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Nigeria Protests Against Government Violence Reaches Tipping Point

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

U.S. State Department officials were in Abuja yesterday as Nigeria's government faces a citizens uprising over police brutality. What started as a protest against abuses by the SARS, or Special Anti-Robbery Squad, has become a broader movement. The SARS unit was long accused of beatings, sexual assault and torture. While it's now been disbanded, protests exploded once again after Nigerian security forces reportedly opened fire on a crowd of demonstrators that left more than 10 dead. Karen Attiah is the global opinions writer for The Washington Post. She's here to talk more about the background to all this.

Welcome to the program.

KAREN ATTIAH: Thanks, Audie.

CORNISH: Give us a little bit of background here not just about SARS, but policing because it's long been an issue that Nigeria has received worldwide criticism over.

ATTIAH: Yeah. In many ways, the world has known about Nigeria's State Security agents and the abuses that they inflict on civilians. Even in the fight against Boko Haram, Nigeria's army was also engaging in abuses against civilians, so much so that the United States did not want to sell Apache helicopters and weapons to the Nigerian army until there was some reform around human rights. And so now here we are, and this army is reportedly firing into crowds in Lagos. And I think now what we're seeing is the Nigerians are saying, we are done. We are fed up. This needs to end once and for all.

CORNISH: Now, this unit was disbanded in response to these protests, and the governor of Lagos has talked about police reforms. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo issued a statement saying the U.S. condemn, quote, "the use of excessive force by military forces" and urged Nigeria's security services to show maximum restraint. In your opinion column, though, you argue that Nigeria's government is in some ways taking from the Trump administration's playbook. In what way?

ATTIAH: So when the reports of the shootings came out, and not just reports - eyewitness accounts, social media videos, filming injured protesters, dying protesters - the Nigerian army responded by saying fake news. They tweeted that, a series of tweets - fake news, fake news, fake news. Buhari has made a statement addressing the Nigerian people and essentially blaming protesters for the insecurity. So in many ways, it's taking from a playbook, in some ways, that we've seen in the U.S. when it's come to Black Lives Matter protesters, blaming protesters for violence when in reality it has been the security agents that have been using overwhelming and disproportionate force on innocent civilians.

CORNISH: This has drawn the attention of celebrity culture now, right? You have Twitter's Jack Dorsey, Beyonce, people speaking out on social media. The Nigerian vice president happened to be meeting with the U.S. delegation yesterday, as we referred to in our introduction. As someone who is watching this closely, what are you going to be looking for now? I mean, this has captured the world's attention.

ATTIAH: Well, I think what I would be looking for is to continue to uplift the Nigerian activists and protesters because as easy as it sometimes can be to transpose our perceptions of police brutality and race from the U.S. on to what's happening in Nigeria, it's a different context. This is something that Nigerians have been struggling against and protesting against for generations. And so I think what I would be looking for and hoping for is really for the world and particularly the Black diaspora to stand with them. Just as there were protests on the continent, on the African continent for Black Lives Matter here in America, I think what is really fascinating is the whole sort of Black world and the use of social media in the resistance against brutality and oppression.

CORNISH: Karen Attiah, thank you so much for speaking with us.

ATTIAH: Thank you, Audie. Thank you, guys. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.