#StopRobbingUs: The criminal tag associated with owning a laptop in Nigeria and the impact on the country

On many occasions, a lot of Nigerian youths have been harassed and brutalized by officers of the Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS)— an arm of the Nigerian Police Force under the Force Criminal Investigation and Intelligence Department (FCIID). The squad is meant to deal with crimes associated with armed robbery, car snatching, kidnapping, cattle rustling and crimes associated with firearms. However, this anti-robbery squad have chosen to terrorize Nigerian youths who have chosen not to be lazy and depend on a government that has continually failed them.

Many SARS officials have seen the youths as their prey and have decided to flex their muscles on them. Most devastating is the youths on dreads are seen to be internet fraudsters, instilling fear in them. Many cannot walk the streets freely with their phones for fear of being harassed by members of SARS.

This has been an ongoing challenge in the country, however, the most recent case comes after Toni Astro, a Lagos-based software engineer, posted on Twitter a harrowing account of his encounter with SARS officers in Ketu, Lagos. During his ordeal on Saturday, September 28, Astro was allegedly publicly intimidated, arrested, beaten and extorted, in order to secure his freedom. 

This news of SARS officials targeting software engineers is a frequent occurrence in Nigeria, especially in Lagos. Software Engineers have continually been harassed when they are seen on the road with their laptops, which is meant to be their working tool. These youths are termed internet fraudsters by the members of SARS and oftentimes their laptops are seized or they end up being detained for days before their family members will get to know their whereabouts.

These series of harassment and brutality have forced several prominent tech CEOs to speak against the unruly behaviour of SARS. Bosun Tijani of CcHub, Jason Njoku of iROKO Tv, Seni Sulyman of Andela, Victor Asemota of Alta Global Ventures, Mark Essien of Hotels.ng and Iyinoluwa Aboyeji (formerly of Andela and Flutterwave) are just a few of the stalwarts of the Nigerian tech ecosystem who are now vehemently speaking against the SARS menace. 

These individuals have launched a campaign tagged #StopRobbingUs, to put an end to the common practice where Nigerian police stop young people with laptops and unlawfully arrest, attack or, in extreme circumstances, kidnap them, forcing them to withdraw funds from their bank accounts in order to regain their freedom.

Working alongside Enough is Enough Nigeria [EiE], a network of individuals and organisations that promote good governance and public accountability in Nigeria, the #StopRobbingUs movement is now considering a Class Action Lawsuit on police brutality. They are calling on the Federal Government of Nigeria to intervene in the continued practice of illegally arresting and extorting young people in Nigeria who work in the technology sector. A fundraiser has also been launched by Flutterwave to raise money for legal intervention and public awareness programme. This account has already seen donations coming in from different parts of the world.

‘Bosun Tijani, CEO CcHUB says, “Our ask is simple. Stop arresting our colleagues. This is an ongoing concern for Nigeria’s tech community. A talent problem already exists in our sector, yet police, particularly SARS’ harassment, accentuates the talent drain in our industry. This is the central issue for jobs and youth empowerment in Nigeria and the continued, illegal attacks on our country’s young people should be treated as a national emergency. Beyond its pro-innovation rhetoric, the Nigerian government continues to turn a blind eye to the robbery and psychological intimidation of young tech talent.”

“We are social innovators, entrepreneurs, engineers and business leaders who work in Nigeria’s technology and innovation sector. Over the last few decades, we have collectively helped to build an innovative, highly respected tech industry that has elevated Nigeria on the global stage and demonstrated that young Nigerians can do great things. The bedrock of our industry is Nigeria’s young and ambitious technology talent. They drive our operations, build our products, serve our customers and solve difficult problems for society every day. Without this talent, our industry would not exist. Nigeria’s tech community is mobilizing, and fast. Collectively, we have remained silent for too long. As of now, our voice will be deafening, and we plan to see the #StopRobbingUs campaign through to the very end.” 

How would this affect Nigeria’s Tech ecosystem

According to Code.org, there are less than 50,000 Computer Science graduates but, there are over 500,000 open computing positions in the United States. While there are a lot of smartphone users, there is a growing love for smart homes and artificial intelligence. This shows that the future is bright for a lot of software developers/Engineers as there will always be a high demand for their services. This why in Nigeria, there are currently a lot of software Engineers and companies that help develop these professionals and match them with the right jobs due to their distinct skills sets.

Nigeria, with a population of about 200million people, is Africa’s most valuable tech ecosystem, with 400-700 startups worth $2billion, in 2018 alone, the country attracted $306 million in tech investment in over 26 deals which is a 53 percent Year On Year increase. Nigeria remains the most advanced ecosystems, boasting of  85 active tech hubs offering well-established collaborations and investment networks. Its financial hub, Lagos is now the top innovative city by the number of hubs (40+), while Western Cape, Gauteng and, increasingly, Durban, are the core of South Africa’s tech hubs scene. 

If this issue with SARS officials is not handled properly and quickly, it can have an adverse effect on the Nigerian tech ecosystem both economically and socially.

Economically, the attacks can see a lot of these tech professionals leaving the country to places like the USA where there is a high demand for their services and it will have a negative effect on the country’s tech industry as the best hands will be seen leaving thereby leading to brain drain. Over time, the country will spend more money on bringing expatriates to come do the work of these young Nigerians. It can also discourage the youth from pursuing a career in software development/engineering

In reaction to the economic impact of these attacks, Tijani told TheNerve Africa that “We’re primarily concerned about losing a high proportion of technology professionals to overseas opportunities; where young people carrying a MacBook are considered an asset, rather than an opportunity for extortion. Nigeria’s tech sector is worth in excess of $2billion – the software engineers who work for the sector are generating this revenue for our country. If they leave, the revenue will drop.”

This is also putting the country on a bad light as some investors will see this as an opportunity not to invest in the Nigerian tech ecosystem. This would mean bad news for Tech CEO who have invested all their time and money in growing their business to the standard of attracting investors’ interest.

“We want the Federal Government to step in and put a final end to the menace that is the Nigerian Police. It’s an embarrassment and a stain on our Nation. Everywhere else around the world – in both developed and emerging markets, technology professionals are celebrated. In Nigeria, our officials are persecuting them. How have we allowed this to happen? So you see, the campaign must put an end to this because it is damaging our community, our businesses and our young people,” Tijan told TheNerve Africa in an interview.

So far, the exact figures on SARS brutality and arrest are unknown, but below are stories from some of those who’ve been brave enough to speak out publicly 

As at the time of writing this story no government agencies have reached out to the aggrieved parties.