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#EndSARS is a rare moment of class solidarity in Nigeria

By Saratu Abiola

The protest movement now known as #EndSARS began when the notorious Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS) of the Nigerian police shot a man dead and stole his car in Ughelli, Delta State, on October 7. Footage of his killing led to two weeks of intense protests against police brutality around the country, and in Nigerian communities around the world.

#EndSARS was neither the first time young Nigerians had used social media to mobilize for protests, nor were these the first protests against police brutality; yet it was nonetheless a moment that brought together people in ways nothing previously ever had. A confluence of events both inside and outside Nigeria created conditions ripe for a rare moment of class solidarity, where more privileged Nigerians were able to use their offline access and online platforms to push for justice and support the sustainability of these protests.

The Academic Staff Union of Universities (ASUU) went on strike in March 2020, forcing a lot of the country’s young people to be stuck at home, undistracted by lectures and schoolwork. The COVID-19 pandemic put a stop to virtually all non-essential travel, so more privileged young people were stuck in the country, unable to travel abroad and therefore more able to bring their considerable resources to bear for a nationwide effort. The pandemic had also worsened an already grim economic outlook, dealing blows to many people’s incomes, causing more unemployment, and contributing to a rise in the cost of food and other items.

An #EndSARS protester makeshift flag in Surulere, Lagos, October 12, 2020. Photo by Fawaz Oyedeji

Feminist Coalition, a group of young female entrepreneurs many of whose day jobs include journalism and tech entrepreneurship, used their social media presence to raise and mobilize funds that helped power the protests for almost two weeks, with everything from to hiring private security. Adetola  Onayemi and Modupe Odele, both lawyers with international links, used their access and networks to create a 800-strong legal aid infrastructure that helped ensure that those arrested during the protest did not languish indefinitely in prison.

Through their collective fundraising efforts, Feminist Coalition raised 148 million naira from donations made locally and internationally. The government was so worried about their ability to raise funding that they blocked all the means through which they can receive money and shut down their website as well as the bank accounts of those who received money from them to organize protests in different states. Even when the daily protests ended, prominent organizer Moe Odele’s passport was seized when she tried to travel even as the government denied the existence of a no-fly list, and Feminist Coalition member Feyikemi Abudu was still working with Onayemi and Odele to release protesters illegally detained by police for weeks later.

Most Nigerians regardless of their income level, especially in the southern states, either have experienced police brutality or know someone who has. It’s unclear how many people have been killed at the hands of the police, but recent reports have set the number of recorded extra-judicial killings since 2004 by SARS at over 30,000. It’s hard to know the true figure because there are thousands more illegally detained individuals undocumented in the police system. Reports from Amnesty International in 2009 and Human Rights Watch in 2005 detail how ordinary young Nigerians have suffered torture, violence and extortion at the hands of this unit.

#EndSARS has trended intermittently on social media since December 2017, and has led to protests in Lagos every year since. The Nigerian government has announced it would scrap SARS in 2017, 2018 and 2019, hence protesters’ skepticism when the Inspector-General of Police stated that the unit has been terminated in the protests’ first week. Young Nigerians wanted more concrete action, such as arresting erring SARS officers and reviewing police pay to reduce their inclination towards extortion and kidnapping as a source of income.

Young Nigerians learned from previous experiences of using social media as a space for activism. Online organizing was crucial in organizing protests like the Market March against street harassment in Nigerian markets across the country, and the protests against police raids targeting young women in Abuja in 2019. Young women have also led efforts to raise money to provide legal and other support for victims of sexual violence and have raised awareness about the marked rise of gender-based violence at the height of the COVID-19 lockdown.

An #EndSARS protester writes on a placard in Surulere, Lagos, October 12, 2020. Photo by Fawaz Oyedeji

It’s not an accident that issues concerning women’s rights have been key points of offline advocacy in the past five years. Nigerian corners of social media are replete with conversations on women’s rights and roles, and young feminist-minded women have been able to find like-minded people more easily. Wine and Whine, for example, is a community of young women who meet informally, and was made possible by these kinds of connections. Collectives like these have served as springboards for fund and awareness-raising for smaller initiatives over the years, such as paying legal fees and other kinds of support for those who have experiences sexual violence. The work that Feminist Coalition and EndSarsResponse did was built on the successes of these past experiences.

Although young women were at the center of #EndSARS organizing, the lack of national support for previous campaigns around women’s rights reveals that those issues do not have the kind of broad-based agreement needed to engender necessary change. Nigeria is still a deeply religious country with largely misogynist notions of gender roles and respectability. Too often, women are on their own in the fight for equal rights. Stories of sexual violence to the simple demand to not be grabbed or harassed in the markets are often met with the question, “What was she wearing?” Women cannot even be assured of a friendly audience in the demand for these rights in a room full of women, because notions of respectability and “traditional” roles cut across gender.

Protest movements as powerful as #EndSARS are only possible with broad agreement, the kind that is hard to find in a country as ethno-religiously diverse as Nigeria, with a citizenry often skeptical of anything that even resembles political advocacy. The kind of collective agreement to make a protest movement powerful required an issue that everyone could agree on. It needed to be a demand small enough to buoy hope of it actually be achieved. Calling for an end to SARS—not the whole police system, just the brutality of it—was the perfect demand.

The class solidarity shown in the #EndSARS movement demonstrated a rare and powerful faith of Nigerians in themselves and in Nigeria. This faith confounds the way Nigerian government sees its people, which is as a mass to be worked around or beaten into submission. Indeed, the first wave of these protests ended with a beating into submission, wherein the Nigerian military shot at protesters in Lagos and President Buhari issued a stern warning against future protests. Still, the impact of the protests have reverberated week after: the UK government is said to be seriously considering sanctions against the Nigerian government officials, and the judiciary panels of inquiry have been set up throughout the country.

Historically, the Nigerian government has used patronage to wean itself off its need for mass popular approval. Outright election rigging, bribing the country’s poor for their votes on election day, fear of political violence, and intimidation all dampen enthusiasm and trust in the democratic process among the 84 million-strong electorate. This is evident in the country’s voter turnout numbers, which have been steadily decreasing from 54 percent in 2011 to 35 percent in 2019. People may still vote for their candidate and some politicians may still attain popularity in certain quarters, but there is little faith in the government’s willingness to make lives better.

The gap between government and the people is also evidenced in the way our economy is structured. The country relies on oil—a sector that accounts for only , lower than its lowest point in 2016 when the country was in recession for over a year.

When the biggest income earner does not require that massive investment in human capital, and the political class has effectively disengaged itself from popular will, there is little to pressure on the government to act on what the masses want. The government is not built to bend to popular will. Only six percent of Nigeria’s GDP comes from taxes and only about 20 million Nigerians paid income taxes in 2019. For context, Nigeria has a labor force of 80 million people, of whom 55.7 percent are either unemployed or underemployed.

#EndSARS broke the cycle of mistrust and showed that there might still be hope for salvaging Nigerians’ faith in each other. Privileged Nigerians used their voices to shame government officials into acting where they otherwise would not have. The class solidarity on display during #EndSARS has shown the power in the idea of a shared country, and in so doing helped open up a new front from which to apply pressure and hold the government accountable.