This article was co-authored by Olivia Ndubuisi.
In Nigeria, youthfulness has become a crime. Young Nigerians are daily assaulted by those whose responsibility it is to maintain law and order—the Nigeria Police Force (NPF) and its Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS) division.
I am shouting because I don’t want to wake up one morning dead, neither do I want to hear that one of my many legitimate developers and techie friends have been severely assaulted for standing for their rights.
With the status quo, it's only a matter of time before the techie who posted this on Twitter is assaulted. And they don't need to be "standing for their rights"; they only need to be young, (preferably) a male, have a laptop in their car, (maybe) wear dreads and say they work online. Whatever security outfit stop him on the road, depending on their mood, will either extort and move him along, search his phone, arrest and lock him up, or do all the above.
Recently, Godwin Amos (@Jbold1999) was on his way back from an Andela Learning Community (ALC) meetup in Lagos. He was in a taxi with his friends. He powered on his laptop so he could charge his phone and that attracted the uniformed men to their car. The taxi was stopped, the girls in the car were let go, but Godwin and the other males were taken.
Godwin told benjamindada.com: "iPhones are like triggers for these people [SARS officers]. So, one of my friends who was a victim in the past quickly slipped his iPhone into one of the girl’s bag because that would’ve gotten him into bigger trouble".
They bundled us inside their Honda Accord and asked why did I have a laptop if I wasn’t defrauding people with it. They asked us to pay ₦45,000 before they release us but we begged that we didn't have that much money. When we got to the Ikeja police station, they collected all the money we had and they let us go.
This is the daily experience of young Nigerians, who are being physically attacked by SARS for internet fraud allegations.
'Internet fraudulent Nigeria'
The United States Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) recently indicted 80 people, 77 of whom are Nigerians, in what is described as the 'largest case of online fraud in the US history'.
Last year, it was reported that 22 Nigerians were arrested in Ghana for online fraud. In June 2019, the New York Times concluded a one-year investigation that traced two of the internet fraudsters to Lagos and Owerri.
Similarly, the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC) Ibadan Zonal office Head, Friday Ebelo, said: "Between January and August 2019, we [the zonal office] have arrested 263 suspected internet fraudsters, out of whom 111 suspects have been convicted and sentenced".
Indeed, Nigerians are constantly arrested for crimes, including internet fraud, which is called Yahoo Yahoo in the local parlance. But is it all young Nigerians that are internet fraudsters?
Why are Nigerian techies targeted by SARS?
The aggressive clamp down on internet fraud has resulted in the erroneous profiling and targeting of young Nigerians.
Jesse, a researcher, photographer and tour guide, told benjamindada.com that he was arrested because "to them [SARS] I looked like a yahoo boy". And that was his fourth ordeal with the rogue officers. Jesse said, "They read my text messages, my bank alerts SMS, opened my notes folder in my phone and typed 'client' in the search bar. When they found nothing, they asked me to confess that I am a yahoo boy".
I was afraid. I saw guns and froze. They carried guns that looked like what should be used at war fronts. I didn’t even say a word. I spoke to them politely in order not to make them angry so they won’t discharge their guns on me. I was afraid that I was going to be gunned down and no one would know what happened to me. So these days, if I don’t go out with my mom or sister, I don’t go out at all.
According to Benjamin, who works in the growing fintech space and is often harassed too, Nigerian techies are young and, as a result of globalization and technology advancement, they earn their keep by working remotely for companies within and outside Nigeria.
This is not a case of law enforcement agents being frustrated that they are not apprehending the real criminals because, truth be told, they know who those ones are. The legitimate ones, the techies are just soft targets they can hassle and extort money from.
All the uproar but no headway
According to the Nigeria Communications Commission (NCC), Nigeria has over 172 million mobile GSM subscribers as at June 2019. And the Nigeria Mobile report by Jumia—a pan-African e-commerce company—projects the number of GSM subscribers will increase to 201 million by 2025.
At the peak of most accounts of brutality against young people in Nigeria, the aggression is taken to Twitter, first it was with the #EndSars, an appeal for the brutality to end.
