Just last year, he said, his younger brother was arrested in his student housing by the police.
“They said he was an online scammer,” said Sowole. Such arrests can be a ruse for extortion, he said. After his family paid for his release, Sowole’s brother fled the country.
Another common extortion tactic by security forces is commandeering a bus. Those who boarded would be greeted by armed police, who would shake down surprised passengers for their cash and credit cards.
“There were times I would be driving down the road, and I would see a SARS checkpoint down on the road and I make a U-turn,” said Sowole.
A dentist, Sowole came to Philadelphia for a conference in March and has been stuck in this country due to COVID-19 travel restrictions.
During his training in Nigeria, he said, sometimes the cadavers used for practice had bullet holes in them. Officially, the school told the students they were criminals, but the students suspected otherwise.
If you’re killed by the police, “you become a John Doe, a Jane Doe,” said Sowole, with no way to trace what happened.
He called violence by the government an open secret that the country is finally grappling with.
“If I was in Nigeria, I would actively be on the streets right now, with my placard, raising my voice,” said Sowole. “I left a country with a bit of sanity, and now it’s like everything has gone to hell.”
In Philadelphia, the protests on the Parkway provide an outlet for him and others who are cut off from friends and family.
Dozens dressed in green and carrying Nigerian flags marched last weekend. Another protest will start at 4 p.m. Saturday, beginning at the Nigerian flag on the Parkway and ending with a candlelight vigil at the steps of the Philadelphia Museum of Art.
Around 3,400 Philadelphia residents were born in Nigeria, according to the U.S. Census Bureau’s American Community Survey, and Nigerians are one of the largest groups in the African Diaspora community in the Delaware Valley.
Azi, the organizer, said she is working locally to try to bring as much awareness and accountability as she can from the international community.
A lawyer by training, Azi is in touch with other legal professionals in the Nigerian diaspora, who are looking for ways to defend Nigerian citizens on the ground. They are also pressuring the Economic Community of West African States, an economic union Nigeria is a part of, to step in.
“People are really disturbed, they’re sad,” she said. “Nigerian communities around the world are speaking up about what’s happening.”