Bryan was on the way to a recording studio with his friends last year when the police stopped them, asked to see their IDs, and threw them into the back of a van.
“They took my phone, asked what I do for a living, and why I was dressed the way I was,” said the 22-year-old musician, who requested that his last name be withheld out of concern for his safety. “They asked why I was using an iPhone — we were all using iPhones — and searched my pockets and fanny pack for money. Unfortunately, I had a bundle of cash to pay for the recording session and the Uber back home. Then one of them pointed his gun at me, pointed it right in my face, and told me to get out of the van.”
Like many Lagosians, Bryan has no shortage of stories about the harassment he’s faced from Nigeria’s Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS), so when earlier this month he heard about Sety, an emergency service app, he downloaded it immediately. Now, he checks it and the @sars_watch Twitter account every time he leaves his house. If there’s any chance he might run into officers, he cancels his plans and stays home.
In the absence of a government that can provide efficient medical, disaster, and security services during emergencies, Nigerians are increasingly turning to tech to stay safe — especially when the danger is connected to the government itself. Apps do not automatically solve the problem of safety and emergency in Nigeria, but they do provide the kinds of practical solutions that earn people’s trust at a time when the #EndSARS movement, and the violent response to it, is continuing to escalate.
There are several first responder service apps on the market, but Nigerian-owned apps like Sety and Aabo — which contain features like panic buttons for emergency contacts and location-based danger notifications — are currently at the forefront in the movement, helping protesters stay safe.
For the past two weeks, young Nigerians have taken to the streets to demand an end to the brutality they have suffered at the hands of SARS. A unit of the Nigerian Police Force founded in 1992 to prevent violent crimes, SARS has a notorious and well-documented history of using disproportionate, illegal, and deadly force against the civilians it is meant to protect. Officers have been known to profile members of Lagos’s thriving tech community, typically young men carrying laptops, a sign of relative wealth the authorities are swift to extort a piece of through arbitrary arrests (or the threat of arrests). In more extreme cases, when citizens are detained on suspicion of a crime, SARS officers have been accused of beating, torturing, and raping them with impunity.
After a graphic video showing SARS officers dragging people into the street and shooting them went viral in early October, demonstrators started calling for SARS to be disbanded. Naturally, the revolution took place online, too, as the public amplification of the #EndSARS hashtag and massive marches through major city streets across the country inspired solidarity marches in Pretoria, New York, Berlin, and London.
About a week later, on October 12, Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari agreed to disband SARS and vowed to reform the police, but protesters remained in the streets and continued to spread their message on social media. On October 20, the army and police opened fire on protesters at a toll gate in Lekki, an affluent city within the state of Lagos, killing at least 10 people. Since the protests began, Amnesty International estimates that 56 people have been killed across the country. Buhari did not acknowledge the shootings when he addressed the nation two days later.
Sylva Elendu is all too familiar with the way SARS abuses its power. In May, the software developer tweeted a thread about his fear of being harassed by the police; he had recently locked his hair, a style known to attract unwanted attention from SARS. Elendu, who is in his 20s, surveyed 120 people about how they responded to emergencies and found that if they were ever arrested by the police or SARS, 48.3% would call their family; 40.8% would “figure out how to settle them” — a euphemism for paying a bribe — “before the matter go far”; and the remaining 10.8% would tweet at the well-known human rights and #EndSARS activist Segun Awosanya, who goes by @segalink on Twitter. None of the survey respondents said they would call Nigeria’s toll-free national 112 emergency number.
With that information, Elendu teamed up with his friend and fellow developer Victor Idongesit to create an alternative emergency service that people could trust — and that actually worked. Called Aabo, it launched in May and is available on Google Play and Apple’s App Store, a crucial point of access given how frequently the police target those with iPhones. Aabo users upload their emergency contacts’ information into the app. Whenever they’re in a crisis, they can hit the app’s panic button, which will instantly alert those contacts of their location and the nature of their emergency, be it rape, a fire, or police harassment. For situations that don’t register as an immediate red alert, Aabo also features a live tracking map, which lets users know how close they are to reported threats or emergencies; a heat map that shows the number of social injustices reported in a given area; an emergency log to follow alerts users send and receive; and a recurring check-up prompt.
Elendu and Idongesit declined to say exactly how many users have downloaded Aabo, though on Google Play, which shows how often an app has been downloaded, they have registered more than 1,000 users. (Apple does not indicate how many iOS downloads an app has.)
About a month after Elendu tweeted about the profiling he worried he’d be subjected to because of his newly twisted locs, Olumide Adetiwa, another software developer who founded Sety, was overwhelmed by the news that two young Nigerian women had been sexually assaulted and brutally murdered in the span of five days during the Covid-19 shutdown. He wrote that while the inevitable social media campaign for justice for the two victims “lasted for about a week, and then quickly disappeared, went into oblivion,” he still felt obligated to do something.
“I realized right away that this was and has always been a vicious cycle,” the 23-year-old continued. “And to make my neighbourhood safe, I needed to find a way to create a permanent solution for crime prevention.”
Adetiwa told Rest of World that while his original plan for Sety was to employ AI to build out the app’s preventative features, he decided to widen Sety’s scope. “I expanded because we face so many different forms of danger in this region, ranging from sexual violence to physical and even mental violence,” he said. “It became imperative that I make the app as inclusive as it can be, and we plan to expand the capabilities even further.”
Similar to Aabo, Sety prompts users to upload contact information for friends and family so as to notify them in the event of emergencies and has a range of alert categories, including car accidents, domestic violence, sexual assault, and police brutality. But in addition to notifying a user’s personal contacts, Sety also sends alerts to nearby fellow users, creating a community of potential first-responders. Adetiwa said that, so far, around 12,000 people have downloaded the app.
Another Sety user, Eseosa Okosun, told Rest of World that the app has filled a void that has been created by a negligent government.
“A lot of public institutions are very political now and are jealously guarding their pockets, so I feel like these privately owned apps give us a little relief that someone has our backs,” the 21-year-old said.
Adetiwa maintained that the fundamental core of the app will not change even as the situation continues to. However, in order to keep up with the urgent demand created by the protests, his team has “been working to tailor each danger request and provide specific actions, so that rape and domestic or sexual violence are not treated [the same] as police brutality.” He added that the app “will eventually evolve to treat each danger report with specific actions.”
Bryan has been urging more of his friends to download Sety, especially now that they have all seen how deadly the protests can get.
“Living down here, there’s seriously no security, even if you’re part of the upper class,” he said. “Anything can happen, anytime, anywhere, even from the police we’re supposed to be relying on. At the end of the day, we have to depend on each other.”