TORONTO — Ifunanyachi Achara is a long way from home. But the Toronto FC rookie is watching Nigeria from a distance, not liking what he sees.
There has been violence on the streets in the wake of protests against the Special Anti-Robbery Squad, a police unit known as SARS that has long been accused of brutality and abuse of power. While President Muhammadu Buhari's government agreed to disband the SARS unit, protesters have demanded sweeping reforms of police.
There have also been protests targeting government warehouses believed to be stockpiling food meant to be distributed as COVID-19 relief.
Although the protests have been largely peaceful, at least 56 people have died across the country since they began, according to Amnesty International, which has accused security forces of using unnecessary force.
Formula One star Lewis Hamilton wore a T-shirt that said #EndSARS during a TV interview at last weekend's Portuguese Grand Prix.
Achara, currently recovering from knee surgery in early July that ended his season, has kept in touch with what is going on back home through family and friends. He started a GoFundMe page (https://ca.gofundme.com/f/8nz5qx-endsars-relief-fund) to help families in need.
He set an initial target of $7,000, raising more than $2,000 in the first 20 hours.
Achara says Nigerian youth can get in trouble for such mundane things as wearing dreadlocks, which he has, or carrying an iPhone.
"Stuff that doesn't really make sense," he said. "There's no checks and balances. There's no one checking this police to see how they are abusing their power. so the people are protesting, the people are angry. A lot of my friends and family, they're home, they want things to change."
The unrest is a further blow for businesses already reeling from COVID-19.
"A lot of people right now have lost their business. A lot of banks, ATMs have been looted. People are going though a lot of financial crisis."
Achara and friends — mostly old teammates from back home — decided to do what they can to help, launching the fundraising page. They are identifying families in need, who will benefit from the money to buy food, medication or get medical help.
Achara is also looking to raise money by offering to play online video games with donors (https://www.bast.gg/celebrities-calendar).
Achara comes from Enugu, where his father runs a small retail store. His parents, a younger sister and older brother are safe back home, he reports. A younger brother, Ugo Achara Jr., plays soccer at Northwestern University and is staying with a friend in Chicago.
Achara underwent surgery July 7 to repair the torn anterior cruciate ligament and lateral collateral ligament in his left knee.
"We're making a lot of progress," he said "I'm happy with the way things are going with my rehab right now."
He spent close to two months on crutches. But now he can walk around, do some biking and a little bit of weightlifting, although he is not ready to run yet.
"I try not to put a timeline on what I'm doing," he said. "If the body is healing, I'm happy."
The 23-year-old injured his knee in training June 26 at BMO Field when he became tangled with defender Omar Gonzalez while both attempted to get to a cross. It was a disappointing end to a rookie season that saw Achara earn a first-team contract after scoring three goals in pre-season.
Unable to take part in Toronto's Feb. 29 season opener in San Jose because of red tape, he scored in his MLS debut the next week to give Toronto a 1-0 win over visiting New York City FC. The pandemic halted play days after.
The league has since resumed play with Toronto based out of East Hartford, Conn.
It has made for some lonely days, with Achara rehabbing daily at the club's north Toronto training centre.
"A lot of people are stuck in a lot of places. Digitally we're staying in touch," he said. "That helps a lot."
He has also developed an interest in investing in the stock market, so he has been reading up on that.
Nigeria, a country of some 214 million located off the Gulf of Guinea in west Africa, had some 62,250 confirmed COVID-19 cases and 1,135 deaths as of Wednesday, according to the Nigeria Centre for Disease Control.
With files from The Associated Press
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Oct. 28, 2020
Neil Davidson, The Canadian Press