched us,” she recounted. “I used to be too shocked to understand what was occurring. You already know when you’ve got an out-of-body expertise? However like in a nasty method? That’s what it was like. I used to be identical to, ‘Is that this occurring to me?’”
Each girls had been stored in the identical cell after being assaulted and taunted by the cops. “Once I was arrested, a variety of issues went via my thoughts, as a result of nobody even knew the place I used to be,” Okpara tearfully recalled.
“We had been being crushed up; the policewomen, particularly, they had been the worst. They beat me to a degree I misplaced management of my physique and peed on myself. What they had been searching for was my telephone, as a result of they felt I had proof of the police brutality that was ongoing, so that they had been simply making an attempt to grab my telephone from me. I stored begging and pleading with them however they didn’t even reply. The extra you plead with them, the extra they hit you.”
Al Jazeera reached out to the general public relations officer of the police pressure for a remark however he responded, saying, “I used to be not within the state final yr throughout the protest so [I’m] not within the place to present the remark.”
Whereas they had been detained, a video of each girls being dragged throughout the road by the police went viral on social media, as hundreds of customers unfold the phrase of their arrest and clamoured for his or her launch. The uproar alerted Femi Gbajabiamila, speaker of the Home of Representatives, who facilitated their launch later that night time.
Greater than a yr later, the ladies are nonetheless reeling from the psychological trauma of their ordeal.
“At first I had nightmares,” Nduka stated. “And for some time, the sound of bangers startled me. I keep in mind pushing all the emotions behind and never eager to cope with the feelings as a result of I didn’t need to be a sufferer. I attempted to remain off social media as a result of nothing felt proper. Till sooner or later, I had a panic assault recounting the entire occasion. It felt like I used to be being hit once more. I needed to take a bathe to chill off.”
In one of many few concessions made by the federal government to demonstrators, the Nationwide Govt Council authorised state governments to arrange panels to analyze a long time of abuse by SARS officers. The vast majority of the panels have since been discontinued. Okpara had been attending these panel hearings judiciously, in hopes of accomplishing some type of justice.
“On the finish of every thing, the panel compensated me with a sum of 750,000 naira ($1,820). [But], I’m unsure compensation is sufficient. If the individuals who did this are nonetheless roaming on the streets, it means they’ll truly do it once more figuring out that nothing will occur.”
Their case will not be an remoted occasion as many different feminine victims of the protests are nonetheless awaiting justice to prevail, elevating questions in regards to the authorized system and who it serves.
“On the one hand, when individuals do get justice on this nation, [they] have to suit a sure typecast – male, privileged, wealthy. That’s when you’ve got the facility to bend issues in your favour. And as a lady, that’s [much] tougher to impact on this nation,” Makinde defined. “Alternatively, [these women’s cases] are only a testomony to the failing justice system. No person actually will get justice anyway.”
Nonetheless, Okpara is hopeful the legislation system will prevail. “I actually hope that issues change and legal guidelines [will be] revered and anybody who misuses his energy [will] face the legislation. I hope that sooner or later, we received’t be afraid of the Nigeria police.”