Nigerian students at UCF are reeling from a compounded emotional toll as they find themselves sandwiched between the Black Lives Matter anti-police brutality movement and EndSARS, a similar movement back home.
EndSARS is a grassroots, youth-led movement in Nigeria calling for the disbandment of the African nation’s Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS), which has been accused of killing innocent Nigerians and the reformation of the country's police force.
The EndSARS movement picked up traction after the killings of George Floyd and Rayshard Brooks by sparking a conversation about police brutality and protests across the country and overseas.
SARS, established in 1992, has been accused of abuses of power, violence and theft by activists. A presidential committee tasked with identifying reforms for the police force acknowledged that officers engaged in "corrupt and illegal activities" in a 2006 report.
Wariku Semenitari, a junior transfer student majoring in biotechnology and in her first semester at UCF, has had her own encounter with Nigeria’s police force. At six years old, Semenitari was in a car with her brother driving when the police pulled them over. She said they tried to offer the officers all the money they had on them. Instead, after slamming her brother on the car’s hood, the police took their car and left them on the side of the road.
Though the movements have their similarities, they have key differences in what they are demanding — one of which is funding. Many Black Lives Matter demonstrators want funds to be diverted from the police to social services, while EndSARS protestors want an increase of funding for the police. They believe a lot of the corruption in the force is a result of low wages. Some UCF international students from Nigeria say living through these simultaneous movements in response to Black people's killings has been both agonizing and harrowing.
"Having both at the same time just feels like more pain of the same thing," said Isaie-David Abakasanga, a junior electrical engineering major and the African Student Organization’s secretary. "It's just the same thing going on and on. So I say it's very like what it's like for one it is for two, it's very painful to think about."
Maryjoan al-Jarrah, a junior health sciences major and resident assistant, said of police brutality, “It’s mentally draining because you always think about what if this happens to someone I love.”
Police killings of unarmed Black people have adverse effects on the mental health of Black people living in the United States in a “meaningful” way, according to a 2018 University of Pennsylvania study. There is a “need to implement public health programs that mitigate adverse mental health spillover effects within these communities when police killings of unarmed black Americans do occur,” according to the study. The study inquired about different kinds of mental health effects, including different types of stress.
Al-Jarrah said she copes by talking with those who understand what she is going through because it makes her feel that she was not alone in her fear.
“It’s just too much for one person to grasp,” al-Jarrah said.
These students, and the young people in Nigeria leading the EndSARS movement, support social media users and prominent figures. The #EndSARS hashtag has trended on Twitter worldwide multiple times since the summer, and many users have included it in their names or bios. Rihanna, Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey and former U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton have shared messages of support.
Al-Jarrah said she is “so happy” with the support people have given the movement on social media because it is raising awareness, and “everything has been coming out of the hidden rock.”
Bending under international pressure, Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari issued a directive on Oct. 11 to “dissolve” SARS and redeploy the squad’s officers. However, many Nigerian activists do not feel this move is good enough to curb police brutality in Africa’s most populated country, with an announcement on social media "Phase II" of their movement kicks off this week.
“As a citizen, I need to see some proof of actual reformation,” Abakasanga said. “Changing the name and the uniform is not enough.”
Activists continued to demonstrate for more significant reforms, such as establishing an independent panel to probe and prosecute abuses of power and compensate victims. During an Oct. 20 protest, just nine days after Buhari announced his directive, the Nigerian military opened fire on demonstrators on its major Lekki toll gate. The Nigerian army soon after denied being present.
Abakasanga said his dad, who lives 15 minutes away from the thoroughfare, has been unable to leave his home to purchase cough medicine because the country's military blocked the roads near him. Held up at home, he could hear gunshots coming from the toll gate on the night of the protest.
The following day, President-elect Joe Biden, then the Democratic presidential nominee, released a statement saying, “My heart goes out to all those who have lost a loved one in the violence. The United States must stand with Nigerians who are peacefully demonstrating for police reform and seeking an end to corruption in their democracy.”
Over the month following the shooting, the Nigerian army gradually backtracked its claims, admitted to being at the toll gate and shooting live rounds.
Though Nigeria is a predominately Black society, Abakasanga said their experiences should not be discounted as the stereotyping of those who sport tattoos, style their hair in twists, or wear earrings are typically targeted, Abakasanga explained.
Semenitari said some had discounted her connection with Black Lives Matter because she is foreign-born, but she said it is not about the national origin but race.
Being so far from home has left some of these students and their relatives back home feeling powerless.
“Back home, I couldn't do anything to help the situation because I’m here right now in school,” al-Jarrah said. “I felt so helpless.”
Instead, al-Jarrah said she donated to causes supporting Black Lives Matter and spreading awareness after seeking her friends' advice on helping in the U.S.
“If anything happens to me, my dad cannot do anything; he may not even know,” Abakasanga said. “It may just be a case he calls me, and I don’t pick up, and he gets worried, and someone announces this has happened to your son.”
Though the students have hope with increasing awareness and activism things can get better, they say the inaction to rein in police brutality is disheartening and may make matters worse.
“Having lived in different places where democracy doesn’t matter when you have ongoing issues, and you let them steep for very long, things like George Floyd and much worse happens,” Semenitari said. She said watching the video of the officer keeping his knee on Floyd’s neck for over eight minutes reminded her of third world countries the U.S. storms into to save.
“I really hope the world gets better,” Abakasanga said. “I really do, because the world we live in right now is not the world that I would want.”