Announcer: Hey, just a warning before we get started: this episode of Resistance deals with some heavy themes and has some strong language in it. We’ll get started right after this short break.
Saidu Tejan-Thomas Jr.: Hey, Joel?
Joel: Hey, how you doing?
Saidu: Good, man. How are you?
Joel: Fine, thank you.
Saidu: This is Joel. He’s a 25 year old living in Lagos, Nigeria. Recently, I saw that people were protesting out there. They were protesting against a notorious unit of the Nigerian police, called SARS—that’s short for Special Anti-Robbery Squad. But Joel tells me that what he usually sees this special anti-robbery squad doing is robbing people.
Saidu: Have you ever had any personal experience with the SARS police?
Joel: Ha, yes. Someone like me? I have tattoos. Sometimes I dye my hair. I use an iPhone. You don't even have to have anything incriminating on your phone. Once they just see that you have—you use an iPhone, it's just like a sign of—it's like a sign of affluence here.
Saidu: Joel remembers this one time when he and his friends went out for the night. His friend's uncle owns a car dealership, so they borrowed one of the cars—a really nice Mercedes. But while they were out, they got stopped by SARS.
Joel: So we're stopped, and then they asked all of us to come down. And they started questioning us one after the other, like what we do for a living to be able to afford this kind of vehicle.
Saidu: He says when SARS asks you this type of question, it doesn’t really matter how you respond.
Joel: Whatever they say your crime is what your crime is. There's nothing you can explain to those people, it will always fall on deaf ears, 100 percent, because they are not interested in the explanation per se. And then the next thing, slap! Beaten, handcuffed, straight.
Joel: If you don't want to be met with that kind of fate, you just have to pay them off.
Saidu: Okay, so what did you guys do that day?
Joel: That day we paid. We paid. They'll negotiate with you according to what your account balance is like.
Saidu: So that day, did they look at your bank account? Did they look at everyone's bank account?
Joel: Everyone's bank. You unlock your phone, you unlock your phone, enter your bank app, put the password. They will see everything.
Saidu: Joel tells me that young people in Nigeria really have to hustle for every dime they make. They play music in people’s churches. If they know how to code, they develop apps on contract, and if they’re lucky enough to buy a car, they drive Uber. But he says when they do this stuff, when they manage to make a little change in a country where there aren’t that many ways to get by, they can get targeted by SARS.
Joel: They'll move around with POS.
Saidu: What is that?
Joel: Point of sale. Like this thing you people have in stores where you buy something and swipe your card.
Saidu: What? The credit card swipe thing?
Joel: Yes. Yes. It's common.
Joel: They'll tell you what to press when they see your balance. Like we find as we go raise money de house. Sorry, you're not Nigerian. I don't know if you're Nigerian.
Joel: No, I—Sierra Leone. I speak the pidgin. [continues in pidgin]
Joel: Oh, okay. Okay. So the guy was like, [inaudible] money for this guy, before this thing go down to another thing for here. And then we just tried to [inaudible] the guy himself, only him, dropped 70,000 naira.
Saidu: Joel tells me that his friend who was driving the Benz that day had to pay 70,000 naira, which is roughly $200, and Joel had to pay the equivalent of $20, which for both of them is a lot of money.
Joel: All they just want is money. It's like a plague in the police force. The love for money is something else.
Joel: It's like—it's like it's in the uniform. I don't understand.
Saidu: Picturing cops walking around with credit card machines was wild to me. But aside from that detail, it wasn’t all that different from my experience growing up in West Africa, in Sierra Leone. Back home, it was common to see police walking around with assault rifles, and it wouldn’t be a surprise to anyone if they tried to extort you for money. Bribery is kind of normal in West Africa. It’s like having to wait in line at the DMV here in the States. It’s a big pain, but you just deal with it. You pay your fees and you just grumble about it later. It’s not something you think is ever actually gonna change.
Saidu: But SARS police in Nigeria have become notorious for going beyond bribery. Since 2017, Amnesty International has documented at least 82 cases of torture and abuse by SARS officers. And people arrested by SARS report being taken to torture chambers where they’re beated, tied up and starved. They say not everyone makes it out alive. And most of the victims are young people around Joel’s age.
Saidu: For years, young people In Nigeria have been saying "Fuck this. This isn’t normal. The police are dangerous, they’re killing us, and this is not what we want for our country." And then in October, thousands of people flooded Nigeria’s cities in protest. All of a sudden, everybody who’d been saying "Fuck this" to themselves, started saying it together.
Joel: The whole system is in deep rot. Like, from the very, very head to the least person in government. Like, everybody, everyone, everyone, everyone of them, every single one of them corrupt. They will try to silence us in every manner perceivable. I can almost bet my life. It's been like this since I was born, believe me. So it's going to be a really tough and long fight.
