With the violent police unit now disbanded following October’s protests, the country’s youth are finding the freedom to express themselves in new ways
In 2019, Tobi was on his way back from renewing his passport when he was stopped by officials from the now-disbanded Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS). It was a sunny day and the 23-year-old university student was wearing a bucket hat and sunglasses for protection. That was all it took for the SARS officials to decide that he looked like a ‘yahoo boy’ – a Nigerian term used to describe internet fraudsters. Based on his fashion choices alone, they came to the conclusion that he surely had to be one.
“I got searched, my phone got searched – every app, all my emails – and my bags were also searched,” he recalls. “They saw my old passport and new passport and concluded that I was into fraud. Even after I explained to them I was carrying both as I was just returning from the immigration office, they kept insisting I was a yahoo boy and the only reason I have two passports is because they’re a tool of the trade.”
Tobi isn’t alone in being targeted by SARS thanks to what he was wearing. 25-year-old legal practitioner Timinepre Cole was stopped by a police officer who expressly asked her why she was dressed in a masculine style. “He told me ‘Women no suppose dey think she be a man,” she explains of the encounter, a conservative rhetoric used to perpetuate violence on people with different gender expressions or sexual orientations. “They let me go when I showed my work ID, saw I was a lawyer, and realised I wouldn’t fall for intimidation tactics,” she adds.
Originally formed in 1992 to help tackle violent crimes and rising cases of armed robbery, over the years the Special Anti-Robbery Squad has increasingly trained its eyes on innocent young Nigerians under the guise of tackling cyber crime. Before protests against the police unit began in early October, many young Nigerians ran a high risk of being arrested, detained, extorted, and assaulted either for having dreadlocks or dying their hair, due to their stereotypical associations with criminals and miscreants. Others were targeted for simply dressing well, which basically translates to looking modest and professional – as anyone with a typical office job may do.
With a new gen of Nigerians increasingly exploring their identities and creating new ones for themselves through fashion and their personal style, the indiscriminate profiling Tobi, Timinepre, and countless others were subjected to was rampant. However, after the EndSARS movement picked up pace in the country and protesters took to the streets to call for SARS to be disbanded, the unit was subsequently scrapped – and now, it looks like things are set to change.
In the wake of the revolutionary movement, young Nigerians are beginning to reclaim their style and push things even further. Enjoying the newfound freedom that allows them to express themselves fully, many are experimenting with their clothes and hair without fear of repercussions for the first time in their lives. Among them is 21-year-old student and photographer Adedamola Odetara, who dyed his hair gold after being inspired by a friend’s own dye-job. “This is my first time dying my hair to any other colour apart from black,” he explains. “I know the possibility of getting arrested by the police for dying my hair isn’t zero, but it has reduced drastically.”
“Some (people) are now able to do what they’d been meaning to for a while but wouldn’t dare because of the fear of (encountering) SARS officials on the road. They’re taking back their right to be expressive, which is something we lost before the EndSARS protests happened” – Joseph Omanibe Anedo
Similarly, barber and hairstylist Joseph Omanibe Anedo explains many of his clients have been more open to trying out new things in recent weeks. “People are more comfortable with doing whatever they want with their hair,” he says. “Some are now able to do what they’d been meaning to for a while but wouldn’t dare because of the fear of (encountering) SARS officials on the road. They’re taking back their right to be expressive, which is something we lost before the EndSARS protests happened.” This culture change is also exciting to the 21-year-old on a more personal level. As someone who chooses to style his hair in braids, he too has been a victim of indiscriminate arrests at the hands of SARS officers on multiple occasions, with most happening without formal charges and resulting in him being detained all day.
Before now, 20-year-old student and YouTuber Omofolarin Adafin would normally hide his septum piercing and had restrained himself from tapping into some of the style ideas he would love to try. But with things as they are now, Adafin feels a little more free. He now lets his nose ring hang out visibly and is considering adding more colour and edge to his wardrobe. “I am looking forward to trying out styles I would have shied away from. I would lean more into something edgy, retro, and urbane. I would also love to wear a lot of vintage outfits with bright colours and bigger fittings.” he reveals.
SARS’ discrimination goes beyond singling out those dressing like ‘yahoo boys’ however, with plenty of young Nigerians who made an effort to wear ‘acceptable’ hair styles in a bid to fly under the radar also accosted on a regular basis – thus making that self-preservation useless in the face of a power drunk unit hellbent on ripping off unsuspecting kids going about their day. “I didn't consider doing anything too crazy to avoid SARS and police stress, but the event that changed my perspective on this happened a few days into the EndSARS protests,” 26-year-old visual artist Obayomi Anthony says. “I was stopped twice in a single morning by two different SARS gangs in unmarked cars, even with my so-called ‘decent’ hairstyle.”
The incident made him realise how unnecessary constricting the way he dressed was. Although appearances that suggested individuality or expressiveness were one of the abhorrent excuses SARS officials resorted to when it came to making arrests, they were always sure to find something else to hold on to in the absence of an issue with the way someone looked. “That morning I realised there's no point holding myself back,” he adds. “I went to the salon for a regular trim, but on getting there I realised plaiting my hair would solve the problem of combing. After trying it, I thought it looked good, so I kept it.”
While SARS has now officially been disbanded, it doesn’t mean police brutality and indiscriminate stop-and-searches are a thing of the past. A number of Nigerians have taken to social media to report cases of being stopped based on their looks even after the EndSARS protests despite pledges made by the police to draw a line under this practice. “I thought (things had changed) until I was harassed with a friend recently,” says 24-year-old Alexandra Maduagwu. Despite this, she’s resolved to keep wearing the androgynous Oxford shoes, loafers, and afro-centric jewellery she loves, and continue styling her short dreads in a fro.
Emboldened by the results stemming from their collective action during the autumn uprising and the worldwide attention it garnered, plenty of others feel the same. Tobi explains he intends to grow his hair out and put it in locs before braiding it, while Adedamola is intent on getting cornrows when his afro is full enough, as well as a new piercing in the near future. Obayomi, meanwhile, is planning on his own piercing, as well as some tattoos, potentially. “I’ve been stopped and harassed mostly because I don’t fit into society’s standards of how a woman should look or present,” says Timinepre. “With or without SARS, I’ve always expressed myself the way I want: piercings, dyed hair, all of it. But I definitely think I’m bolder now. We have the media on our side, and one tweet can do a lot.”