ITHACA, N.Y.—A trio of Cornell students organized an impressive event on Sunday evening at the Bernie Milton Pavilion on the Commons, drawing a crowd of nearly 100 to brave the cold and call attention to the burgeoning police violence crisis in Nigeria that has evoked more and more protests over the last few weeks.
A series of speakers addressed the gathered crowd, ranging from fiery condemnation of the Nigerian administration to emotional remembrance of the victims of police brutality in the country. The Special Anti-Robbery Squad, known as SARS but without any connection to the viral illness, is a Nigerian police force that has existed for decades but has recently come under intense scrutiny, culminating in protests throughout the country over the last several weeks—though last week, those boiled over into police opening fire into a peaceful crowd of protesters and further violent crackdowns on protests, killing dozens so far. What started as protests in the streets of Nigeria has mushroomed into a movement that has spread far beyond Nigeria’s borders, with demonstrations being held around the world, including in the United States.
Cornell students Barbara Oramah, Damilola Odunowo and Chloe Chidera Ene were the event’s organizers. They are unattached to any official organization on campus, but felt an urge to provide students touched by the events in Nigeria a place to convene and grieve. The organizers and many of those in attendance either have personal or familial ties to Nigeria, giving the gathering a sense of common struggle as well. The event wasn’t widely promoted, as they only started spreading the word a few days ago, but was obviously well-received, shown by the number of people who showed up and remained throughout the hour-long ceremony.
“We were very clearly distraught with everything happening, just individually,” Oramah said. “It’s the very least that we could do, to have one spot in Ithaca where people who resonate with this topic, who want to know more or who just want to show solidarity have a space to do that. That was the goal and I think we achieved that to the best of our abilities, given the time constraints and the pandemic.”
Ithaca College professor Peyi Soyinka-Airewele began the event with a recounting of the history of the SARS unit and an extended critique of Nigerian president Muhammadu Buhari’s management of the issue. She led the crowd in a call-and-response chant demanding the end of SARS and a stop to the violence in the country, plus rallying the attendees to support each other and use the renewed interest in the crisis to push for American support for reform.
Other speakers followed, as Ene then read a list of victims of SARS violence over the years, the vast majority of which were either young adults or teenagers. Ene, who was talking through tears by the end of her speech, said she chose those names simply because they were the ones that had made headlines over the last several years, stretching back more than a decade for some of them, but that there were many, many more that had fallen victim to the violence.
“It’s been years and years of families seeking closure and seeking justice (…) You really feel the pain and the hurt that their families are currently going through and must have gone through even back then when it was still fresh,” Ene said. “What we’ve been able to do here reflects the resilience of the Nigeria youth.”
The group said that they are unsure if they will hold future events, but that they were glad they took the initiative to at least introduce the topic to Ithaca and help spread the information to an audience that might not have known about it beforehand. They do intend to continue to do that, including printing up flyers in the next few days, aimed at trying to prevent the story from fading into oblivion because it’s “just another Africa story.” Oramah said they wanted to communicate with people back in Nigeria who would be able to help guide them about the best way to provide support and the best path forward.
“At the end of the day, it is West Africa,” Odunowo said. “That’s the narrative that a lot of people share (…) There’s so much going on in the continent already, this is just one more thing. Seeing the way it hasn’t been adopted in the mainstream media by the powers that be, it doesn’t surprise me. Does it upset me? Yes. But it doesn’t surprise me.”