Saidu: But you guys are gonna keep fighting anyway.
Saidu: On today’s episode, I talk to Nigerians who know for a fact that there’s gonna be a long fight ahead of them, and there’s gonna be a whole lot of people and obstacles trying to get in their way. But they’re fighting anyway.
Saidu: I’m Saidu Tejan Thomas Jr., and this is Resistance—a show about people refusing to accept things as they are.
Saidu: So the protests started in Nigeria to end SARS, but they’ve become much bigger than that. And as they got bigger, they attracted a lot of people who want to see change in the country they love.
Fey: Lagos, oh! Everything is in Lagos, bruv. That’s what I can tell you. Lagos, ooh! I love Lagos so much. The spirit of Lagos just shakes you with its hand and is like, welcome. You feel the energy, it pulses. Lagos is alive. Like, Lagos is alive.
Saidu: This is Fey. She’s 24 years old, and she grew up in Lagos, Nigeria. When I hit her up, we were supposed to be talking about the End SARS movement, but first she wanted to tell me about her city.
Fey: So Lagos is heat, the smell of food. So, like, jollof rice, boli—that's like roasted plantain. Smell of exhaust fumes, 'cause traffic and a lot of cars. And the sounds of, like, traffic, honking, hooting. Somebody's swearing at somebody in yoruba. There's a lot of humans, that's the thing. So you feel it. There's a heat that comes not just from, like, the sun, but from, like, so many bodies in a place. Yeah. And so when you smell jollof rice, or you smell boli and you smell exhaust fumes, you get thirsty. So without even knowing, Lagos pushes you to start, like, interacting with the traders, because it's a city of trade. Do you understand what I'm trying to say? It's electric.
Saidu: One of the reasons Fey has so much love for Lagos is because she has so many great memories there—of growing up, making friends, and getting into all kinds of trouble. It’s also where she had her first crush.
Saidu: Tell me a story about the first girl that you liked, that you, like, had a crush on.
Fey: [laughs] Are you sure you want to know?
Saidu: Come on, tell me. Tell me.
Fey: I say no.
Saidu: No, no. Hey, my sistah, come on now.
Fey: [laughs] First things first. Do you—I don't know if you guys—if you guys ever played this mommy and daddy game. Children’s first introduction to patriarchal versions of, like, cis-heteronormative, like, romantic commitments. Did you ever play that mommy and daddy game? One child is the mommy, one child is the daddy.
Saidu: Oh, yes. Yes, yes, yes, yes, for sure. Definitely.
Fey: I was always the daddy. Look at me. I was always the daddy. I had two wives, two wives. It’s not easy.
Saidu: Fey liked to pretend that she was a village chief with many wives. And like a village chief, there was always one wife that was her favorite, her main jawn. Her name was Gift.
Fey: She was so pretty. I was obsessed with her. I dropped all my other wives for her. She lived about three houses to the right of our house. There are some persons you meet, they’re quiet. Their aura is quiet. And their quiet aura just calms you down. I used to be a very playful child, I’d be around Gift and I’d just be super calm. She always used to let me hold her hands, so I really liked to see her. My parents were having a lot of issues with their marriage, so any opportunity to step out of the house and play with her meant a lot to me, because I could get some form of, like, calmness from Gift.
Saidu: As Fey got older, she had other relationships like the one she had with Gift. She would sleep over at their houses talking 'til late at night. She would always be there when they needed her. And she called these relationships friendships. But looking back, she knows that for her, they were more than that.
Fey: Paying somebody’s bills and rent is not just friendship, dear. Staying up for two hours staring at their naked best friend is not just friendship, dear. If I was to go back in time and talk to myself, I would tap her on the shoulder. "Girl, don’t do that ever again, do you understand?"
Saidu: Now that she’s in her 20s, Fey is very open about being queer. But it took her all of her life to own that part of her identity, to say to herself that she’s bi. When she was growing up, she saw queer people, but they were always the ones being pushed out of the community, or ex-communicated by their family. She knew then what she still knows today, it’s hella dangerous to be queer in Nigeria.
Saidu: Like, say you want to hold hands with your partner in public? You can be arrested for that. Or maybe you want to spend time together inside at a gay club. Well by law, those can’t exist. And if you and your partner are caught having sex in one of 12 northern states in Nigeria, the maximum punishment is literally death by stoning. Fey says living under that kind of threat of violence has basically made queer people invisible in the country.
Fey: Nobody talks about it. Everybody excommunicates their lesbian auntie, do you understand what I mean? Nobody talks about them, but then people can make very disparaging remarks about them, like, unprovoked. You're having a good time, and then some guy you think is cute just drops homophobia or biphobia. Like, he just drops it like it’s hot.
