Tech unites to #EndSARS

Nigeria’s Tech Startup Scene Faces Horrors Of SARS/Police Brutality

By  |  October 12, 2020

One of Nigeria’s newest crop of fintech startups is a digital bank known as Kuda. The challenger bank has an unusual feature on its app ominously named “Panic Balance.”

Through this feature, users can set a fake balance of NGN 5 K (USD 11.00) or less, and when in trouble, they can display the fake balance by shaking their device. That way, they can mislead anyone threatening them to the point of raiding their bank balance.

Now, why would Kuda even bother to go through all that trouble? Why would a fintech app bother with such a feature?

One would think this feature was added to Kuda’s app because of the need to protect its predominantly youthful customer base from thieves. But oddly, Kuda was mostly inspired by the need to keep users safe from a loathed unit of the Nigeria Police Force (NPF) that makes actual robbers look like friendlies.

It’s just one example of how Nigeria’s young tech entrepreneurs have been forced to engineer literal survival mechanisms into their products, so as to protect themselves from their “supposed protectors.”

Throughout the past week, Nigerians all over the country and even people in the diaspora united in massive peaceful demonstrations with the goal of putting an end to a notorious police unit known as the Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS) — infamous for profiling, extortion, kidnapping, and extrajudicial killings. The #EndSARS hashtag is trending worldwide.

SARS is a unit under the Criminal Investigation and Intelligence Department (CIID) of the Nigeria Police Force, supposedly set up to fight crimes especially robbery and kidnapping in Nigeria.

But in the past 3-4 years, the unit seems to have become a menace, orchestrating evil with impunity. The SARS unit especially targets young Nigerians who are mindlessly profiled as internet fraudsters and are summarily harassed, assaulted, kidnapped, extorted, and in some cases, murdered.

Nigeria’s bubbly tech startup scene which is awash with “young-and-getting-it coders and tech entrepreneurs” has been disproportionately affected by the SARS menace.

Between startups like Flutterwave, Paystack, Andela, and Helium Health, there have been harrowing tales of police brutality and extortion, perpetuated by SARS, in the last few years.

There seems to be no distinction, the horror episodes have affected both the most reputable of founders/investors and even upcoming techies.

Iyin “E” Aboyeji, who co-founded both Andela and Flutterwave, remembers being picked up by SARS for no reason in Ogbomosho, Oyo State, on his way to a meeting with a top government official about setting up Andela in Ibadan. His only crime was having a decent job and building things on the internet in his own country.

Aboyeji has stories for days about how he had to extricate many an Andela Fellow from the SARS web every other time during his days at the talent outsourcing startup.

Their crime? Having a laptop in their backpack or a nice phone in their pocket, owning a car, riding in an Uber, spotting locks or tattoos, or just looking like they clean up good. Or just being a young person in Nigeria.

The co-founder/CEO of Nigerian health-tech startup, Adegoke Olubisi, had his life flash before his eyes when he was shot at by two SARS officers while taking a stroll one night on the Lekki-Ikoyi bridge in Lagos.

Yele Bademosi, another well-known member of the tech industry who co-founded Nigerian venture capital firm, Microtraction, and is the CEO of fintech startup, Bundle, has his own SARS horror story. Bademosi was kidnapped and extorted by SARS officers while heading home in October 2019.

Apparently, the notoriety of this now-infamous rogue police unit touches everyone, not just locals.

Aubrey Hruby, the co-founder of InsiderPR and an investor in African startups, told a horrid account of how she brought VC investors to Nigeria from Egypt last year and they were “completely shaken down and robbed by the police as they were leaving the country after an amazing week of meeting with stellar Nigerian entrepreneurs.”

Jesse Ghansah, the Ghanaian entrepreneur who is the co-founder of Swipe, has had his run-ins with SARS in Nigeria and remembers the extortion and harassment that his team members have faced time and again at the hands of the rogue officers.

Although calls to end to SARS have been on and off since 2017, the Nigerian tech community united to confront the menace after a sour September 2019 episode involving a young software developer at Buffer Media.

The victim was Akinmolayan Oluwatoni, he was accosted on his way home, harassed, taken away, locked up, assaulted, threatened, and eventually extorted by SARS. His crime? Just being a young person with a phone and a laptop.

That incident sparked the coming to life of the #StopRobbingUs campaign against police brutality meted out on young Nigerians in tech. This campaign was crowdfunded by the local tech industry.

But never before has the resolve among Nigerians to not only #EndSARS but also bring about substantial reform across every unit of the local police force been this strong.

That is why even after the nationwide protests forced the current Inspector-General of Police, Mohammed Adamu, to announce the “dissolution” of SARS in a televised briefing on Sunday, October 11, Nigerians are still out in their numbers protesting peacefully and demanding real change. That’s probably because SARS has been “banned and disbanded” many times before, but they have continued to wreak havoc.

It certainly hasn’t helped that protesters have been shot at, tear-gassed, water-cannoned, flogged, beaten, captured, and allegedly killed by police officers in the middle of peaceful demonstrations against police brutality.

Among the individuals and groups contributing to the fight against police brutality is the Nigerian tech startup scene whose talent assets are among the biggest victims of the SARS menace.

Nigerian fintech startup, Flutterwave, which has seen several members of its staff suffer unjustly at the hands of SARS officers according to CEO, Olugbenga Agboola, announced a fund on Friday, October 9, and raised NGN 2 Mn (USD 5.2 K) in-house. 

The fund, which is now open to the public, exists to cater to victims of police brutality and put an end to impunity. Donations to the fund amounting to millions of naira have trickled in from various tech startups and other well-meaning individuals.

Bademosi’s newly-launched fintech startup, Bundle, has also set up three cryptocurrency wallets to raise funds globally in support of #EndSARS protestors and victims of SARS and has contributed NGN 1 Mn (USD 2.6 K) to the fund.

Bundle is raising funds to support #EndSARS protests around Nigeria; to provide resources for our people on the frontline, as well as to fight against police brutality via all the available channels.

Featured Image Courtesy: NaijaSuperFans

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