At 11:55 am, a few minutes to our scheduled time, there was no sign that Olorunrinu Oduola would show up on Zoom for our interview. It was the third time we were scheduled to meet.
“Are we still good as per timing?” I sent this to her on Twitter – the only channel I was able to reach her through. No response still.
Two minutes before noon, she joined the meeting.
“It’s been a lot lately,” Rinu tells me over the call. She’s sitting in the kitchen at an unknown location. She recently had to move there for safety reasons after someone gave up her house address online.
Talking about changes she’s had to make, she has also had to find alternative means of sending and receiving money. Why? All her bank accounts were blocked three months ago.
On Friday, November 11, 2020, a federal high court judge ordered the freezing of bank accounts belonging to 20 people identified as #EndSARS protesters “for a period of 90 days pending the outcome of investigation and inquiry currently being conducted by the Central bank of Nigeria.”
It was not clear why the account holders were being investigated, but the CBN added that the 90-day order could be renewed.
“I felt like I was in a cage,” she says. “I wanted to buy airtime or withdraw money urgently but I couldn’t. I had to ask someone close to me to help out.”
“All my bank accounts weren’t frozen at first but I couldn’t use the ones that weren’t because I knew I was being watched.”
Following a court order given on the 10th of February, all – except one – of her accounts have been unfrozen.
“Funny enough, a few days before the accounts were unfrozen, I sent money to one of the accounts that wasn’t frozen and now that account has been frozen. Some other people’s accounts are still locked even after the court instructed the accounts to be unlocked.”
While speaking, she contacted her account manager at FCMB over the phone to follow up on the account that was still frozen.
I could tell it was a reluctant effort from someone who was tired of making the same request over and over again.
Beyond her accounts being locked, Rinu is now concerned that at any time she can be restricted from accessing her money without any notice.
She also had some suspicion that her phone was being tapped. To verify this, she hired a security expert to run a check on her phone.
“Sources close to the government told me that I was under serious investigation,” she says.
“I was under attack from different angles of the government. I was part of different lawsuits; the Minister of Information and the Central Bank of Nigeria tagged us terrorists. It was a lot of surveillance.”
According to the security expert, her phone may have been hacked at some point, but it was in the clear now.
Rinu’s ‘coconut head’ and her magnetic social media following
“I get coconut head, I no dey hear word” is a pidgin English saying popularised by Nigerian musician Speed Darlington. It can be taken to mean “I am strong-willed and not easily persuaded.”
The phrase strongly resonates with Rinu’s journey and serves as the inspiration behind her new clothing line.
Rinu agrees that she has ‘coconut head’ and one indicator came when she led a protest in June 2020, rallying about 20 people to visit the Lagos police headquarters on a Saturday. Although it didn’t spark a revolution, it was a sign that she was someone with a strong will and maybe an even stronger social following.
“When I did my sanitiser project, people said they’d do the same in Ogun and Oyo states. I just have an engaging audience.” She tells me.
Rinu isn’t certain about the secret sauce that keeps her audience engaged but believes her followers connect with her on a deep level. “Once you’re a likeable person, people resonate with you.”
But being likeable aside, she tells me, “At times I was this violent personality [online] always fighting up and down. I went toe to toe with Zlatan and Nasty Blaq on Twitter. I was pure coconut head.”
“I was always a critic of the government. Anytime something came up, I always said my bit.”
“I remember in April when Tina was killed by police, I said that it was better to be killed while protesting than to be killed by some police officer standing on the road, doing nothing.”
In that moment, it was no surprise to her audience when she decided to organise another protest in October, the one that sparked a movement.
“It wasn’t like I was planning to make a mark in history, I thought it was just going to be normal as usual, maybe garner more attention. The only thing that was on my mind was that I needed to contribute my quota to changing the system.”
Once she committed to the decision, others followed.
“When I went for the protest I was scared. People thought I was brave, it’s a lie I was scared. I looked up and saw that people were looking up to me for guidance. I was surprised.” She says this with a sincere look on her face.