Saidu: But despite how difficult and dangerous it is for queer people to be visible in Nigeria, they’ve been at the very front of the End SARS protests. When we come back, what it’s like to risk it all for what you believe.
[ARCHIVE CLIP, Matthew Blaise: Queer lives matter! Queer lives matter! Queer lives matter!]
Saidu: A few days into the End SARS protests in Nigeria, this video went viral on twitter. It’s of an activist named Matthew Blaise, yelling "Queer lives matter" at the top of his lungs in the middle of a march. He’s wearing a black crop top and black pants. He looks unafraid, and he’s loud as hell. Fey told me that queer people are rendered invisible in Nigeria, but for a while now they’ve been fighting to be seen and heard. They’ve been trying to bring attention to their experiences with the police and the different ways their queerness makes them more vulnerable.
Saidu: Fey’s heard countless stories of queer folks getting stopped by cops for being too feminine or masculine. Or getting arrested because cops accused them of being sex workers. They’re made to feel like they don’t belong in their own country. And when they go out to protest this kind of harassment from the police, they’re told they don’t belong at the protests either. Fey told me this one story about a young woman who was out protesting in Abuja, Nigeria’s capital. The woman was waving a Queer Lives Matter sign when other End SARS protesters essentially pushed her out of the group, telling her that there was no place for queer lives matter at a protest about police brutality. And on top of all that, someone later outed the woman to her family.
Fey: The family sent a long-ass message threatening her and everything, and how she's a disgrace. No longer can she use their name. They’d rather kill her. It was disgusting to read. It was very disgusting. I'd never felt that much fear and disgust at the same time. This is after working all day in the rain and the sun to fight with other Nigerians, for Nigerians. One Nigerian, thought, "Hmm, I don't want to share this struggle. I don't want to recognize other person’s experience. I don't want to mix with—" it's that selfishness of not making space for other people that irks me. It doesn't cost you anything. There’s so much space in the world. Shift, shift, leave the road. Let the road pass. Leave the road. It is so inhumane. It pisses me off. And if me shouting it every day is going to make it go, huh, I might as well lose my voice.
Saidu: Fey likes to call herself a keyboard warrior. That means there’s two things she’s really good at: tweeting when she’s mad; and as she puts it, "collecting money for the gays." So after she saw the video of queer people being attacked at protests, she unleashed her twitter fingers and went to work.
Fey: And I said, "What protesters need is safe houses where they can sleep, money for food, transportation, and credit for their phones while they’re out protesting."
Saidu: She hit send on the tweet and went to sleep.
Fey: And I woke up and then my mentions were on fire. Yes. Safe house. Safe house. Safe house. People went to my DMs. Safe house. We need details. How do we do this? I'm like yo, yo, yo. Just, calm down. It's just one tweet.
Saidu: But of course, people on Twitter wouldn’t calm down. It was too good of an idea, too necessary. So one of them slid into Fey’s DMs to make the case. They said, "Look, we could just book people into hotels until they’re safe to leave, then we could give them money for food and transportation." And that was it. Their organization, called Safehquse was born.
Fey: Basically, this safe house is running because of the hard work and fundraising of Black, queer women around the world, especially those of Nigerian descent. I need to put it out there for the world to know. And I stand these women like, wow, this support I cannot forget in my life.
Saidu: One of the first people to use Safehquse was a 22-year-old queer college student named Kokoma. She tells me she was out in the streets every day since the protests started, wearing anything with a rainbow on it.
Kokoma: If I don't go in the morning, I'll go in the night. If I don’t go in the night, I’ll go in the morning, because queer life matters.
Saidu: On October 20th, Kokoma went to a protest in Lekki, a suburb of Lagos. Thousands of people had gathered to peacefully protest SARS at a tollgate. And at some point, they started singing the Nigerian National Anthem. It was nighttime. Some of them were wrapped in green and white flags to show their love for Nigeria. While the protest was going on, the Governor announced a curfew. Nigerian soldiers arrived at the toll gate with guns. Suddenly everything went dark.
Kokoma: They switched off the lights. They switched off the lights. They take away the cameras. What I heard was a gunshot.
Saidu: Kokoma and a lot of people who were there that day, said the army opened fire on the protesters. The army denies this, but there's a video that literally shows men in military fatigues shooting into the crowd. You can hear in this video, protesters kept singing the national anthem, even as they were being shot at.
Kokoma: That was the first time I’ve experienced gunshots in my life. I was just praying. I was just praying. At least God can give me one chance to live.
Saidu: People started scrambling to escape. In all the chaos, Kokoma fell and people were trampling over her, so she decided she'd just stay on the ground and not move until the gunshots stopped. She was one of many people who were injured that night. It's been reported that at least 10 people died at what is now known as the Lekki Tollgate Massacre.
