‘The Nigeria flag was bloodied’: Footballers condemn violence against protesters

Nigeria flag

Minutes after Manchester United’s 2-1 victory at French giants Paris Saint-Germain in the UEFA Champions League on Tuesday, United’s Nigerian striker Odion Ighalo posted two videos on his social media feed.

They were not the normal celebratory videos that follow a match win. Instead, with a wet drizzle forming a teary backdrop around him, Ighalo was sombre and subdued, and his message was unequivocally directed at the Nigerian government.

It followed harrowing videos from his homeland that showed peaceful protesters seemingly being shot with live ammunition in Nigeria’s commercial capital of Lagos State.

“I am sad and heartbroken and I don’t know where to start from,” he began in a voice that sounded broken.

“I am not the kind of guy that talks about politics, but I can’t keep quiet any more for what is going on back home in Nigeria.

“I will say Nigerian government, you guys are a shame to the world for killing your own citizens, sending military to the streets to kill unarmed protesters because they are protesting for their rights? It is uncalled for.”

Ighalo went on call on the United Nations, the UK, and world leaders to come to the aid of citizens in Nigeria. Within hours, the video had racked up two million views on Twitter.

Tuesday’s events were the tragic culmination of events which began on October 3 in the southern Nigerian town of Ughelli, where a young man was arrested by the notorious Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS) and fell to his death from the police vehicle, with the officers driving away in his SUV.

Protests broke out following the incident and continued for two days before spilling over into Lagos, amplified by the power of Twitter and then spread nationwide within days.

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Ighalo’s video was only the latest in a series of reactions to ongoing protests against police brutality in Nigeria, not just by football players but also other Nigerian and international sports figures.

Prior to Tuesday’s events, the Super Eagles took a stand in support of the protests during the international weekend, when the team formed a circle following Kelechi Iheanacho’s goal against Tunisia, took a knee and raised their fists in support of the protest movement.

Leicester’s Wilfred Ndidi stood up with a raised first during the Foxes’ Premier League home loss to Aston Villa last weekend.

In Italy, striker Victor Osimhen scored his first goal in the Serie A for Napoli, the club he joined during the summer, and promptly displayed a shirt with the #EndSARS and #EndPoliceBrutalityInNigeria hashtags used by the protesters.

Elsewhere on the same day, fellow striker Simeon “Simy” Nwankwo did the same after scoring for Crotone in their 1-1 draw with Juventus.

Nwankwo told ESPN that he has also suffered some of the harassment that has led to the nationwide protest.

“I have been stopped (by police) many times,” he alleged. “Just because they look into the car and see a young boy they feel like [shouldn’t be] driving a car and dressing good.

“They pull you by the side and start searching the car like you are a criminal.

“We are here doing a lot of sacrifices trying to make ends meet like any other Nigerian. Then, when you come home to your country to rest you come outside and somebody starts asking you questions.

“And when you answer in a simple tone, they get aggressive to change the situation and take it to the angle they want to. Because at the end of the day they want to take money.”

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Nwankwo said even without his personal experience, the protests resonated with him: “We don’t need any special inspiration.

“It is a moment where all the youths need to come together to make a simple demand about something that we think and we feel.

“We can’t be living in a country where you are meant to excel and you are living in fear. People are getting killed, people are getting harassed.

“The gesture [on the weekend] is that we are here and the only thing we can do is try to make our voice heard and that it is a peaceful thing that the government should look into and it is very heartbreaking to see the videos of people being killed.”

Anger over police brutality in Nigeria had been simmering for years, and the current protests are not the first sparked by such violence. The difference is that others have mostly been in isolated pockets and confined to the localities where each incident took place.

The Ughelli incident appears to have been the final tipping point that took it national, with athletes suffering just as much as other citizens.

Shooting Stars defender Izu Joseph was shot and killed by soldiers in his hometown in 2016.

Super Eagles forward Ekigho Ehiosun posted his ordeal at the hands of police while returning from a wedding last December on his Facebook page.

And in February, Remo Stars defender Tiamiyu Kazeem was knocked down and killed after being detained by police. The Inspector general ordered an investigation, but nothing has been heard of the investigation since.

The protests have since taken a global turn, with a number of influential sports people and celebrities weighing in with support, including Manchester United’s Marcus Rashford, UFC champions Israel Adesanya and Kamaru Usman, heavyweight boxing champion Anthony Joshua, along with Rihanna, former US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, amongst others.

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Almost all Super Eagles players have shared messages of support on their social media channels, and Nwankwo says the events are so traumatic for him that coming home might be a tough ask if the issues are not resolved.

The Crotone man added: “At this moment, seeing what happened, the way the military has been ambushing people from the videos, what will I tell my family? Will I be willing to take them to such a hostile place?

“Imagine driving with them and getting stopped and harassed for no reason. I have to think of the psychological effect it will have on them. People go through this psychological trauma, this torture. They don’t know the psychological impact they have on people.

“Nigeria is our country, we want a better Nigeria but it is difficult.”

For the here and now, the forward is also suffering his own psychological trauma, saying that the joy of playing football has been sucked out of him.

He added: “Now, the way things are going, I can’t see the joy in scoring a goal, I can’t see the joy in celebrating. I put everything about the love, the fun on the back foot. But one thing is for sure, I will keep sweating, I will keep playing, I will keep scoring for the fallen heroes.

“But celebrating in a joyful manner will be hard for me. Everything I do now will be done for them because it is crazy how people who will march out peacefully will be shot like animals.

“Today we saw how the Nigerian flag was bloodied. That is heartbreaking for me.”


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