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End SARS: Queer Nigerians are being abused, humiliated and killed by a corrupt police unit – and it’s nothing new

Reiss Smith October 21, 2020
Matthew Blaise holding a placard reading 'Queer Lives Matter! End SARS now!'

Matthew Blaise is among many queer Nigerians who have been protesting SARS. (Matthew Blaise)

In Nigeria, the SARS police unit has routinely abused, humiliated and denied rights to many including members of the queer community, whose stories are coming to light amid horrific violence.

Calls to End SARS have been ongoing in Nigeria for years, and have spread across the world following renewed protests and a large-scale social media campaign.

Officially, SARS was disbanded on October 11, however activists are distrusting of the government, and insist the move is merely cosmetic.

Two weeks into the most recent wave of demonstrations, the situation took a grave turn Tuesday (October 20) when armed forced opened fire on protesters at Lagos’ Lekki tollgate.

Matthew Blaise, a non-binary LGBT+ activist in Lagos, explained to PinkNews that the massacre took place after the state governor imposed a 24-hour curfew. They say locals were given just four hours to return home, despite the fact that it is not uncommon to sit in traffic for six hours in Lagos.

CCTV cameras were removed and the electricity cut in what Amnesty says is a “clear attempt to hide evidence”. With soldiers and police also opening attacking protesters at a site in Alausa, Amnesty says that at least 12 were killed and hundreds more injured.

The massacre triggered an outpouring of grief around the world, opening eyes to the horrors that have been faced by many Nigerians day in, day out for many years.

What is SARS?

SARS (Special Anti Robbery Squad) was created in 1992 to tackle armed thefts and similar crimes.

However the unit quickly earned a reputation for human rights violations, unlawful killings and torture, among other illegal activities ignored – or worse – accepted by those in power.

For years groups such as Amnesty International have tracked atrocities carried out by SARS. In June 2020, Amnesty released a report detailing at least 82 incidents of torture, mistreatment and extra-judicial execution spanning January 2017 until May 2020.

“The Nigerian authorities have failed to prosecute a single officer from the notorious Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS), despite anti-torture legislation passed in 2017 and evidence that its members continue to use torture and other ill-treatment to execute, punish and extract information from suspects,” Amnesty said at the time.

Osai Ojigho, director of Amnesty International Nigeria, added: “The systemic use of torture and other ill treatment by SARS officers for police investigations and the continued existence of torture chambers within the Nigerian Police Force points to an absolute disregard for international human rights laws and standards.”

SARS targets the LGBT+ community in Nigeria.

Amnesty says SARS appears to mostly target men between the ages of and 35, mostly from low-income backgrounds and vulnerable groups.

Among these groups is the queer community. Matthew Blaise told PinkNews that gay men – especially those who present femme – “are one of the primary targets of the police” in Nigeria, a country regarded as one of the most homophobic in the world thanks in large part to its colonial-era sodomy laws. Butch lesbians are also harassed and trans people are similarly targeted, though Blaise notes that Nigeria “doesn’t really have the language” for trans identities.

Blaise has had their own experiences with SARS. They were once stopped by four armed police officers while walking to the beach and told they were “walking like a woman”. When they asked what crime they had committed, they were told it was “perceived homosexuality”.

At this point officers tried to take make them open their phone.

“I didn’t open my phone, because then they are able to blackmail you and track other gay people on your list,” Blaise explained.

“Then, once they trap other gay people on your list, they start exploiting you, blackmailing you, and in most cases they out you to their parents.

“They’re able to get away with this and queer people end up suffering in all aspects, mentally and financially.”

After Blaise refused, they were pushed into a police van and detained.

“They said I had maggots down there, that my ass could speak because men were sleeping with me, and that I would never make it to heaven.”

Officers dragged Blaise by their hair and threatened to put them in jail, where they would be beaten and killed without anybody ever finding out.

Fortunately for Blaise, police grew tired and allowed them to leave, but many others were not so lucky.

End SARS protests see further violence against LGBT+ people.

Incidents like these are rarely reported, Blaise said, because of Nigeria’s anti-LGBT+ attitudes. The only depictions of queer people in the media are negative ones, they say, and discrimination even extends to within the protest movement.

“It is sad because we are protesting about oppression,” Blaise added. “But there are [protesters] out there who wouldn’t think twice about killing us because of our sexual orientation and gender identity.”

Blaise has personally been verbally assaulted at many protests for carrying Queer Lives Matter placards, and knows of a queer woman who was chased from a demonstration for carrying a rainbow flag.

This mistreatment extends online to social media, where recently a leading feminist organisation retracted a statement of support for LGBT+ Nigerians after it suffered a homophobic backlash.

Despite the brutality and hate being hurled at the queer community from all angles, Blaise says there is something worth celebrating: “The resilience of queer people, in spite of everything that’s going on.”

After violent attacks on protesters, Blaise expected queer people not to turn up for future demonstrations for fear of violence.

“But they still came out with their Queer Lives Matter placards. It’s something worth celebrating, for everybody in the world, that in a country as rigid as Nigeria, one of the most corrupt countries in the world, that has different laws in place against homosexual people, that queer people are still out in their most beautiful colours shouting Queer Lives Matter.”

Here’s how you can help.

After the Lagos shooting, Blaise has been working as part of the Safe HQuse project, which is supporting displaced queer protestors and survivors of the Lekki tollgate massacre with accommodation, medical support and other vital needs.

The project is accepting donations, and asks that those who wish to support contact them directly via Instagram. 

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