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Mo’believePhotography @o.t_views

Nigeria’s youth are facing police brutality because of their hair

TextVincent Desmond

Young men and women claim they face extortion and death threats if they have styles outside of what is deemed ‘traditional’

In the warmth of the Harmattan of 2016, Gabriella felt the unmistakable trepidation that came with being stopped by the Nigerian police, not far from Lagos’ Nike Gallery. “First they told me that I couldn't use my license, even though I kept telling them that my international drivers license allowed me to drive for three months in Nigeria,” she recalls. “Then one of them looked at me through the window and said, ‘This your hair, e get as be’ – a flippant sentiment that almost literally translates to: ‘There’s just something about your hair’.”The police explained to Gabriella that they normally wouldn’t let someone with dreadlocks go scot-free, but she was lucky in this instance.

Experiences like Gabriella’s are hardly unique in Nigeria. However, such experiences often end on a more grim note, with those accosted being extorted or harassed for fitting the designated profile of a criminal. In Nigeria, the police tend to share the values of the older generation – unsurprising given their ranks are typically populated by them – and directly contrast the views of the more liberated youth, who are far more open. There’s an ahistorical belief that wearing your hair in dreads, plaiting it, weaving it or colouring it is a deliberate dissociation of African culture, in favour of connecting with Western culture. This ignores African cultures to say the least, but it also presents beauty standards brought by colonialism as the only valid options for African youth to pick from. 

“Dreads are obviously an attraction for them. They automatically assume you are a fraudster. If Nigeria had a jury system, locs would mean you’re most likely guilty. It would be very easy for them to say, ‘He is a thief, can’t you see his hair?’” – Mo’believe

For men, hair is expected to be closely cropped, either black or dark brown, or better yet bald, while women’s hair should be in muted colours, and either weaved back or in some subtle and subdued style. The labels tied to options outside this critera are divided according to gender – coded as ‘femme’ or ‘masculine’ – and occasionally class. For men with ‘feminine’ mannerisms, there is an inherent possbility of homophobic violence, while ‘masculine’ men can be profiled a ‘yahoo boy’ – popular slang for internet fraudster. When a women’s hair is not what is considered normal – anything from colourful hair to extensions – she’s considered ‘ashawo’ – a slur for sex worker, or ‘oyibo’ meaning a creation of the Western world, as with most things considered liberal. 

In Lagos, Port Harcourt, and most of the major cities in Nigeria, police checkpoints are now commonplace and should serve as a source of ressaurance in their communities, and a deterrent for crime. But for many young Nigerians, they leave us questioning how you present yourself and unsurprisingly a pathological fear of the police is growing.

“Dreads are obviously an attraction for them,” says Mo’believe, an urban-folklore singer living in Lagos, who shares that he has been extorted and had his life threatened by police because of his hair. “They automatically assume you are a fraudster. If Nigeria had a jury system, locs would mean you’re most likely guilty. It would be very easy for them to say, ‘He is a thief, can’t you see his hair? Can any responsible person be carrying this hair?’” 

Despite the occasional success of movements like the #EndSARS campaign, pushing to end police brutality, hold officers accountable, and overhaul certain subsets of the Nigerian Police Force, there is very little change in the modus operandi. Lagos-based music producer Vynchie is all too familiar with police scrutiny over his hair having been stopped multiple times. “The worst was in 2017. I was going to get breakfast with two friends,” Vynchie tells me. “Our hair at the time was similar to Travis Scott’s. Typical ‘yahoo boy’ profiling. The police took us from Ajah to the outskirts of Epe, to an abandoned police station with several death threats. It was traumatic.”

Journalist Stephanie Odili’s hair was closely cropped & bright golden brown when she was stopped by the police. “Long story short, these two officers were convinced that my mannerisms, my hair, the fact that I was driving an SUV and going to get my passport done meant that I was nothing but a rich sex worker who wanted to elope to stay in the country illegally,” she says recounting a recent experience. “Nothing I said made sense or was truthful according to them. They called their boys in front to forcefully enter the car and harass my overall look that, as far as they were concerned, screamed ‘indecent, international, ashawo’.”

“Two officers were convinced that my mannerisms, my hair, the fact that I was driving an SUV and going to get my passport done meant that I was nothing but a rich sex worker who wanted to elope to stay in the country illegally; they called their boys in front to forcefully enter the car” – Stephanie Odili 

These experiences are having an undoubtedly effect on the youth of Nigeria. People who refuse to conform are forced to be more aware of their surroundings and even restrict their movements. “I don’t go out at certain times because I don’t have the energy to be arguing. I only go out when I presume it’s safe,” Vynchie explains. When reaching out to the Police Force, they refused to comment on the accusations. 

Despite this, there are those like Mo’believe who have no plans to get rid of or change his hair. “I believe that an artist should easily stand out and have a sort of trademark, something that says he is an artist,” he says. “For some, it’s how they dress. For me, it’s the hair”. This undeniable yet quiet resistance is indicative of a generation-wide refusal to conform to existing norms and beyond these young Nigerians and Nigeria itself, it subtly highlights the relationship between Africans and black people and their hair as well a shared belief among them that, hair isn’t just hair.

Much like the burgeoning underground queer scene, there is something revolutionary about these young Nigerians who are asserting their right to exist as they please in a country like Nigeria, knowing full well the risks. 

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