On October 18, 2020, during the #EndSARS protests against police violence and state corruption in Nigeria’s capital Abuja, a photo was shared on social media that quickly drew nationwide attention. The image showed passionate protesters with their fists pumped in the air, mouths wide open singing songs and chanting slogans. Some were holding placards that read “Our Lives Matter.”
What drew the attention of the public, however, was the woman right at the center of the image. With a small Nigerian flag in her left hand and missing her right leg, the woman who was later identified as Jane Obiene stood out because of the defiant spirit she embodied by joining the protest march on crutches. All day long, she had ignored the counsel of her fellow protestors who advised her to go home, worrying about the impact the long walk may have on her.
Jane Obiene’s disability did not stop her from being part of such a historic moment. That evening, many on social media described her as a true heroine. When the image caught the attention of Chinonso Egemba, a Nigerian doctor who enjoys a huge following on Twitter, he retweeted it, asking: “Can we locate this lady? Can we get her a prosthetic leg? Let’s make this happen!” A donation link was created, and within 48 hours, the original goal of 1.5 million Naira (~US$4,000) was quintupled to 7.5 million Naira (more than US$18,000).
Through this, Obiene who had remained unemployed since 2013 — partly due to her disability — got a prosthetic leg and one million Naira to kick-start her business. Charles Nnamani, another physically challenged protestor whose prosthetic leg was impaired by the police, also got a new prosthesis and funds for accomodation through a similar initiative.
These examples are representative of the new wave of popular unity and solidarity that emerged during the historic #EndSARS protest movement. The protest inspired an extensive kindness among the people and became an embodiment of mutual love and aid. It showcased a side of the people that was not often seen in Nigeria up until this point.
THE START OF THE PROTEST
In early October 2020, people took to the streets of several major cities across Nigeria to demand the disbandment of the Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS), a plain-clothed police unit created in 1992 in response to the prevalent crimes of armed robbery and kidnapping of the time, but which has since grown to become a band of commissioned terrorists.
Over the years, members of this unit have been accused of extrajudicial killings, unlawful arrest, extortion, torture, rape, armed robbery, kidnapping and forceful disappearance, amongst other crimes which they committed with de facto legal immunity as a result of the executive judicial protection they enjoy.
For a long time, young Nigerians have had to endure wrongful profiling at the hands of members of SARS. Young men and women who appear to dress well or own expensive phones are wantonly branded as either internet scammers or prostitutes. The accosted is only let go after paying a bribe, and those who refuse are usually beaten or arrested.
According to a report by Amnesty International, at least 82 cases of torture, ill treatment and extra-judicial execution were carried out by SARS between January 2017 and May 2020 alone. Most victims are predominantly men of less privileged backgrounds between the ages 18 and 35. Between 2015 and 2020, the SARS unit was rebranded or reorganized more than three times in response to calls made against the unit at different times.
On October 3, 2020, after videos of a man thrown out of a moving vehicle in Ughelli, a town in Delta State, went viral on the internet, an unprecedented number of people started taking to the streets in protest. What inspired people to rally at this specific moment in response to this particular case is unclear, but the rising cases of police brutality, high inflation, insecurity and endemic government corruption are cogent factors.
Protests began there, right on that day, and the anger spilled into the streets of Lagos, Ibadan, Port Harcourt, Abuja, Ilorin and some other cities across the country.
For the first time, Nigerians unified to speak up against a traditionally oppressive government and police system. Before then, this feat seemed impossible because Nigeria, a state artificially constructed for British colonial gain, has long been a theatre of divisions. Meters like ethnicity, religion and class constantly pitched Nigerians against their fellow countrymen. However, the #EndSARS protests have shown that many people are now ready to cast all stratifications aside, refuse their victimization and to collectively ask for more.
FIGHTING AGAINST A REPRESSIVE SYSTEM
This struggle did not only enable Nigerians to unite their voices against police atrocities, but it also birthed a wave of historic solidarity. On the second day of protest, Feyikemi Abudu, a business development consultant who played a key coordinating and administrative role during the protests, asked for a N50,000 (US$131) donation on Twitter to feed protestors who were camped outside the Lagos State Secretariat at Alausa.
Through this link, she would eventually raise more than N1,000,000 (over US$2,500) which was used to prepare meals for the protestors to sustain their spirit. Aside from this, chefs mobilized using social media as they made private contributions by cooking and getting it to protest grounds.
Varieties of food including chicken and chips, banana bread, parfait, BBQ wings, plantain kebabs, garlic butter and herb roasted corn were made available without regard for class or identity. In some locations, protestors extended food and drinks to men of the Nigerian police, choosing to favor humanity over the dark nature of their dispensation.
The Feminist Coalition, Nigeria’s foremost feminist organization played a key part in the organizing, sourcing and distribution of donations, offering free legal representation for illegally arrested protestors and providing free medical services to injured protestors. They also created a toll-free line where requests for emergency needs were received.
“When we saw what was happening, we quickly decided we would take this on as our first project. We joke that this was a baptism by fire: we designed a logo, set up social media, donation accounts and the website, got some copy assets together, then sorted out request forms and the tracking sheets. FemCo as it’s known today, was made a reality overnight. This was only possible because every founding member is at the top of her game. We handled it the same way we handle our professional work, and brought the same amount of focus and dedication to the table,” tech entrepreneur and founding member of the coalition Ire Adedokun, told gal-dem earlier this year.
Local accounts and crypto wallets set up by the Feminist Coalition within a week after the start of the protests collected nearly US$230,000 in Naira and BitCoin before the government blocked the local accounts.
There were over 800 volunteer lawyers, heralded by Modupe Odele, a lawyer and member of the Feminist Coalition, who worked to free more than 80 illegally detained protestors across the country, a large percent of whom were likely to be unable to afford a lawyer on their own. With the help of these lawyers, bail was quickly secured before arrested persons could be transferred to new, unknown locations.
