In September 2020, Kofoworola David-Okesola, a software developer, was riding in an Uber in Yaba, home to Lagos’ thriving tech hub, when a microvan cut off the car and blocked its path. Men with rifles jumped out of the van.
“Are we getting robbed?” David-Okesola asked his Uber driver. As the armed men moved closer, he suddenly realized who they were. One wore a black polo shirt with “FSARS” — short for federal Special Anti-Robbery Squad — printed on the front. It was the police.
They ordered David-Okesola out of the front seat and into the back of the car while two officers sat on either side of him. “One of them cocked his gun, turned off the safety feature, and pressed the rifle on my hip,” David-Okesola told Rest of World. “That was my warning to cooperate, or anything could happen,” he said.
They ordered him to hand over his smartphone and open his bag, where they found a MacBook. After scrolling and looking up random keywords on his WhatsApp and email, they accused him of being an online fraudster. “Why do you have multiple Gmail accounts?” one of the officers asked. “Where did you get money to buy a MacBook? And what do you do for a living?”
David-Okesola works remotely as a back-end engineer for a fintech company in Southeast Asia. But he felt he couldn’t tell that to the police. “I didn’t have an employee ID card, and telling the police that you work remotely for a company they’ve never heard about is a recipe for further harassment,” he told Rest of World.
But David-Okesola, like many young Nigerians stopped by the police, understood the officers’ endgame was extortion by intimidation. They finally let him go after he paid them off. His freedom cost 30,000 naira, just over $70.
David-Okesola’s experience is not unique.
Over the last decade, Nigeria’s tech industry has blossomed with the sector buzzing with optimism and a new generation of young tech workers working for startups and local companies that have raised $2.4 billion since January 2019, according to “Africa: The Big Deal.” These upwardly mobile young people with expensive laptops and top-end smartphones, who can easily earn salaries several multiples of the average Nigerian worker, have at times sparked envy and attracted suspicion and inevitable attention from the police, who have a long track record of harassment and extortion.
The recent concentration of these harassment incidents has forced a reckoning within the tech industry. After a decade of circumventing or “disrupting” the Nigerian state and the establishment’s patronage system, the tech industry has found itself at the center of some of the most pressing sociopolitical and economic issues of the day.
Over the last year, the Nigerian tech community has been rattled by arbitrary startup regulation, a cryptocurrency ban, and a Twitter ban entering its fourth month. Nigeria has also seen telecomms shutdowns in two states, ostensibly for security reasons.
Insiders say these challenges arise from the administration of president Muhammadu Buhari turning its focus on technology and telecomms companies as increasingly influential platforms over which the government has had little control. Some said the role of tech leaders in supporting last year’s anti-police brutality protests was the final straw for the government.
Just a month after David-Okesola was pulled over, protests for police reform engulfed Nigeria, sparked by an unrelated incident. Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS) operatives in Ughelli town in Delta state, in southern Nigeria, allegedly shot a man in his car, pulled him out, and drove off with the vehicle. Video of the incident went viral on social media, triggering month-long countrywide anti-police brutality protests.
Protests multiplied across the country, as well as within diaspora communities in the U.K., Canada, the U.S., and Europe. Nigerian social media users converged under one hashtag, which trended worldwide for days: #EndSARS.
Sources who spoke to Rest of World said that Nigeria’s tech community was largely sympathetic to the protesters’ cause, with prominent companies giving employees time off to participate in the protests.
The distributed nature of the protests made them difficult to control. “Government normally crushes a protest by identifying the leader and bribing them or threatening them, which they couldn’t do in this case,” said Gbenga Sesan, executive director of Paradigm Initiative, a digital inclusion and digital rights enterprise.
In response to mounting pressure, on October 11, the Nigerian Police announced that it had shut down the SARS unit. But the move didn’t satisfy the protest movement, which hinged on five demands around police reforms, including investigating police misconduct and improving working conditions for police officers.
