Nigerians in Atlanta saddened, hopeful amid chaos in homeland

Ebianga Ikpeme, better known as DJ ECool, speaks during a Wednesday night protest at Centennial Olympic Park. The Advance Nigeria Organization held the protest a day after the Nigerian military opened fire on peaceful protests in Lagos. SPECIAL PHOTO/ADVANCE NIGERIA

Ebianga Ikpeme, better known as DJ ECool, speaks during a Wednesday night protest at Centennial Olympic Park. The Advance Nigeria Organization held the protest a day after the Nigerian military opened fire on peaceful protests in Lagos. SPECIAL PHOTO/ADVANCE NIGERIA

A few hundred people filled the streets and sidewalks outside Centennial Olympic Park on Wednesday night, in a spot that’s become synonymous with protest in Atlanta. They marched and waved Nigerian flags marred with fake red blood, asking Americans to listen.

“Soro soke,” they chanted — speak louder.

“We have the responsibility here in the diaspora to be the voice of the voiceless,” Victor Bomi, one of the protest’s organizers said later. “Since the government is trying to shut out their voice and not listen to them, we have to make 10 times even more noise here.”

In Nigeria, Africa’s most populous country, tens of thousands of citizens have flooded the streets of Lagos and other cities for weeks now, protesting decades of government corruption and the brutality of a federal police unit known as the Special Anti-Robbery Squad. The End SARS movement was already garnering more international attention — then the massacre happened.

Government officials have denied any involvement. But according to eyewitness accounts and investigations conducted by Amnesty International and other organizations, the Nigerian military opened fire Tuesday night on peaceful protesters gathered in Lagos, the country’s most populous city.

At least 12 people were killed.

Nigeria is the largest source of African immigration to the United States, and while exact figures are hard to pin down, the Atlanta area boasts one of the country’s more sizable Nigerian-American populations. The 2016 American Community Survey estimated that Georgia had more than 19,000 Nigerian-born residents.

Generations worth of corruption and police abuses in their homeland have long weighed on local Nigerians, and the protests that started this month were already front of mind. Violence — whether from Boko Haram terrorists or SARS itself — is nothing new.

But news of Tuesday’s killings, dubbed the Lekki Massacre after the tollgate where protesters had gathered, sent concentrated shockwaves of emotion through Atlanta’s Nigerian community.

Bomi, a local real estate entrepreneur who organized Wednesday’s march in Centennial Olympic Park and helped start a group called the Advance Nigeria Organization, said he was distraught and angry. Dr. Emelia Orubele, president of the Atlanta-based Nigerian Women Association of Georgia, called the situation “really, really atrocious.”

Alice Osunde, leader of the Association of Nigerian Organizations of Georgia, said she’s been getting non-stop phone calls from fellow countrymen and women. Most folks have not just roots in their homeland but family and friends that are still there.

“It hurts," she said. “But at the same time, it gives me hope.”

The hope, to be clear, stems not from the massacre itself. It lies in what preceded the shooting and what’s continued since: the legions of young Nigerians leading a movement to speak up against long-standing mistreatment and cruelty.

The SARS unit was formed decades ago to battle violent crime. It eventually devolved, many Nigerians and outside observers say, into a criminal organization all its own, with members extorting, kidnapping, sexually assaulting and killing people with impunity.

Earlier this year, Amnesty International, the worldwide human rights group, released a report documenting “at least 82 cases of torture, ill treatment and extra-judicial execution” perpetrated by SARS between January 2017 and May 2020.

The current wave of protests was triggered by the emergence of video footage showing SARS officers shooting a man outside a Lagos hotel.

At least 56 people have died since the protests began, according to Amnesty International.

“My heart goes out to those that lost their lives doing this,” Orubele said. “But they are our heroes.”

The United Nations' secretary general and its human rights chief are among those to condemn Tuesday’s killings. Celebrities like Rihanna and Beyonce and Star Wars star John Boyega have offered their support of the End SARS movement.

Locally, the Martin Luther King Jr. Center has voiced its support as well, tweeting that Nigerians were “fighting for freedom and justice.”

Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden issued a statement calling for the Nigerian military and President Muhammadu Buhari to “cease the violent crackdown on protesters.” U.S. President Donald Trump — who infamously described African nations and others as “sh*thole countries” — has been silent on the matter.

Several local Nigerian-Americans said that, given the history and Trump’s position on similar Black Lives Matter protests in America, the latter is disappointing but unsurprising.

“I want my government to do something about this,” said George Chidi, a local journalist and commentator who has family from Nigeria. “There are sanctions that can be laid on the people that are responsible for this, and they should be.”

In the meantime, locals are doing what they can.

Bomi said his organization was founded to empower Nigerian youth and, like many others, is also helping support groups on the ground in Nigeria. Protests like the one he helped organize this week are also important.

Grabbing — and holding — international attention could play a crucial role in driving change back home.

“One of the biggest things is to continue to raise awareness,” Hope Okotie, a member of the Nigerian Women Association of Georgia. “It’s still ongoing. It didn’t stop [with the massacre]. It’s still happening.”