Saidu: After Kokoma managed to escape, a friend put her in touch with Safehquse. They booked her a hotel. They fed her. And the next morning, they gave her bus fare so she could go visit her family.
Kokoma: I wanted to see my family to tell them what really happened. I thought that after that, my mom—my mom would welcome me. All I wanted was—was for me to see my family, so that my mom would know I'm still alive. When I reached home, my mom called me a devil, that she would kill me. She told me I should never—unless I change my queerness—before I can come to her house.
Saidu: Kokoma says she’s fought with her family about her sexuality for years. But she thought at least in this moment, her mom would just be glad to see that she was okay. Instead, her mom told her that if she wanted to come back home, she’d have to stop being queer.
Saidu: And you said no.
Kokoma: I told her no, I can't.
Kokoma: I can't—it’s not something that can be changed. It’s not something that can be changed. I was created by God. That is how God wants me to be. I didn’t just—I’m not the one that created myself. It was God. That is how God wants me to be. And that is who I am. You need to accept me the way I am. That’s what I told her.
Saidu: So Kokoma left her mom’s house and headed back to campus. But then she was faced with another problem: She couldn’t pay rent without her mom’s help.
Kokoma: So Safehquse, they renewed my house rent because it was about to due.
Kokoma: They renew it for me. I'm living under the care of Safehquse. There are the ones feeding me everything.
Saidu: Wow. Still to this day?
Saidu: Will you continue to protest?
Kokoma: I will continue to protest 'til we have our freedom in this Nigeria. They want to take my life. I don’t care. I will protest. Because I’m living a life of bondage. When everything in my life is criminalized in this Nigeria, I will protest 'til we have our freedom. We are going to win this fight. One day we are going to celebrate. And we are going to celebrate Queer Day in Nigeria one day. That is what I believe.
Saidu: Protests look different in Nigeria right now. People are still going outside, but not in massive numbers. Because after protesters were shot in October, the government issued more curfews in states across the country. It’s just not safe.
Saidu: And Safehquse has shut down. It was always meant to be temporary. Fey and her friends say they gave away all the money they raised to queer Nigerians who need it. She says the Safehquse ledger is at zero.
Fey: Thank you, ladies and gentlemen. It's been a wonderful time. God bless you. The joy and the goal is everybody we see them, even if it takes a long time for you to get where you are going, we will see you on the road there, and that's what matters to us. Do you understand?
Saidu: On October 11th, the president of Nigeria announced that the government would officially disband SARS. But all that really meant was shuffling around the same officers and redeploying them somewhere else, under a new name: SWAT. This isn’t what young people in Nigeria want. They understand how deep this shit really is. So they’re continuing to take matters into their own hands. People are talking about forming new political parties. Some are demanding changes to the country's constitution. They don’t just want cops with new uniforms and the same old intentions. They want to preserve the things about Nigeria that they love, and use those parts to build something new.
Saidu: If there was a—if there was a revolution in Nigeria today, like, you know, there was a whole revolution and everything changed. And you just woke up tomorrow and the country was completely different. And you walked outside and it was a whole new country. What would that country look like for you?
Fey: It would look like the shame culture is gone. The culture of silence is gone. I want queer persons to be able to have access to public spaces, to marriage equality. I’m just giving simple, everyday, every Nigerian examples. Do you understand me, Saidu?
Saidu: Mm-hmm. Mm-hmm.
Fey: I don’t want to be looking for the woman who sells Kunu to me and then find out that she was killed, her village was attacked by Boko Haram. I don’t want all of that. Do you understand what I’m trying to say? Things are very interconnected. All of these issues are interconnected. And what the government’s violence on protesters has shown is that they have a hand in all the violence that are caused in this country and nobody, anybody can tell me otherwise.
Saidu: Thanks for listening. Resistance is produced by Wallace Mack, Bethel Habte and Aaron Randle. Our supervising producer is Sarah McVeigh.
Saidu: This episode was edited by Lynn Levy, Lydia Polgreen, Brendan Klinkenberg and Yemisi Adegoke. Mixing and scoring by Bobby Lord and Catherine Anderson. Theme by Bobby Lord. Original compositions by Drea the Vibe Dealer. Make sure you smile when you say her name.
Saidu: Fact checking is by Michelle Harris. Our show art is by Darien Birks of The Stuyvesants. Credits music is Chop Elbow by Prettyboy D-O. Special thanks to Nnenna Amuchie, Ifeanyi Awachie, Kelvin Wierdu, and Louis Ozah.
Saidu: If you enjoyed this episode, tell a friend about it. You can find me on Twitter at @saiduttj. That's S-A-I-D-U-T-T-J. You can follow on IG @resistanceshow. Resistance is a Spotify original podcast and Gimlet production. All right. See y’all in two weeks.