Eventually, the Buhari administration and its agents cracked down on protesters. Through the central bank, the government blocked bank accounts of known protest leaders. Protest coordinators — led by the Feminist Coalition, a gender advocacy NGO — used cryptocurrency to evade the banking blockade, drawing the ire of the country’s central bank and government officials.
On Tuesday, October 20, 2020, the two-week-long protest in Lagos reached a crescendo. Thousands of young Nigerians marched to the Lekki Toll Gate. The state government rushed to impose a 4 p.m. curfew, but the protesters refused to go home. As dusk fell, the street lights in the area went out.
The defiant protesters held their ground, singing the national anthem and chanting, when a convoy of soldiers arrived. Shortly thereafter, according to a CNN investigation, the soldiers fired live ammunition to disperse the crowd of young people. Footage released by the Lagos state government captured protesters fleeing across the Lekki Toll Gate plaza.
“They’ve killed him … they’re killing my people,” a panicked voice screamed in footage obtained by CNN. The gruesome shooting was streamed live on Instagram by DJ Switch, a musician and reality TV star. Nigerians at home and abroad were stunned by the attack. At least 15 people died that evening, and more than a dozen were injured, according to numerous reports.
For weeks, the government and the military denied the attack ever happened. Later, officials acknowledged the shooting but claimed live ammunition had not been used. There has never been clarity on what happened that day, but there are still individual reports of families who lost loved ones at Lekki Toll Gate. For many Nigerians, the attack in Lagos represents the lowest point in Nigeria’s modern political history, after 22 years of uninterrupted democracy — its longest spell since independence 61 years ago.
For Nigeria’s tech community the protests represented an exhilarating “growing up” moment seeing their colleagues use tech tools to organize, corral, and raise awareness for an important social cause that went beyond simply trying to launch a fancy tech product or boast about new funding. “In 2020, #EndSARS gave us an opportunity to take the issue to the streets,” said Iyinoluwa Aboyeji, who co-founded unicorns Andela and Flutterwave. “We fought in a new way by using decentralized tech-enabled infrastructure to power finance and protests.”
Founded in 1992, Nigeria’s Special Anti-Robbery Squad was created as a dedicated police unit to fight violent crimes primarily using undercover tactics. But many observers say that it has evolved into a menace for young Nigerians. A June 2020 report by Amnesty International documented 82 cases of police brutality by SARS between January 2017 and May 2020. Many victims have spoken publicly about how SARS officers use torture to coerce confessions and indicting statements after arrests.
As Nigeria’s reputation as a global hotspot for certain types of cybercrime has grown over the last two decades, so has the willingness of the police to overstep their authority to keep it in check. In the early 2000s — when less than 10% of Nigerians owned a mobile phone and even fewer people had access to the internet — “Nigerian prince” scams, a form of advance-fee fraud, were already rampant online. Over the last four years, the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC), Nigeria’s anti-fraud agency, and the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) have arrested hundreds of suspected internet scammers in local and international operations.
Critics say that while the Nigerian police have attempted to crack down on cybercrime, their methods are often uncoordinated, with little genuine investigative effort beyond randomly profiling young men on the streets and in cars, said Confidence MacHarry, security analyst at SBM Intelligence, a Nigeria-based research firm. Underpaid, poorly trained, and with little accountability, police officers have turned the fight against online fraud into a lucrative racket for themselves, MacHarry told Rest of World.
Since 2017, Nigerian activists have made calls for police reform. Initially led by Segun Awosanya, a Lagos-based realtor, the hashtag #EndSARS was used to draw awareness to police brutality and encourage victims to speak up online starting that year. On four different occasions between 2017 and 2019, the Nigerian government announced reforms in the SARS unit and started an investigation into their activities. Yet, nothing changed.
“Some would argue that as it [police brutality] lingered, perhaps, the rogue officers became bolder, and it got worse with time,” said Kola Aina, veteran Nigerian tech investor and founder of Ventures Platform, a VC that previously backed Paystack, which was acquired by Stripe in October 2020.