On October 14, as government-sponsored thugs who were seen being driven to the protests in marked state vehicles led a series of provocative arson attacks targeting private cars and businesses. One of the victims of the violence of these agent provocateurs was Abdulhakeem Oyeleke who was on his way to see his pregnant wife when he was attacked while stuck in a traffic jam in Abuja. His windshield was smashed and other parts of his car were destroyed.
In a video that surfaced online, Albdulhakeem was recognizably distressed and while fighting back his tears stated that, “I didn’t deserve this, I didn’t do shit to these guys. I was just going to see my wife [who is] pregnant.” Some minutes later, in a change of fate, Albdulhakeem was located and a campaign to raise donations aimed at fixing his damaged car was set up. Some other people whose vehicles were affected also got theirs fixed as part of the same initiative.
Morenikeji Adewumi, an entrepreneur who donated to the struggle, believes that the significance of the #EndSARS protest is even much bigger than putting an end to SARS. She believes it to be a fight against a system that has shown to be generationally repressive.
“It is the people saying that they are tired of an inefficient system. For me, it is the beginning of a revolution and it won’t be immediate but we will get there. I had to do what I had to do, put my money into making it easier for the people who needed it. People needed to eat, to be bailed from police custody and all that. That’s the least I could have done.”
SOLIDARITY IN THE STRUGGLE
Like many others, Alexandra Maduagwu, a 25-year-old entrepreneur, first began protesting online, but after two days, inspired by the things she had seen on social media, Alex went out and joined thousands of angry youths like her at the Lekki tollgate and Ikeja Secretariat. “I joined online on the first day it started but offline about two days into the protests. I had been inspired by the conversations happening online and the bravery that queer people especially showed during that period,” she said.
Alexandra witnessed protesters and those who supported their cause practice mutual aid on a daily basis, something she had not often witnessed in Lagos before. People she did not know from anywhere or have any connections with, other than this shared solidarity of struggle, handed her food, water, desserts and so on.
“I did not expect that level of care that random people showed me even if they didn’t know me because we had gathered for the same cause. It feels to me like a small rebirth every time I am shown kindness especially in the most stressful situations by someone who ordinarily should not care.”
“It reminds me that life does not have to be one particular way. And, experiencing stress and oppression does not mean I wont be able to show kindness and open my heart to people. I think that is super important in a world as cold and unloving as this,” she reflected.
Esan Babatunde, a student in his final year at the department of History and International Studies of the University of Ilorin was one of the many thousands of Nigerians who ensured that their voices were heard through social media. When he was running out of data, someone on Twitter retweeted a data giveaway link to support those who could not join the protest physically.
He applied and got the required data to keep him online and active for the next few days. “Seeing people pull their resources for such a cause was amazing. All I literally did on the internet during the period was in support of the #EndSARS protests. I retweeted every tweet with the hashtag and also tweeted with it. The organization and cooperation was something I had never seen before, speaking of the logistics put in place. It made me hopeful and I thought it would be amazing to see this participation, organization and accountability in our politics,” Babatunde said.
In a country like Nigeria where internet data is fast becoming a thing of luxury, this move was crucial to keep the online protests going and to remain trending across different social media platforms. The movement needed fingers thumping at keyboards and screens as much as it needed voices chanting songs in the streets. Social media activities, especially Twitter, helped translate the depth of events to a global audience, generating approximately 28 million tweets.
The Nigerian diaspora also played a significant role. They continued to donate funds and also staged protests in some cities in Europe and the United States, helping to keep the world abreast of the situation.
Reflecting on last year’s protests, Babatunde adds that, “The movement is an important one for me because it was the first time that Nigerian youths came together with one voice across the nation so as to speak against injustice. Honestly, at the time, the movement gave me great hope for the future. It was a sign of dissatisfaction. When people have been oppressed so much and for long by those who are meant to protect them, it becomes important to react. We have had enough of it.”
UNITING IN THE FIGHT AGAINST OPPRESSION
Those who could not afford to support others with food or other material goods expressed their solidarity in other ways. There were those who provided free charging spots so as to help protestors keep their phones alive, while some people stood at the rear of the crowd to clean the trash from the streets.
There were those that went round to donate face masks and ensured that they were being put to appropriate use in order to curb the spread of COVID-19. When it was prayer time for the Muslims among the crowds, a space with minimal noise or music was carved out for them.
The protest stopped after the Lekki massacre, which was documented thanks to DJ Switch’s Instagram live stream showing people getting shot by men wearing Nigerian military attire. A few hours before the shooting began, government workers were seen unmounting the CCTV cameras at the toll gate. The following day, president Muhammadu Buhari gave a speech in which he threatened the protestors with force. Afterwards, the protests soon came to a halt.
At least nine people were killed and four remain missing after soldiers from the Nigerian army fired live bullets on the crowd on October 20, 2020. For more than one year, the Nigerian government denied the massacre ever happened, despite overwhelming evidence. But the government’s lies were exposed last month, when a judicial panel set up by the Lagos state government released a report which proved that the massacre had truly happened. DJ Switch, who helped expose the crimes to the world, has been in exile for more than one year, due to threats to her life.
The newly-found solidarity and drive to look out for one another decisively fanned the embers of the struggle, and, months later, has continued to dictate the pace of relations among people after the protest ended. Initiatives like the POBIN Project, created by young Nigerians, are working assiduously to document victims of police brutality before, during and after the #EndSARS protests.
In years to come, Nigerians will cast a retrospective glance at this struggle and a large portion of what will be remembered is how a people, so perpetually in disagreement, was able to unite over the fight against oppression.