Nigeria: Caught Between Two Viral Pandemics

Nigerians are caught between two pandemics, but hope is rising.

Photo by Temitayo Aina on Unsplash

“SARS again?”

“No. not this time.”

“SARS has suddenly resurfaced to team up with COVID-19 to kill us all?”

SARS – Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome originated in China in 2002. The viral disease spread quickly throughout the world but was quickly contained. Nigeria’s SARS however predates the Chinese variant by ten years.

Fast forward to 2020, governments the world over found themselves in the agonizing throes of another viral pandemic. No nation was spared, neither was any immune. Globally, governments have been fighting the COVID-19 pandemic since its unleashing in the first quarter of 2020.

If you’re a non-Nigerian, you will be forgiven for thinking that Nigeria’s variant of SARS is the same thing as China’s SARS of 2002. Until recently, Nigeria’s SARS has been alive, well and flourishing. Because, Nigeria’s SARS is the dreaded police Special Anti-Robbery Squad.

There has never been any love lost between Nigerians and their law enforcement agencies. The enforcers even relish their unquestioned instant death power over the citizens.

SARS, the most feared of Nigeria Police Force was formed in 1992. It was mandated to deal with armed criminal acts related to robbery, motor vehicle theft, kidnapping and cattle rustling.

At its onset, Nigerians enjoyed some reprieve from armed criminals. Over the years, SARS unfortunately, transmogrified into a foreign hostile occupation force. The citizens they were ordained to protect were now seen as enemies. This is the best adduced but untenable reasons for the murderous brutality, tears and agony many Nigerians have had to endure for many years — at the hands of the police SARS. Contrary to their mandate, in the last few years, SARS has been controversially linked with endless bitter tales of extra judicial killings, extortions, framing and blackmails.

The “enough is enough” #endSARS#endSARSbrutality and #endBADgovernment protests finally broke out. In a space of less than two weeks, SARS was disbanded by the nations topmost policeman on 13 October, 2020. He replaced or renamed SARS with another outfit called SWAT — Special Weapons And Tactics.

Prior to its demise, the fear of SARS was the beginning of wisdom for ordinary law abiding citizens. The now proscribed SARS started well but quickly looked into the abyss of our hellish nation. It soon grew horns to become the nemesis of law abiding citizens.

SARS became demonized while fighting criminals. It was like every team of SARS operatives was harboring at least one of Satan’s disciples – willing executioners. These instant executioners seem to be permanently heavy on cheap hard drugs. They were unanswerable to no higher orders. Nobody was safe from their harassments.

Whoever fights monsters should see to it that in the process he does not become a monster. And when you look into the abyss, the abyss also looks into you.
Friedrich Nietzsche (1844–1900)

“Did SARS in their heydays ever do any good for Nigerians?” In my opinion, the answer is yes. Back then, in the event of any criminality, people tell you to quickly report to SARS. Last year, when my wife was robbed of her car, we were told to report to SARS. “If you report to SARS, you will surely get your car back.” We duly reported to both the “normal” police as well as the SARS police. The vehicle was eventually recovered with the help of the “normal” police channels.

Nigerian’s experience of SARS’s best has been like that of a lizard’s pooh. They do some good deeds, but like the diminutive reptile, they always besmirch their good deeds with black poisonous portions that spared none.

Many law abiding citizens have borne the brunt of their lawlessness. Then, “enough is enough”, #endSARS, #endpolicebrutality and many other similar hashtags and protests came up on the social media and in several of the nation’s major cities.

Here, we are not in a state of war. All we are crying out for is, “Buhari, please, allow us to breathe.”

In a society already characterized by a very high power distance index, all the government security agencies have a common trademark of disdain and maltreatment such as are reserved for a conquered people.

Running helter-skelter., there were no places to hide for our people. After long silence, the government finally expressed shock. Afterwards, things continued as usual.

The people, fed up and gasping for breath finally trouped out into the streets. Enough is enough”. Now SARS has been proscribed. No, not quite dead yet. SARS is rearing its head through a backdoor the government calls SWAT.