Between September 2019 and November 2019, viral stories about cases of harassment and extortions by the police triggered another round of advocacy under the hashtag #StopRobbingUs. Thirty prominent names in the tech community, including the CEOs of Paystack and Flutterwave and some of their Nigerian investors, pushed to get the police and its operatives to change their crude approach. Despite multiple conversations, the move fell through, a person with knowledge of the meetings told Rest of World.
The aftermath of the #EndSARS protests has led to a sweeping change for the Nigerian tech industry, driven, in part, by the sense that members of the tech community were prominent supporters of the movement.
In the months after October 2020, the government went on the offensive. A flurry of fast-tracked regulatory activities has left the tech industry stunned. In February, the Central Bank of Nigeria banned cryptocurrency trading and then proceeded to penalize companies, particularly tech startups, that continued to transfer money out of the country using digital currencies.
Then, on June 4, the government banned Twitter after the platform deleted a set of tweets posted from the president’s account. Despite multiple claims of “positive” ongoing negotiations, Twitter remains suspended in the country five months later.
Rest of World contacted over a dozen tech leaders and executives for this story, but most declined to comment on #EndSARS, even on background. “It is a touchy subject for the government,” said a local investor. Tech executives recognize this, fearing the implications of speaking out against a government that has shown no restraint in using state resources to tackle dissenting opinions. “Nobody wants to be an ‘enemy of the state,’” the investor added.
Aboyeji, who today is an influential tech investor in the country, is one of the few tech leaders who continues to speak out on #EndSARS. He explained that many of his colleagues have had to be cautious in public — aware of the possibility of a government backlash even while trying to influence policy.
“Many of us are still paying the price, but ultimately we have built the confidence to engage fearlessly with the state,” he told Rest of World. “We also now understand the true cost of the society we want to build and how to engage with maturity on issues that matter to us. It might be too early to say the tech industry has earned its seat at the table, but we are definitely on our way there.”
For now, local and international tech investors still consider Nigeria an attractive market. Recent comments from startup founders and investors since the regulatory activity show companies committing more resources to government engagement while others are considering “taking a pause on certain sectors until there is less regulatory ‘volatility,’” veteran investor, Eghosa Omoigui, founder of EchoVC, told Rest of World in August.
Many tech employees, however, remain outspoken about #EndSARS. Although they say that they feel particularly vulnerable because of the profiling that makes them prime targets, many have continued to discuss the #EndSARS protest in public, often on social media. Some people have been using a bloodstained Nigerian flag as their Twitter profile photo in the last couple of weeks to note the October 20 first anniversary.
“We got a glimpse of what it means for Nigeria’s youth population to be a blessing or ticking time bomb [during the protest],” Opeyemi Awoyemi, founder of Whogohost, a Nigerian web hosting company, told Rest of World. “The new Nigerian is young and has a mind of their own, and they deserve to be heard.”
In the aftermath of the demonstrations, a growing number of people, including tech workers, have left the country or are making plans to do so — raising concerns about an accelerated brain drain. A 2018 survey by the Pew Research Center showed 45% of Nigerian adults surveyed said they planned to leave the country within the next five years, compared to 19% and 2% in Kenya and Indonesia. In the survey, more than 50% of Nigerians said they were relocating to escape violence.
Oduala Bolatito Olorunrinu, a 22-year-old student of the Lagos State University who marshaled the first set of #EndSARS protesters, told Rest of World she has been persecuted at school and worried about her safety for months, as the government accused her and others of “suspected terrorism financing.”
Nigerian tech workers are particularly drawn to countries, including the U.S., U.K., Canada, and Germany, where the pandemic and updated immigration policies have created new tech job opportunities.
In the post-#EndSARS era, concerns around violence have increased, as the country’s security system contends with overwhelming rates of crime in a struggling economy. Meanwhile, police brutality has continued almost unchecked. One year after the protest, recent victims told Rest of World that police officers continue to extort and brutalize young people. Despite the massive demonstrations, not much has changed.