Justice is a criminal getting a deserving sentence. Justice is releasing innocent people from captivity. Justice is feeling safe in your own home. And for some crying out to the world in peaceful anguish, justice is simply — as two students 6,508 miles away from home put it — being recognized as people again.
Northwest’s 18 Nigerian students watched from afar as widespread protests ensued in their home country against an invasive, brutal police force. The Special Anti-Robbery Squad, a division of Nigeria’s police which has been somewhat disbanded, faced accusations of severe brutality against citizens they are supposed to serve.
Two Northwest students who experienced harassment firsthand, Edidong Idong-Bassey and Uhoman Moltok, said the time for an influential movement garnering international protests against SARS is long overdue.
“I think everyone has been harassed or stopped by SARS in Nigeria. It’s just a common thing,” Idong-Bassey said.
The movement, known as #EndSARS on social media, is supported worldwide, with leaders of nations and celebrities alike speaking out against violence by SARS. These acts of violence include accusations of robbery and kidnapping, prolonged detainment and terrorizing the country’s youth population.
Idong-Bassey, of Lagos, Nigeria, and Moltok, of Abuja, Nigeria, are part of a generation advocating for systemic change in their nation’s government. They share a prospering friendship that began at Northwest’s freshman orientation, which helped guide the international juniors through a semester when tension is rising at home.
While their roles in government protests are limited to social media engagement and outreach for now, they said they are honored to take part in the ongoing battle for ending oppression and violence from a force they are supposed to be able to trust.
“In the end, they’re just terrorists. They don’t actually value the lives of Nigerian citizens,” Idong-Bassey said. “People can be stopped at any time; their properties can be taken, and they can be detained as long as the police want.”
Moltok said the problem of their nation disbanding SARS is twofold: first, that it led to the implementation of SWAT, a new force composed of some of the same police who terrorized citizens, and thus second, it did not go far enough to allow for systemic change.
The alleged disbandment does not hold up as legitimate for the youth of Nigeria like it did for generations before them, Idong-Bassey said. The outspoken issue of #EndSARS has been ongoing since at least 2017, with the Nigerian government promising legitimate change in 2017, 2018, 2019 and earlier this year.
Accusations of harassment go even beyond those four years, though. An extension of violent policing into Nigerian communities became the effect of a mismanaged fight against crime that began in 1992. The country’s youth largely lead today’s protests, calling out their government, which has pledged to end SARS in the past.
After more than a decade of brutality and harassment overwhelming the West African nation divided between those who abused power and those calling for systemic change, Moltok and Idong-Bassey are delighted to see the same citizens who were once otherwise dormant erupt against police violence.
Moltok and Idong-Bassey frequently call relatives who are seeing events unfold firsthand. Unlike international news agencies, which cannot provide the two Northwest students finite details, Moltok’s cousin Ayisa, who lives in Lagos, Nigeria, could.
“What’s the point of the protests if we keep going out and getting shot? They are not doing what we are asking,” Ayisa said.
The chilling reality that the Nigerian government fired into a crowd of peaceful protesters reiterated the importance of the movement for Ayisa. She wanted to attend the protests in person, but her parents felt it was not safe for her to go.
Ayisa and Moltok spoke on the phone frequently as protests were reaching their peak in October. Ayisa told Moltok that protesters were so peaceful; people came together with the goal to speak diplomatically about issues.
Protesters, Moltok said, even cleaned up any litter in the area before they left.
In hindsight, Ayisa said she is thankful for her safety and the opportunity to help inform others on social media — primarily Twitter — where a goal of the Nigerian youth was to keep #EndSARS trending.
Ayisa told her cousin Moltok that in-person protests have reduced since the military killed protestors and the implementation of a curfew in Lagos, Nigeria, that limited citizens to only leave their homes between 6 a.m. and 10 p.m.
Even as the curfew has since been lifted, the movement protesting their government as a whole has continued more heavily on social media and via door-to-door canvassing throughout various states.
The overarching message protestors and political activists are pushing is the advocacy for younger and new individuals in leadership positions.
“The minister of youth is 50-something. It doesn’t make sense. We need young people in power. People who don’t have to survive on drugs,” Moltok said.
Her cousin Ayisa agreed. While Nigeria operates in a federal republic system inspired by the United States, citizens like Ayisa are speaking out on perceived corruption from not only a brutal police force but also politicians who allow it to operate.
While Nigeria’s government made a transition from dictatorship and military control to a citizen elected presidency in the 1990s, the goal of representation of Nigeria’s diverse groups seems to leave out one category of people according to Idong-Bassey: the youth.
Now, with a movement reaching nations across the world, Nigeria, Idong-Bassey said, could be facing conversations that go deeper than SARS — a revolution for justice and fixing a broken system of governing.
“Whenever the Nigerian government feels the heat of the international community, things actually change. Unfortunately that’s what’s happening back home,” Idong-Bassey said.
Even with a movement outing deeply rooted issues in their government, Idong-Bassey and Moltok both miss home. They miss the good things about Nigeria that make them feel whole. Of these, they mentioned the comfort of food with spice that American’s probably couldn’t handle and the collective mindset of Nigerian culture.
It was apparent, Moltok said, that the violence was no longer an exception to the rule — it was life. It was normal. And at the peak of an outcry, two Nigerian Bearcats can’t wait to get home.
While they have grown to enjoy Northwest and Maryville, the imminent role they will play in the movement to go beyond ending SARS weighs on their hearts. Because justice, perhaps, is simply defined as people like Moltok and Idong-Bassey, who see injustice anywhere and speak out on it.