Photo by Micheal Awala on Unsplash

In 2014, while on a trip to USA, I was heading back to Oklahoma City to catch my flight back home. Winter was coming and the road was caked in thin white snow and ice. My co-worker from Malaysia had offered to drive me to Oklahoma City’s, Will Rogers World Airport. Driving conditions were risky especially for my friend who was not used to driving through sleet. On our way, I caught sight of this billboard with its unabashedly in your face caption;

Government takes from the needy and gives to the greedy.

Formerly we suffer from crime. Now we suffer from laws.

Driving at about 25 miles per hour or less, it was easy for me to see, read and commit the messages on both sides of the billboard to memory. I was scared out of safety concerns and for fear I might miss the flight. We were just not getting to the airport fast enough.

I smiled to myself as I reflectively ask my invisible American audience. “You these “spoilt for choice” Americans, you all need to come to Nigeria. If you Americans ever go through 1% of the hell we experience in Nigeria, you will come to realize that your country with all your real, imagined and self-inflicted problems is indeed as close to Utopia here on earth as any nation could be.”

My monologue of that day was the type of perception most of us from the backwoods of third world and mostly under-developing African countries like mine have of the U.S. of America. This perception has not changed. Despite its own efforts at grappling with racial problems, America is still the land of hope for many.

Photo by Author travelling along an Oklahoman road in 2013

Today, in Nigeria, formerly, we suffer from criminals. Now we suffer due to bad government and (until its proscription) police SARS.

Here, we and our government seem to be more adept at taking two or more steps backwards for every step of progress made. Thus, what we have here is a disorderly illusion of progress.

We all are suffering from the misgovernment that has been our common unmitigated misfortune. The officers of the Nigeria Police Force are suffering no less either. Sadly, they seemed obverse to the tragedy that has been the lot of us all. They seem to derive morbid satisfaction such as the wooden handle of an axe that is gladly ready to cut down the trees of the forest.

Many of the SARS operatives are no different from drug-warlords in the way they frighten everybody. Armed with weapons and the government seal, SARS operatives have ended the lives of many Nigerians especially young people in summary executions style.

In Nigeria of today, young people are an endangered species because of SARS. If you sport dreadlocked hairstyles, tattooed, wear an earring, carry a condom on you carry a ten years old laptop, first generation iPhone or any other glitzy gadget, you’re not just a suspect in their eyes.

Before these killer squads that are oftentimes high on cheap drugs, you have been tried and will face the executioner among them unless you’re ready to part with a huge chunk of money.

“This is why we protest. SARS must end.” Neither should it be reborn by any other name. Social sociologists may not be wrong to suspect that the Nigerian Police Force in their Machiavellian tactics of fighting evil with evil deliberately recruited, ex-criminals, drug addicts and sociopaths into their ranks. This is the only explanation that suffices to explain the horrors that Nigerians have been enduring from SARS through all these past years. Now, things have entirely fallen apart and the falcon can no longer hear the falconer (a la Professor Chinua Achebe’s, Things Fall Apart). You may not be wrong to assert that the law enforcement agencies are no longer answerable to their boss or the overall boss of all bosses in our country — PMB himself.

My young lady’s sobs broke my heart

Less than two weeks before the proscription of SARS, two of my children in their early twenties told me of another of our rising tales of woes. I listened to their complaints and apprehensions and I shudder at what the future holds for them.

COVID-19 led to schools closure and we have been all hunkering down at home for over six months. Junior and high schools reopened in the first and second week of October after six months closure. The university campuses are still closed. The lecturers are still on strike over demands for better conditions of service.

Photo by Tobi Oshinnaike on Unsplash

Not far from where we live, a young man was brutally murdered by a trigger happy SARS police officer less than two weeks ago (first week of October 2020). I listened to my young lady who was at the scene of the incident. She was there to help in her mum’s groceries shop.

