Months of angst and protests on the streets of Twitter against a special police force unit known to terrorise and extort from young Nigerians have finally spilled over into the streets of major cities across the country.
In Lagos, in Abuja, the nation’s capital, in Delta, in Osun, in Ogun, in Anambra, east of the country, in Ekiti, and in a number of other states, young Nigerians have taken to the streets to demand that the country’s leaders disband the Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS) and reform the nation’s police force.
The last most recent online campaign against this rogue police unit occured around this same time last year. A Lagos-based software engineer had been accosted by men of the force who seized his belongings, threatened to shoot him and demanded a million naira in exchange for his freedom. Around this time, there were increased reports of software engineers and other such technology workers whose laptops and mobile phones would be forcefully searched and who would then be labelled Yahoo Boys (a colloquial term for internet fraudsters), manhandled and extorted.
At the time, in addition to the #EndSARS campaign which has been active for more than two years, there was a #StopRobbingUs campaign which was launched by industry leaders as a platform to launch lawsuits against the Nigerian Police for these crimes particularly against workers in the technology ecosystem.
On Saturday, October 3, a tweet surfaced online. A young man had been shot reportedly by members of this rogue police unit. The young man was shot in front of a hotel in Ughelli, a town in Delta state, said the tweet, and left for dead.
It was all the incentive needed. So that even after Minister of State for Labour, Festus Keyamo said, a day later, that the young man was not fatally shot and that the Special Anti-Robbery Squad were not the culprits in the shooting, some stirring was already happening across social media.
What many were not expecting is what has turned out to be a massive online protest (#EndSARS is trending worldwide) that has spilled into physical protests across the country, perhaps the most widespread since Occupy Nigeria in 2012 which was against increase in fuel prices. The protests have been spearheaded by celebrities as well as the most unlikely actors. Wizkid, one half of the former singing duo PSquare, Paul Okoye, Rinu Oduala, and infamous singer Naira Marley who backed out of a planned protest aftera Live session with the Public Relations Officer of the Nigerian Police, Frank Mba where the force promised to take SARS officers off the road among other things. This will be the fourth time in the last four years authorities have “disbanded” the rogue police unit.
When it comes to social media and activism, Nigerian youths have often been accused of being Twitter Warriors, all bark and no bite youngsters whose only anger and venom end in hashtags as the tips of their fingers come in contact with phone or laptop keypads, and nothing more.
Well, in the last three days, Twitter has been pivotal in organising, crowdfunding and spreading awareness about an anger so full and a problem so pervasive that no partisan or religious factions can be said to be spared from it.
In Lagos, the protests began on the Lagos mainland on October 7 co-led by a number of Twitter influencers including Rinu Oduala and comedian Debo Adebayo (Mr Macaroni) among others. On the Lagos island, the protesters marched from the Lekki Toll Gate spearheaded by celebrities like musician Folarin Falana (Falz), Runtown, Paul Okoye, among others. In many parts of the country where protests are ongoing, there have been no need for celebrity protest leaders, just young people agitated by the menace of armed officers whose duties to protect and bring about order have been replaced by constant harassment, unlawful arrests and abuse of their power over citizens.
In addition to having sparked these protests across the country for the past three days, people are also using the Twittersphere as well as other social media platforms to rally support for protesters, inform those absent on ground about what other ways to get involved as well as relay problematic areas and progress about ongoings on ground.
On the Lagos mainland, protesters have been positioned at the administrative headquarters and about five hours ago, were allowed into a plenary session at the Lagos State House of Assembly where matters of the ongoing protest were raised. We also know that while some of the protests have gone on without glitches, protesters in Lagos, were last night, left to sleep out in the open after their tents and sleeping paraphernalia were taken away by police officers. There was violence in Abuja, protesters being shot at or tear gassed and an officer has been reportedly shot in Delta state where the inciting incident occurred a few days ago. Protesters in Osun have also reportedly experienced some violent push back from police officers and were earlier at the palace of the Ooni of Ife to express their demands to disband SARS and reform the police.
Nigeria’s Twitter Warriors have also found a way to rally predominantly offline and older Nigerians who may not have been privy to much of the online activism prior to the onset of the protests on Wednesday.
Perhaps what has been most profound is a fundraiser that began in the wee hours of Friday morning to have breakfast ready for protesters who slept without tents in front of the Lagos state House of Assembly complex.
The plan was for about 50 protesters, and the sum was about N50,000 (about $130). Popular podcaster, Feyikemi Abudu made this known to her 120k+ followers on Twitter dropping account details for people to donate to. That amount was raised in 5 minutes. In 12 minutes, about N200,000 (about $500) had been raised and as at 12noon, as protests spread and the number of protesters at the House of Assembly swelled, over N1 million naira ($2,600) had been raised.
Way more than was required, Abudu has said the remainder will be channeled into other things that may arise or which already have like taking care of the medical bills of a woman who was shot at by an officer (sensitive content). The originator of that video has said the incident did not occur at an #EndSARS protest. Fintech company, Flutterwave, is however crowdfunding to specifically cater to the healthcare needs of any injured persons in the #EndSARS protests. There’s also been provisions of probing legal services to any arrested protesters by Citizen Gavel, a legal tech organisation based in Lagos in collaboration with other legal advocacy organisations.
Also on Twitter, the silence of the media and the presidency regarding the protests have been brought to the fore with threads recommending people to text their representatives and bombard radio and television stations with #EndSARS calls until they pay attention. International brands, particularly those who were outspoken in the last couple of months during the #BlackLivesMatter protests in the US have also not beem left out. If you love our Afrobeats, you take some of the heat, Nigeria’s young seem to be saying online and offline.
Nigerians in diaspora have also been rallying around and gearing up for protests in their various locations with interests from London, Canada, New York to name a few. More days of protests seem upcoming here as well as information about meeting points and more protest venues fly around on the bird app. The organisers of the Lagos protest have said however, that after three days of protests, they will be announcing agreed resolutions later today.
Whether these protests will result in permanent addressing of these law enforcement turned menace is yet to be seen. In typical fashion, there has been no official statement from the Presidency and it is unclear if the Police Force will indeed follow up its disbandment of SARS with action this time around.
What is certain is that it is no longer Twitter bants for a generation receiving the barest minimum from its government and still needing to demand the right to live and work safely, free of harassment from supposed law enforcers.