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Crowd gathers for Lake Merritt protest

Oakland’s Nigerian community uses technology to mobilize during #EndSARS protests

on October 30, 2020

At least 100 Bay Area residents from the Nigerian community met at Lake Merritt on Saturday, October 24, 2020 to raise awareness for #EndSARS, a campaign led by youth in Nigeria to demand the end to police brutality. For decades, Nigerian citizens have accused the Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS), a police unit that was founded in 1992 by the Nigerian government, of assault, extortion and killings.

In early October, reports circulated on social media of SARS police shootings that killed two civilians in Nigeria. Shortly after, police responded violently to peaceful protesters in Lagos, the country’s capital. In Oakland and surrounding areas, the #EndSARS campaign gained momentum after the diaspora community started sharing posts on social media and messaging apps.

For local Nigerians like Eche Emole, the organizer of this past weekend’s protest, raising awareness about #EndSARS is personal. He says just last year, his brother had an encounter with the police unit in Nigeria.

“He actually ran into them. They had blocked off the road and they came out with guns,” he says. “That’s when he realized what was about to happen and he just went on the curb with his whole car.” Emole says his brother had a very narrow escape.

Emole, a former technology executive and founder of Afropolitan Group, an entertainment and live events company, is one of several community members to leverage technology to mobilize and share information with the community during the pandemic.

“Why is an events company leading a protest for this? You don’t just show up to our parties as a party person,” he says. “You’re also a father. You might also be a student who’s aspiring to greater heights. So how can we enable an environment for you to be your best self? If there’s an issue happening in the world, we’re going to keep you informed and make sure that you know what’s going on.”

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At the start of 2020, Emole had big plans for his Bay Area based entertainment company. For the past four years, he organized and promoted live concerts in Oakland featuring top international African artists while producing cultural events for the local African diaspora. In January, on a recent trip back from visiting his parents and brother in Lagos, Nigeria, Emole started to plan a cross-cultural tour to connect Black people in the United States with Africans on the continent. That all changed this March with the spread of COVID-19 and the subsequent global shut down.

Since then–and since the historic uprisings against police brutality in the United States–Emole has shifted his attention to using social media and technology to promote social and political issues that affect the Bay Area’s African diaspora.

“It’s just being a bridge between Africa and the diaspora. How do we tell our own stories in a very conscious and compassionate way? I think that’s where I fall into this,” Emole says.

The Nigerian and Nigerian-American community in the Bay Area is estimated to be 3,000 people. Most, like Emole, are foreign born.

Hundreds of local residents showed up on Saturday, Oct. 24, 2020 to protest the most recent police killings in Nigeria. (Still image/Bashirah Mack)

Kelechi Ndekwe, a Bay Area technology professional of 18 years, was born and raised in Imo State in Southeastern Nigeria. He says before the pandemic, he remained close to his heritage and culture by traveling home. Ndekwe says he would travel home to Nigeria every two years and on his most recent trip, he went to bury his mother. Now that international travel is difficult, he is more engaged in the local WhatsApp group.

Ndekwe says the messaging group he belongs to is made up of mostly doctors, lawyers and engineers.

“I’m glad technology has helped,” he says. “We are really connected. When there is a struggle, we come together under an umbrella.”

For Ndekwe, the recent violent attacks by SARS reminds him of what it was like to be a victim of assault and extortion decades ago.

“I had a friend who had an altercation with someone and then someone called the police,” he says. “My friend was being arrested and the police began to hit me with their bat. I was taken to jail. I was scared because if you don’t have money, you might be a statistic.”

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Emole says, because he lives in the Bay Area, the best way he’s been able to raise awareness of events taking place back home–that have a significant impact on the local community in Oakland–is by using his technology skills. When members of the Feminist Coalition, a prominent group of women organizers in Nigeria, shared with Emole that their bank account was blocked from receiving #EndSARS donations, he says he figured out a way to help get donations for mutual aid, first aid and legal aid to organizers on the ground.

“Initially, people were just donating stuff to the bank accounts that they provided. But then the government shut down the bank accounts.” Emole says not many people were familiar with Bitcoin, so he came up with another idea. “What people in the diaspora are familiar with is Venmo and CashApp. So why doesn’t Afropolitan raise those funds and send those funds over?”

Emole’s previous experience in banking and technology helped raise more than $16,000 in donations for the #EndSARS campaign.

Nigerians in the Bay Area, some of whom are professionals with advanced degrees, send a large amount of money home to their families, despite their relatively small size. In fact, when it comes to remittances–funds transferred by immigrants to their home countries–Nigerian immigrants in the United States send billions of dollars home annually. According to Pew Research Center, in 2017 fewer than 400,000 Nigerian immigrants living in the United States sent $6.2 billions home, more than was sent to any other African nation.

Saturday’s program of events began with a collective singing of Nigeria’s national anthem followed by speeches and a night vigil. (Still image/Bashirah Mack)

Olubusola Ajibola, a 48-year-old counselor who lives in Oakland, says the way forward is to continue to use technology to raise awareness and resources within the community. She says, prior to moving to the United States, her experience with SARS was enough for her to mistrust them.

“In Nigeria, I have nieces and nephews that took part in the SARS protests,” she says. “I follow social media. I kind of pay attention to what is happening in Nigeria because I’ve had one or two police experiences where I practically had to pull a man out of a soldier’s arms, like ‘no, you’re not going to do this.’ I know I can’t trust the police. I know what they do.”

Ajibola says, it is important for people in the diaspora to continue to send money home in support of basic needs.

“People are still posting in WhatsApp to stay aware,” she says. “We are realizing that we’re going to have to be part of the solution. One of the things is being able to fund the people back home and to let the people back home know they are not alone.”

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