“Daddy you need to see him. This elderly man, the father of the boy SARS killed. Rivers of tears were just streaming down his eyes freely. He had no strength to weep again.”

“The young man was left to bleed and die by the SARS policeman that shot him. The onlookers told the policemen that the young man was innocent, but they, the SARS police will not hear.”

“When the people at the scene asked the police to let them take the bleeding victim to the hospital for treatment of the gun shot wounds, the SARS policemen refused.”

They threatened any onlooker who dare to take their bleeding victim for treatment at a nearby hospital.

These type of policemen, only God knows where they came from. They are no different from armed robbers.

I don’t think these people are actual policemen. A right thinking human being will not just waste another human life. Just like that

They watched the hapless young man as his life’s blood drained out of him. After a while, they bundled him into the back of their truck and drove off. The young man died before he could receive any treatment.

“The father of the murdered boy lamented. He said he had escaped from the warfront of Boko Haram in the North only for his son to be murdered in his own backyard in Port Harcourt (in the South) by those who ought to protect him.”

My heart has bled every time I recount this and other woes recounted by my own children. This was what prompted me to write. You may think that, I am very bold, courageous and unafraid. I am sorry to say, I am non of these. I am just thoroughly annoyed. Because, enough is enough.

I can hear you asking, “Are you going to destroy your life by becoming enmeshed in Nigeria’s jungle style politics and #endSARS wahala (troubles)?” My reply is. “No, not yet and not likely ever.” I am just fed-up with the way things are going. And I truly wish and pray to God that more and more Nigerians get pis*ed off with the pace of things here.”

What made it so bad is as in Hannah Arendt’s The Banality of Evil – Eichmann in Jerusalem, is that all these police brutalities, the government’s recklessness, misgovernment and bad policies keep coming in wearisome trickles.

We keep on adjusting to all evils and all government’s farabales (calm down, calm down) until we are completely swallowed up by them. This last week, Nigerians said enough is enough and SARS was vanquished.

My young adults have been hunkering down at home not for fear of COVID-19, but to minimize risks of SARS encounters.

Photo by Ayodeji Alabi on Unsplash

… even as my young man also lamented

  • “They arrest, tattooed, unkempt or rough looking young boys and girls.”
  • “Daddy, they just came to our campus gate and rounded up students.”
  • “If you are using any shiny cheap Android phone or even the oldest iPhone, they just round you up and accuse you of being an internet fraudster.”
  • “Tell me, how can you expect university students not to carry laptops and mobile phones?”
  • “ … they caught a guy with condom on him. They immediately accused him of being a rapist.”
  • “At Uniport, they will routinely round-up unsuspecting students and ask them to cough out sums of N10,000 or more for their bail otherwise they will be charged as internet scammers.”
  • “If you can’t get someone to pick your call, you will just rot away in their detention cells or they can even waste your life — summary execution style.”
  • “Can you imagine this? If SARS catch a young man driving his father’s car they can detain him for no just cause.”
  • “If you forget to carry your driver’s license on you, they accuse you of being a car snatcher. No appeal.”
  • “Look at them, some of them are no different from illicit drugs users.”
  • “Is it not madness for a policeman to slap someone who is old enough to be his father or mother?”
  • “How can they treat their fellow humans that way if not that they are licensed gun trotting drug addicts to whom human lives are worthless?”
  • “At Uniport, a student in our off-campus hostel who made money via Forex and crypto currency trading was arrested by SARS. He was framed up from envious fellow-students as a yahoo yahoo boy (internet fraudster). He had to bail himself from SARS detention after parting with an unspecified amount of money.”
  • “If you are caught by SARS, you are guilty as charged. They won’t release you until you or your parents cough out thousands of naira to bail you. Woe betide you if you don’t have any money on you then. If nobody comes for you, then your own don finish be that.”
  • “If they catch you with an expensive phone you are in for big trouble.”
  • “If they see the picture of a white man on your phone, you are instantly accused of being an internet fraudster.”
  • “When they pick you up, the first thing they do is to force you to unlock your phone at gunpoint. They check your online banking alerts. They ask how you managed to get the money in your account. I always delete all my online banking transactions from my phone all the time. I pray never to enter their wahala (trouble).”
  • “If you carry out any transactions on your phone you must delete the bank alert or else if SARS seize your phone and see such records, they will force you to part with huge sums of money before they release you.”
  • “If any of your person is missing or returning home later than expected and you can not hear from them, chances are that they are being held by SARS police under spurious charges.”
  • “Though unconfirmed, there has been some allegations that when SARS stop and search your phone and they see #endSARSnow hashtags or pictures on your social media trails. They will just shoot you.”
  • “The situation is so bad that if you are driving on a road, you will occasionally hear other drivers warning you against using a particular route because SARS police are stationed further ahead along that particular route.”
  • “These SARS police were meant to protect us from criminals. But Nigerians are more afraid of SARS than criminals.”
  • “Tell me what is wrong about staging peaceful protests to express our sufferings? They just want us to shut-up and keep on pretending all is well in spite of all our sufferings.”
  • “A bag of rice was selling for N15,000 to N18,000 when he came into power. Now a bag of rice sells for more than N32,000. How are we going to survive?”
  • “Everybody in government is hypocritically screaming BLM, Black Lives Mater, but here at home, they want us to keep mute, hushed up when we all know that everything is not OK.”
  • “They want us to keep pretending that all is well when all is not well.
  • “They shamelessly send killer squads after harmless citizens when they ought to be fighting Boko Haram and all the other terrorists in our country.”
  • “The lives of other Nigerians mean nothing to them because most of them have their children and families hiding abroad.”
  • And yet more heartbreaking stories.

