Lagos, Nigeria – On a hot October afternoon last year, Felicia Okpara left home to attend a job interview in Surulere, just a short distance away from where a crowd of peaceful #EndSARS demonstrators had gathered.
Moved by the defiant spirit and camaraderie among the youth protesting against police brutality, the 27-year-old, after her interview, decided to join in. Little did she know that that would later turn into the most traumatising day of her life.
“There was so much chaos going on: police shoot-outs; SARS were shooting; gunshots everywhere. People were running for safety, I was also running for safety,” she recounted to Al Jazeera.
While in a corner hiding for safety, Okpara took out her phone to record the violent events taking place. However, she was abruptly stopped by a plainclothes police officer who demanded she stop filming and hand over her device.
When she refused, he initiated her arrest. “One other policeman came [over] and held me and they [both] dragged me across [the street] to the police station. Other policemen were gathered at the gate and that was where the intense beating started,” Okpara said. She and some other arrested protesters were dragged into the Area C station, where the beating continued.
That was on October 12, 2020, just days into the #EndSARS protests where young Nigerians assembled in unison to demand the abolition of the Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS), a unit notorious for alleged abuses, illegal detention, profiling and even extrajudicial killings.
According to Amnesty International, people between the ages of 17 and 30 were most at risk of arrest, torture or extortion by the unit’s officers. “Young men with dreadlocks, ripped jeans, tattoos, flashy cars or expensive gadgets are frequently targeted by SARS,” it said in a June 2020 report.
Mobilised through online platforms, such as Twitter and Facebook, the youth-led protests rocked the nation for days. The demonstrations forced the government to disband SARS on October 11, but protesters refused to let up as they demanded more governmental reforms. The protests came to an abrupt end after October 20, when soldiers opened fire at a peaceful crowd at the Lekki tollgate in Lagos, in an incident that Amnesty says killed at least 10 people.
Throughout that period, the youth led many efforts to organise and fundraise the movement. But perhaps the most distinctive characteristic of the protest was the prominence of young women in steering and sustaining the mobilisation. “Even if men would think they are the sole focus of police brutality, women were still affected by it in very distinct ways,” said Tami Makinde, a Nigerian female journalist who extensively covered the protests. “If anything, we were inspired [to come out] by our lived realities of being women and existing in a patriarchal society.”
As such, women were an integral part of the protests. Like their male counterparts, women such as Okpara trooped out en masse to lend their voices to the cause. “[Police brutality] is something that happens to everybody, whether you’re a woman or man,” she explained. “At the protest grounds, there were so many ladies. Most of them are mothers or sisters to [sons and] brothers who probably have dreadlocks, so if women [kept] quiet about this, it [was] definitely going to affect them. A lot of women were also being arrested [by the police].”
This is a sentiment 22-year-old Treasure Nduka, a protester in Lagos, shares. “It felt powerful because the word ‘woman’ has been easily associated with fragility and that’s why prehistorically they’ve made women always take the backseat when it [comes] to certain things. But seeing women take charge and seeing as the majority of us were the driving force behind the protest it felt like a shift in history and it was so beautiful,” Nduka told Al Jazeera.
Like Okpara, Nduka joined the women who came out in droves to challenge injustice – but that is not all these two women have in common. Nduka was also among the female demonstrators who were arrested and underwent the same treatment during the protests.
“They beat us and they asked us to remove our bra, they checked our pants and searched us,” she recounted. “I was too shocked to realise what was happening. You know when you have an out-of-body experience? But like in a bad way? That’s what it was like. I was just like, ‘Is this happening to me?'”
Both women were kept in the same cell after being assaulted and taunted by the police officers. “When I was arrested, a lot of things went through my mind, because no one even knew where I was,” Okpara tearfully recalled.
“We were being beaten up; the policewomen, especially, they were the worst. They beat me to a point I lost control of my body and peed on myself. What they were looking for was my phone, because they felt I had evidence of the police brutality that was ongoing, so they were just trying to snatch my phone from me. I kept begging and pleading with them but they didn’t even answer. The more you plead with them, the more they hit you.”
Al Jazeera reached out to the public relations officer of the police force for a comment but he responded, saying, “I was not in the state last year during the protest so [I’m] not in the position to give the comment.”
While they were detained, a video of both women being dragged across the street by the police went viral on social media, as thousands of users spread the word of their arrest and clamoured for their release. The uproar alerted Femi Gbajabiamila, speaker of the House of Representatives, who facilitated their release later that night.
More than a year later, the women are still reeling from the psychological trauma of their ordeal.
“At first I had nightmares,” Nduka said. “And for a while, the sound of bangers startled me. I remember pushing all the feelings behind and not wanting to deal with the emotions because I didn’t want to be a victim. I tried to stay off social media because nothing felt right. Until one day, I had a panic attack recounting the whole event. It felt like I was being hit all over again. I had to take a shower to cool off.”
In one of the few concessions made by the government to demonstrators, the National Executive Council authorised state governments to set up panels to investigate decades of abuse by SARS officials. The majority of the panels have since been discontinued. Okpara had been attending these panel hearings judiciously, in hopes of attaining some form of justice.
“At the end of everything, the panel compensated me with a sum of 750,000 naira ($1,820). [But], I’m not sure compensation is enough. If the people who did this are still roaming on the streets, it means they can actually do it again knowing that nothing will happen.”
Their case is not an isolated event as many other female victims of the protests are still awaiting justice to prevail, raising questions about the legal system and who it serves.
“On the one hand, when people do get justice in this country, [they] have to fit a certain typecast – male, privileged, rich. That’s when you have the power to bend things in your favour. And as a woman, that’s [much] harder to effect in this country,” Makinde explained. “On the other hand, [these women’s cases] are just a testament to the failing justice system. Nobody really gets justice anyway.”
Still, Okpara is hopeful the law system will prevail. “I really hope that things change and laws [will be] respected and anyone who misuses his power [will] face the law. I hope that one day, we won’t be scared of the Nigeria police.”