Although #ENDSARS is gaining more exposure in the media, the mental health of those affected by police brutality in Nigeria has been easily ignored.
Extrajudicial killings, arbitrary arrests, unlawful detention, and extortion. This is what the youth of Nigeria must suffer through daily.
Although Nigeria’s Special Anti-Robbery Squad, or, SARS, was founded in 1992, it was only this year that their torturous actions took the media by a storm. #ENDSARS called for the disbanding of the unit, experiencing a revitalisation in October 2020, and consequently leading to a series of mass protests not only in Nigeria, but globally.
The start of SARS
SARS was established to combat an epidemic of violent crime including robberies, carjackings and kidnappings. Since the police unit have been accused of becoming a criminal enterprise that acts with impunity, yet to be held fully accountable for their behaviour. On October 3rd, a video surfaced the internet showing the unprovoked killing of a man by SARS officers in Ughelli, Nigeria. Officials said the video was fake, arresting the person who took it. This seemed to be the catalyst that erupted the protests.
According to Amnesty International, the Nigeria Police Force is responsible for hundreds of illegal executions and enforced disappearances each year. A huge consequence of this is the everlasting toll on victims’ mental health –a factor majorly brushed over when discussing SARS.
Vincent Desmond, 21, has been sensitively covering the challenges faced by young queer Nigerians as a result of being specifically targeted by SARS. “As much as it’s a Nigerian youth issue, it’s also a queer issue,” he says. As a gay man himself, he has been stopped and harassed multiple times. One of the first times he was stopped by officials last year, was because he didn’t look like what they expect Nigerian men to look like – his nails were painted, and he was wearing “short shorts”.
“They went through my phone and forced me to give the names of my queer friends – they felt their brutality was justified because they had something to stand on, it being that I’m gay,” says Vincent.
SARS has severely affected his mental health, and Desmond explains how he finds it difficult to even leave his home. “I would just get flashbacks of getting war grade weapons being pointed at me,” he says. “When I finally got over it, I got stopped again. What I’ve been through mentally, I wouldn’t wish on my worst enemy.” Desmond’s ex was also stopped, beaten up, and made to sign a statement stating that he was a homosexual and a fraud. Since then, he’s not left his room.
Desmond says that whilst he wishes to believe that it cannot get any worse: “Nigeria has proven over time that it can always get worse.” Despite the fact that there are organisations in
Nigeria that aim to provide mental health aid to victims of SARS, he says that the LGBTQ+ community tend to rely only on each other’s support, as “we are all we have.”
One organisation that has, however, made an impact, is Mentally Aware Nigeria Initiative (MANI), who since being founded in 2016, is an NGO that focuses on the rights and health of marginalized folks. MANI was launched by Victor Ugo, a medical student from Lagos who struggled with depression. It was established in response to the lack of mental health support in Nigeria, where approximately 7 million people have the same condition.
“Mental health in Nigeria is shrouded in myths from tradition, folk tales, and religion,” says Ifedayo Ward, 27, executive director of MANI, and public health professional. As a team they are trying to bridge the gap of mental health in Nigeria, but since the #ENDSARS protests took off, have been drowned in calls, with over 400 people daily reaching out for support.
Ward explains how the Nigerian government have been blocking the bank accounts of those involved with the protests, and how actions like these, combined with the constant reliving of trauma that victims face, has led to a huge surge of anxiety. “Some people also have what we call survivor’s guilt”, says Ward. This is where one experiences acute guilt of surviving a traumatic event where others didn’t, leading to a difficulty in sleeping and intense anxiety.
There is a lot of unrest after the protests. “The air has been really tense as people are still scared to leave their homes due to the gross uncertainty of what will happen to them”, she says.
The #EndSARS protests resulted in the Nigerian government announcing in October that it would disband the unit. However, this is the fourth time that the government have made such a promise, with citizens still being harassed everyday by men in those same uniforms. “Nothing really has changed,” says Ward, “and everyone’s mental health is at a serious stake”.
Aima Aig-Imoukhuede, 19, born in Lagos and studying in London, recalls her experience of growing up surrounded by SARS as being “constantly on edge”. She says: “My mental health was awful; just knowing that I could be the victim of police brutality at any moment lead to a persistent feeling of anxiety.”
Growing up watching SARS kill people on the streets on her journey to school, the effect this has had on her mental health is non-contestable. “These are real- life situations that we have to suffer through every day,” Aig-Imoukhued says.
Aig-Imoukhuede remembers one time in the airport where she was wearing cargo trousers, forgetting that this makes her an easy target for SARS. “They were staring me down, I was so petrified that they were going to approach me,” she says. “Just constantly being told that you can’t do this, you can’t do that. You can’t walk on the streets with your iPhone. You can’t walk on the streets alone because they will literally come and kill you.”
Now, Aig-Imoukhuede suffers with constant flashbacks of her childhood in Nigeria, and even after having moved across the world, the toll it has taken on her mental health hasn’t disappeared. Aig-Imoukhued says: “Black Lives Matter is not a joke, and it is time to listen.”