High handed extortion and oppression of innocent law abiding citizens was the order of the day during SARS. No one was spared. In their droves, Nigerians who could afford to are running away from their own country. Not just to escape from economic hardships. This country is just unsafe.

All through a checkered period of over forty years, I cannot remember anytime there has been cause for sustained hope in this nation.

Even though I never voted for this party, I never believed that things could get this bad in this dispensation. But this is the “monsterdom” that Nigeria has become right under “Sai Baba’s” watch.

“That this public angst is coming from the Presidency, our Presidency, years after citizens have been subjected to untold barbaric treatment, theft under gunpoint, harassment, extra-judicial killings and maiming by those paid to protect them is a glaring exemplification of the disconnect between the government and the governed.”\

Photo by Muhammadtaha Ibrahim Ma’aji on Unsplash

Afterword: Of hope

I don’t know if I should weep or be afraid. Today, 13 October 2020, my daughter of mercy and peace said that she felt like going to join the #endSARS protests. Do you know that I wasn’t alarmed at her request?

My young lady was telling me she was fed up with being cowered and living in fear. I told her to go ahead and join the protesters. My only words of caution were, “Just try and stay safe and don’t do any violence.”

We’ve been watching Facebook video clips of Aisha Yesufu leading the protests against SARS police and we were inspired to join. Eventually, none of us went for the protests.

I called her mum to tell her what her daughter was nursing. She will rather not have any of such talks. I said, “OK, when you come home we talk about it. See, we cannot just be squatting at home while expecting only #AishatYesufu to lead the struggle o.”

Presciently, the day before, the whole family were waiting while their dinner was being processed. I had told them and their mum that when girls, ladies and women like Aisha Yesufu (and others) begin to rise up to lead our struggles, then, know that deliverance is near. I pray that day speed on to us.

That is why my heart was warmed with joyful hope when my fragile gentle girl said she felt like going to join the #endSARS protests. I told her, “Please go ahead.” And I wasn’t afraid for my beloved girl.

Am I afraid? Yes of course I am. I am even more afraid for my girl and her brothers. The only ones who are not afraid for themselves and for our country can only be Nigerians wishfully living in fools’ paradise.

Can you believe this? My daughter, of all people was contemplating joining the protests. And me too, even me? Me, of all people?

