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'It's right there, right at home': Nigerian unrest hits close to home for Lions quartet

Justin Rogers
The Detroit News

It's late in the fourth quarter and the Detroit Lions are trailing the Atlanta Falcons. With the prospect of falling to 2-4 with a loss, it's hardly an exaggeration to suggest Detroit's season is hanging in the balance. 

Facing third down near midfield, Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan drops back to pass, looking to extend the drive and ultimately his team's lead. But as the ball is snapped, Lions defensive end Romeo Okwara explodes out of his stance, blows by offensive tackle Jake Matthews and knocks the ball free from Ryan's grasp. 

Lions defensive end Romeo Okwara strips the ball from Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan during the fourth quarter.

It proves to be one of the game's pivotal moments. The Lions recover the fumble, go on to take the lead and, ultimately, win the game

For Okwara, the strip-sack is a high point in a breakout season. It also allows him to take his mind away from what's going on back home, in Nigeria, where massive demonstrations against police brutality have turned violent, with dozens being killed. 

The heart of these protests are happening in Lagos, one of the largest cities in the world. That's where Okwara grew up and where much of his extended family still calls home. His father Julius, a businessman who splits his time between the United States and Nigeria, is there now. 

"It's crazy, because where it's centered and where the people were shot last (week), it's in the neighborhood where our house is," Okwara said. "That (Lekki) toll gate is the gate we use to get into the part of town we live at. It's right there, right at home."

Fortunately, everyone in Okwara's family is safe. But that does little to lessen his concern for the issues the country is currently facing. 

In the United States, what is happening in Africa rarely makes its way to our eyes and ears. Despite the continent's massive size and population, its rich history and complex current events are glossed over in the majority of Western education and goes on to be poorly represented in our nation's reporting. 

Okwara, who moved here in 2005, noticed this long ago. 

"When I was younger, African problems just seemed like African problems," he said. "We just kind of dealt with them on our own."

But social media has changed the way news is shared, particularly in cases of civil unrest, from the Arab Spring of 2010 to what's happening in Lagos right now. 

The heart of the current issue is Nigeria's Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS). Established in 1992, the police unit was designed to combat armed robbery and other violent crimes that were hurting the country.

But over the years, SARS had been plagued by corruption and abuse of power, with regular accusations of extorting citizens and perpetrating violent crimes against the people it was created to protect. 

This recent wave of protests started in September, but gained momentum in early October when video capturing a SARS officer shooting a young man and taking his vehicle were uploaded to the internet. That's led to a groundswell of rage on social media and sparked massive national protests, including Oct. 20, when military and police forces opened fire on demonstrators, reportedly killing 12. 

"These are things that have been happening for years," Okwara said. "It's not just one incident. This is something that kind of started from something and has been boiling over and over. Finally, the world is kind of seeing what's been happening and everyone's eyes are on us."

Lions cornerbacks Amani Oruwariye, left, and Jeff Okudah are sons of Nigerian immigrants.

Shared heritage

Our country is coming off its own summer of unrest, centered around the layered conversations of institutional racism, and focused on how our communities are policed following the deaths of George Floyd in Minnesota and Breonna Taylor in Louisville, among others. 

We're seeing a new wave this week in Philadelphia after police shot and killed Black man, Walter Wallace, during an altercation. 

Those conversations dominated the Lions' virtual meetings this offseason, and after officers in Kenosha, Wisconsin, shot and paralyzed Jacob Blake in August, the team canceled its training camp practice the following day, embarking on efforts to be more vocal and involved in sparking social justice changes. 

There's some overlap with what's going on in Nigeria, but the scale and scope are different. And with issues in the U.S. front and center, Okwara might otherwise be alone in processing what's going on in his homeland. But that's not the case within the locker room, where four players are bonded by their common heritage. 

Obviously, there's Romeo's younger brother Julian, a rookie this year, but also cornerbacks Amani Oruwariye and Jeff Okudah. Although the latter two were both born in the United States, they are sons of Nigerian immigrants. 

Amani's father, Alfred, came here as a teenager. He went on to earn his master's degree in political science from Eastern Illinois, and his thesis on the difficultly of installing a working democracy in Nigeria is available online. 

Alfred ultimately settled with wife Karen, a Navy veteran, in the Tampa Bay area, where they raised their family. Looking back, Amani can easily identify his father's Nigerian influence in his upbringing. 

"My dad was very much about being straightforward, clean cut," Oruwariye said. "Everything was built on discipline, with both him and my mom, with her being in the Navy and how she was raised. Nigerian culture believes in being clean cut, no tattoos, even though I ended up getting some. It's very straightforward. That's something that's part of me that I might not have noticed back then, but throughout the years, have noticed it's done a great deal for me."

Alfred passed while in Nigeria in 2014 and is buried in his native country. Amani has been in contact with members of his extended family there, but has yet to visit. Prior to the pandemic, he was working on organizing a trip with his mom and brother, but that's been put on hold.  

"I haven't gotten to go and that's something that's important for me, to go at some point, to embrace that."

Okudah declined to be interviewed for this story, but he spoke similarly about his upbringing with his Nigerian parents in a 2015 interview with the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. 

"I just got (my maturity) from my family's background coming from an African ethnicity," Okudah told the paper. "That's one of the things they focus on, just presenting yourself well because he have to make yourself look good in front of other people.

"Everything is based around school and how you can honor your family's name," Okudah said. "That means a lot to me. Not many people have the last name Okudah."

Prior to a lower leg injury that landed Julian on injured reserve, the Lions' four Nigerian players had the rewarding opportunity to share the field for more than a dozen occasions this season. But outside the lines, their shared heritage and upbringing has been a source of comfort for Romeo as he tries to cope with Nigeria's problems from afar. 

"(Julian) lives right next door; we're always with each other, we get to spend so much time together," Romeo said. "That's been amazing. And to also have Amani, Jeff and a whole locker room of teammates and coaches throughout this whole time have honestly been there for each other through whatever conversations we've had in the locker room and Zoom meetings earlier in the year. As a whole, the locker room, we've all been each other's therapists. I don't know, people to hold on to. It's been the best support group."

Doing more

The problem with issues like these, that are so big, and so far away, is the feelings of helplessness. Beyond raising awareness on social media, the players have been discussing how to do more, including raising funds for support efforts on the ground. 

One idea in play is all four wearing the same or similarly designed cleats as part of the league's My Cause, My Cleats program later in the year. After the game, those are auctioned off with the proceeds going toward the players' causes. 

"That's always a good way to show support," Romeo said.  "But at this point, I'm still kind of thinking about different ways I can be involved because it really is kind of tough being all the way over here."

Lions defensive linemen and brothers Romeo Okwara (left) and h Julian Okwara listen during speeches in June at the Belle Isle Freedom March across the Belle Isle bridge in Detroit.

As for an ideal solution, those too are difficult questions to answer. For Romeo, a good start would be the Nigerian government acknowledging the problems. 

"That would be a step in the right direction," he said. "Like, 'We hear you. We feel your pain,' just something. Because that's honestly the least you can do is just tell someone on their knees begging that you hear them."

For what it's worth, he government has formally disbanded SARS, only to replace it with a paramilitary Special Weapons and Tactics (SWAT) force that carries out the same duties as its predecessor. 

But that that has done little to quell concerns. 

"Nigeria is an incredible place," he said. "It's funny, because this fight, and all these issues with the government, Nigerians are some of the happiest people in the world. We thrive wherever we are, no matter the circumstances. I guess we're built this way.  ...We're not fighting to leave the land we love, we're fighting to not be oppressed by our own people."

jdrogers@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @Justin_Rogers