Citizens, global hearing of the SARS victims will kick off from the 1st Of January 2018 in Lagos. The world wants to hear your SARS Stories. We are starting with the BBC crew who will be on ground soonest. DM if you want to participate. #EndSARS #ReformPoliceNG pic.twitter.com/t7phELHjZr— SEGA L'éveilleur®🚨 (@segalink) December 29, 2017
This October, after yet another harrowing account of a software engineer in Lagos, Akinmolayan Oluwatoni (@toniAstro_) on Twitter, where he said he was beaten, locked up and made to pay some money before he was released, another campaign was birthed: #StopRobbingUs.
Endless disadvantage: Can’t travel, can’t work from home
Physical assault, harassment and intimidation would join the long list of odds stacked against Nigerian developers and young professionals in technology sector.
Twitter is replete with visa denial stories for conferences and international opportunities, sometimes just for the color of their passports. Many developers can't recount the work opportunities they have lost because the companies do not trust Nigerians to do legitimate non-fraudulent work on the internet.
Kaduna-born David Kezi (@daveed_kz) is a front and backend developer, who works in Abuja. Earlier this year, he applied for a fully-funded conference but was denied visa to attend it.
David told benjamindada.com, "I had an invitation letter, flight tickets, and hotel booked when I applied for the visa. I went to the embassy, did the interview but was rejected. I missed the conference. I'd been excited about the conference for the networking opportunity".
Although it was his first visa rejection, David was not surprised because his friends had been denied visa countless times. One of them, he said, had been made an offer to work in Austria but lost the job because the company's legal department would not allow it employ Nigerians. For some of his friends, who live in Lagos, it is double jeopardy. Their visa applications success is a hit-and-miss and they are also being constantly harassed by SARS.
I live in Abuja because, at least, the city is not notorious for police harassment and SARS brutalization. There may be better and more opportunities in Lagos but, no, I prefer Abuja. If I thought the government is working to fix it now, I would have hope. But that does not seem to be the case.
According to him, if the government succeeded in actually fighting internet fraud, his job would be made easier.
David, like many other techies, believes that the constant internet fraud stories coming out of Nigeria build an unconscious bias against Nigeria, and hard-hit is the tech community.
Government statements: All words, where’s the action?
Following @toniastro_ viral account of manhandling, the ministry of communications spokesperson, Uwa Suleiman, said it is "counterproductive" for security agencies to label Nigerians with digital devices, fraudsters, considering the fact that Nigeria is a fledgling tech economy.
But would the government take any immediate targeted action to stop the attack against techies? It doesn’t appear that way, not immediately at least. What is clear, however, is the recognition of the contributions of the industry to the country’s GDP.
The Minister of Communications, Dr Isa Ali Ibrahim Pantami, admitted at the ITU World 2019, that the ICT sector contributed 13.85% to Nigeria’s GDP in the second quarter of 2019 compared to the 8% by the oil sector. He said, "This is a country that was relying on the oil sector but the gap between the contributions of the two sectors (ICT and oil) to the GDP is now wide and it may double in the next two years".
Leaders in the tech community would now send a letter to the president. About ₦16 million has been raised to support the #StopRobbingUs campaign, which intends to build lawsuits and sue some personnel from identified security agencies.
According to a joint statement by the conveners of the campaign, they would be suing for fundamental human rights infringement and there would also be a class action.
Iyin Aboyeji, the co-founder of future.africa, thinks the government is enabling the attacks under the guise of fighting internet fraudsters.
The least you can do for the industry that is growing without your support is treat us like citizens and protect us from police attack.
He said, in a phone interview, that ironically the tech industry is one of the "few bright spots for foreign investors interest in Nigeria" and the continued attacks convince him the government does not care about it at all.
In the meantime, developers who get the opportunity and visa are leaving the country for their own safety.
@toniastro_ ended his long thread on Twitter with "I have to leave this country at the end".
Jesse has thought of moving out of the country too 'now more than ever'.
I have also had to dress down and I do not go out with my ATM cards anymore And if I have to, I put them in my briefs. I wear jeans and very plain sneakers, with no brand logos so that I am not automatically a suspect.
The solution is very simple, Iyin said: "It is illegal. Tell them to stop. The president can call the IG and everybody involved, and tell them to stop tomorrow. It’s the law. Stop harassing young people who have phones and laptops. No need for a committee, no other solution I see on the horizon, just #StopRobbingUs".
Iyin confirmed the reports about suing and said other leaders in the tech community and him would continue to speak out locally and to the international community until something happens.
Olivia Ndubuisi can be found on Twitter and Instagram @116Olivia