When I recounted this story to a lifelong friend of over forty years, he burst into tears. He knew me right from childhood. Involvement in protests are not my natural disposition. He told me he was short of words.

He wept for his children, for himself and for our dear country. Fourteen years ago, he had shunned a golden opportunities to emigrate away from his country. Does he have any regrets now? Yes … and No! May the will of God prevail.

I told my young people we are going nowhere even though ours is a government that will force doves to become hawks. We are staying here to fight and slug it out. Whatever and wherever that may lead to, I don’t know. So help me (us) God. Amen.

Photo by David Olubaji on Unsplash

Yet more hope rising

Another friend sent this message.
“Hmm, this was exactly what happened in my house. My only son called me and said mummy I would like to go for the protest march.

Being the only boy in the midst of five girls, I said, no, please sir. You are my only son, and the baby of the family. You are always claiming to be the senior.

He said mummy, this is our own generation, citizens of your generation are too peaceful, I am sure if you have been uncomfortable with what our rulers have been doing all those years, we will not be where we are today. If everyone is protecting their children not to go out for the protest marches, then, who will fight for us?

I was short of words to reply him. The next thing he said was, “then, I will represent the family being the last born. After all David killed Goliath.” He and her sisters went for the protest march.

The protest in Port Harcourt was peaceful. At the end of the day, they returned feeling fulfilled. Excited at their not so weeny efforts, they said “at least we can tell our unborn children that we were part of the change in our time, good morning.”

“Many of our youth believe our society is unfair, unjust and not worth their commitment and dedication – even patriotism! We are making future monsters today, educated, tech-savvy monsters that will make tomorrow a nightmare. Instead of nationhood we are busy building a monsterdom.”

All it takes for evil to persists is a handful vocal minority of “useful idiots” who call good evil good and good evil. From top to down Nigeria is overloaded with useful idiots who keep shouting “Sai Baba” while willfully hiding their heads in the sands, seeing no evil, hearing no evil and always pretending that all is well and getting better for our troubled country.

The way forward

The police and whatever rises up from the ashes of SARS must know that Nigerians are not fighting them — the police. After all, we are all suffering together. For the police and their SARS or SWAT to rise against the citizen’s protests is like flogging a child and expecting him not to cry. Only psychopaths do that.

They will rather have all Nigerians muted when the truth of our daily experience is that we have not fared better in this dispensation.

We must not leave the fight for the likes of Aisha Yesufu alone. Prayers are good and God has tried too much for us in this country. But we must all rise and scream out, “enough is enough” and then proceed with peaceful protests, the like that ended SARS.

Ordinary docile peaceful people who never thought of joining any peaceful protest are getting fed up. The government response of one gradual step forward and two instant steps backwards must stop.

No one should be under any illusion that Nigerians were merely calling for a cosmetic end to the police SARS that the government willy-nilly want to reintroduce through the backdoor they called SWAT.

If not anything at all, in the words of Pastor Sam Adeyemi, “these protests mark the ascent of the beachhead of the cry for an end to misgovernment.”

For the vast majority, life in today’s Nigeria is like living inexorably in the precincts of Dante’s Inferno.

“Abandon hope all ye who enter here.”
~ From Dante’s Inferno, (being the inscription at the gate of hell).

In parting

The first reaction of a typical Nigerian to any foreboding is to retort, “God forbid it. It is not my portion.” There is nothing that the Lord God Almighty hasn’t already done for us in this country. We all know that “God don try more than enough for us.” Let us all start trying for ourselves.

In Nigeria, many of our people preferred being smitten with collective amnesia of present and past malgovernance. These days, fire is flaring up in the hearts of our hungry people and very angry youth.

That the smoking embers never burst into flames that will consume us here, all Nigerians will quickly exclaim, “God forbid it.” Let Buhari and his handlers forbid it as well.

I wrote this story following the #endSARS protests that rocked the nation in 2020. Since then, Nigeria is still tottering. Connect and share your insights. Thanks for reading.