Idorenyin Obong, a contract Android Engineer at Paystack was returning home on Thursday night in an Uber after a hard day’s work. What was supposed to be a routine journey from mainland Ikeja to Lekki became a torturous ordeal when his ride was flagged down by four officers of the Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS) unit of the Nigerian Police for a stop and search in Victoria Island.
An officer began searching the car and upon discovering he had a MacBook and an iPhone XS in his possession, surmised that he was into ‘games’, apparently an in-house slang for internet fraud.
Obong says the officers ordered him to unlock his phone, and went through his emails, WhatsApp texts and Google Hangout and began interrogating him.
“I told him where I worked and showed him my ID card,” Obong told TechCabal.
But none of this mattered to the officers who seized his phone and ordered him into their bus. All of this was happening at 11 pm.
Obong says the officers demanded an N800,000 ransom before he could be released. He told them he did not have that much and reached an N100,000 bargain.
“They said if I didn’t give them the money, they would deal with me and shoot me.”
Obong says the officers drove him in an unnumbered and unofficial patrol bus, from Victoria Island to Marina, a 16km journey, to five ATM outlets before arriving at one where he withdrew N50,000 cash to coerce them into accepting a bank transfer for record purposes. They refused, asking him to transfer the balance into the account of an earlier victim before dropping him off in an unfamiliar area around Marina from where he had to find his way home.
Shaken, Obong says he made his way home and reckons the situation was exacerbated by the fact the officers caught his Uber driver with weed.
“Another thing that worsened the situation was the [Uber] driver was caught with weed. So that looked like a double offence on my part,” Obong said.
“I reported this to Uber so they can punish the driver because that was very very irresponsible. He was part of the cause of this mess.”
This development comes just after the #StopRobbingUs movement launched to combat the alleged harassment of tech industry employees at the hands of this dreaded police unit.
Last week, a tweet from Toni Astro, a Lagos-based software engineer, detailing his harassment experience caused the tech community to spring into action. Today, the officers who harassed and extorted the engineer have been arrested and remanded while Astro has been assured the money the officers extorted would be refunded in full.
On September 28, Astro said he was on his way home when he was accosted by SARS officers in the Ketu area of Lagos Mainland who demanded he follow them to their station for no discernible reason. Astro said one of the officers threatened to shoot him in the leg if he did not comply.
They asked for a million naira in exchange for his freedom.
At their Ogudu Area H office, Astro says he was physically assaulted in the hopes that he would confess to being an internet fraudster when they discovered he had a laptop with him. In between slaps and punches, they haggled over his ransom. After an hour, he was forced to go to the nearest ATM where he withdrew half the money in his account before he was handed his computer and other belongings and asked to go.
A thread recounting this experience in detail drew the attention and outrage of the tech community. Bosun Tijani, founder of CcHUB, Nigeria’s premier incubator, assailed Nigeria’s leaders for not protecting young people trying to do honest work despite the harsh realities of this country.
“Without your support, we came together and paved a path for young people and you still can’t protect them? When will this stop? When?” he asked.
In the last two years, an #EndSARS campaign has been ongoing on and offline to curtail the excesses of this unit of the Nigerian Police who have been accused of extortions, torture and extrajudicial killings of suspects.
“Our research has uncovered a pattern of ruthless human rights violations where victims are arrested and tortured until they either make a ‘confession’ or pay officers a bribe to be released,” said Damian Ugwu, Amnesty International’s Nigeria researcher in 2016.
SARS, a unit under the Criminal Investigation Department of the Nigerian police has been in existence for over 30 years and has been credited with smashing countless kidnapping rings, armed robbery gangs, cults, and much more in the last 5 years more than other units of the police. Much of what it has become in the last two years however is the complete opposite. Following the release of Amnesty’s findings, the Public Relations Officer of the Lagos state force and the Inspector General of Police, Ibrahim Idris, asked that the reports be disregarded saying what the unit needed were reforms as complete scrapping was impossible. There was reportedly a three-day training in October 2016 to this effect. Vice President Yemi Osinbanjo last year, ordered a shut down of the unit with immediate effect. With these recent reports, the results of a shutdown or reforms are yet to be seen or felt.
Despite the good news for Astro, the #StopRobbingUs campaign is still ongoing and undeterred in its efforts to protect members of the tech community from harassment from this rogue unit, campaigners said.
The campaign, which has garnered widespread media attention locally and internationally, will bring lawsuits against the Nigerian Police Force on behalf of victims who have been assaulted.
“#StopRobbingUs is a cry for help from young Nigerians, especially those in the tech industry, for the Nigerian police to stop a common practice where young people with laptops are unlawfully arrested and sometimes kidnapped by police and forced to withdraw funds from their bank accounts in order to regain their freedoms,” Tijani said when the campaign launched earlier this week.
“It builds on the larger #EndSARS movement that has rocked Nigeria over the last year, an appeal for the frequent robberies by security operatives who are supposed to protect them.”
The lawsuit will be funded by a N10 million pledge from Jason Njoku, CEO, IrokoTV as well as donations from people from around the world via Flutterwave. All service fees for the fundraiser on the platform have been waived, according to Flutterwave CEO Olugbenga Agboola.
- Aanu Adeoye contributed reporting to this article.