We talked to Bosun Tijani, part of a movement in Nigerian tech fighting back against police extortion.
While young, hardworking Nigerians entering the tech industry may dream of the riches and high regard given to their counterparts in Silicon Valley, the reality is much grimmer. In addition to the hassle of learning code, workers are being harassed and extorted by Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS) police for simply looking like techies, which in Nigeria comes with a whole set of different assumptions. The police assume young Nigerians with laptops and smartphones are involved with internet fraud, not software development, and believe they have excess funds. It's confusing as the "Giant of Africa" is seen as a leading force on the continent for digital and technological progress.
To draw attention to the mistreatment, the Nigerian tech community has launched a campaign, #StopRobbingUs. The hashtag popped up on social media last week and has gained a steady following since. It was sparked by a Twitter thread from Akinmolayan Oluwatoni, in which the young software developer outlines an experience with SARS. He mentions getting stopped by police on his way home from work with his laptop, smartphone and various chargers. Oluwatoni says the police then proceeded to detain him, demand a 1 million naira bribe ($2,759), and repeatedly beat him. They then went through his emails and messages and claimed he was involved with fraudulent behavior. Oluwatoni states he was only able to leave when he paid 15,000 naira ($41). The post gained traction and many other techies echoed his experience, drawing international attention.
So yeah 😪, SARZ messed up my Saturday and I get to be locked up because I’m a software developer. A thread.— Toni Astro (@Toni Astro)1569695827.0
We got on the phone with Bosun Tijani, founder of Co-creation Hub, and a growing figure behind the campaign to ask him some questions about the situation in Nigeria and what its implications are for the tech industry.
Nereya Otieno for OkayAfrica: The experience that spread on Twitter, is that accurate? As in, is that a common experience?
Bosun Tijani: Yes. Very common. Actually, there was another one just reported a few minutes ago. This is the norm. Extortion is the norm in Nigeria, but it is now rampant among tech workers. The police find them with laptops and smartphones and automatically conclude they are fraudsters. It's 2019. We're trying to create more good jobs and they are arresting people because they have decent jobs. It's counter productive. It's really annoying.
Nigeria is seen as a progressive force in technology in Africa. So it's a bit confusing that authorities wouldn't have that in mind. Do you think it is a matter of miscommunication?
No. This is a corruption related issue. It's a difficult issue but it is not rocket science. Corruption and extortion has always been among our police but this particular one is very destructive. The whole world is trying to find a way to support young people, to keep them in Africa, to keep them productive and the last thing we want to do is frustrate tech workers. They're making it impossible for us to hold on to our own talent even though there is a massive demand.
How do the companies respond? Not just in regards to harassment for workers but also I would imagine they are at risk for losing investment in man power, working hours and company property.
Well, the police do give them back their devices, so that is not the biggest issue. What is an issue is that people are worried they will be walking down the street on their way to work and then suddenly locked up for a couple of hours. People are coming to work spooked. They can't easily move around with their laptops or their ATM cards. People don't feel free in their own country. I opened the first technology innovation hub in Nigeria, we've spent the last ten years encouraging young people to pick up a career in tech. We need to put an end to this.
Bosun Tijani(Photo courtesy of Co-Creation Hub)
Has SARS responded in any way?
We have not had any formal response. But the Ministry of Communications, who is responsible for technology, has responded and called on police to stop harassing people. But we don't think that's enough. As part of the government, they need to do more than call on police. Much more than that.
What do you think will happen next. You mention attention, fundraising and lawsuits but what are the immediate next steps for progress?
We're putting together a fundraiser to help people that have strong cases to sue the police.Part of the money we're raising is to go towards organizations that are pushing the government for police reform, organizations like Enough is Enough. But, who knows how long that will take? So we have to push on all fronts.
I am very optimistic that the government will do something tactical to engage the police. The more we see cases, and there are many, the more they will see the urgent need for this. I think even in a couple of days we will see concrete action. In the long run, we would like to see better training for the police as they need to have better discretion. These extortions are disrupting society and ruining the morale of the youth of Nigeria. I don't think that's their aim, but they are killing the social fabric of society.