At that moment what kept her going wasn’t the fear but a sense of responsibility. She says, “I told myself, ‘Now you’ve brought these people out, you have to take responsibility.’ Before fear had taken root, the sense of responsibility was in place”
As more people joined, she had to tell the crowd that there were no leaders there who’d teach them what to do. Yes, there were front liners like her but everyone there was inexperienced. Nobody had led a protest like this before.
“You only needed a tiny spark because people were tired. There was so much frustration.”
Leading the protest, scandals and being on the judicial panel.
We move on to talk about her time on the judicial panel that looked into the incidents that happened during the protests, especially on the 20th of October. That night peaceful protesters were shot at and killed by military personnel at the Lekki tollgate.
In order to avoid sounding biased to the panel that’s currently sitting, Rinu only recounts that the forensic expert who examined the situation at the Lekki shooting was denied access to the real servers to authenticate the footage. And that’s part of her reasons for objecting to the reopening of the tollgate and stepping down from the panel.
“My stance was that LCC’s (Lagos Concession Company) job was to give access to information that will aid the investigation and if they’re blocking this access then why should they reopen the Lekki toll gate.”
“Victims are still there, people whose arms and legs were being amputated. Why aren’t we listening to them?”
The forensic expert gave an interim report based on his investigation. He suspects that at the time the soldiers came in, there was manual manipulation of the cameras that were automatically controlled before.
Starting and running her clothing business
It started during the pandemic last year.
Rinu, excited to talk about how it started, says, “In Nigeria, you can’t have one job, you need to have like 10 jobs to keep things going with all your responsibilities. During the pandemic, a lot of people lost their jobs.”
As a media strategist, in her case, it meant fewer clients/jobs. This kicked off the search for alternative income streams. Noticing more people were active on social media due to the lockdown, she asked herself what she could sell to her online audience. Torn between selling food or clothes – both essentials for living – she opted for selling clothes.
When the business launched, she was first concerned about how her audience would respond. Would they buy from her?
Over time, her audience adapted to seeing her sell online. The demand was low, but over time the number increased.
With excitement, she says, “It made me happy because although it wasn’t my main hustle, I was just happy that I was getting a response from my audience.”
The business grew from getting one customer per day to two, to her being tagged when someone was asking where they can get a T-shirt online.
Her clothing business was going well until the protests started. It became difficult to keep up with everything that was happening, so she had to put the business on hold for about three months.
Comparing her online audience before and after the protests. Rinu says it increased – more than tripled even – but then it became too much. “I had to think about school and activism. Some people didn’t like me because my energy was intense. Some people stopped giving me jobs because they didn’t want to be seen as enemies of the government.”
This increase in popularity also meant that some people saw her as too big for some jobs. Her new audience was also now mostly political people who were angry at some advertisements.
“I could post something and someone would reply saying, ‘Is this the mood right now?’ and I’m thinking, I’m trying to feed myself. I wasn’t born with a silver spoon.”
“They think activism brings money. Who is bringing the money? Is it the government I’m fighting against or other protesters? They think because I’m Rinu, people just dash me money. It doesn’t work like that.”
At the end of the unplanned three-month hiatus, together with a team of people, she launched a new clothing collection that fit the mood. She didn’t want to do anything related to the #EndSARS protests, not to commercialize the moment.
Part of the sacrifice she’s had to make is that she can’t promote her business as often as she’d like or she’d be seen as insensitive.
“I can’t post 10 times a day, I have to reduce the number to like once in three days, at least let me remind people that excuse me, you people should come and buy my clothes, don’t let me die like this.”
She bursts into laughter at the end of the sentence and then recovers to continue talking.
“A friend recently said I must have sold thousands of shirts by now and I replied saying thousands ke? It doesn’t matter whether you’re a popular figure, you still have to put in the work.”
The role of family and issues with school
Rinu is currently pursuing a degree in Chemistry Education at Lagos State University.
Even with all this popularity, there’s one place where all this doesn’t really matter: at home.
Born on the 1st November 1998, she was christened Bolatito Racheal Olorunrinu Oduala.
She’s the firstborn of three children and comes from a close-knit family. Two important pillars in her life are missing: her father, who died ten years ago when she was just a teenager and her maternal grandmother who died on the 17th of October last year during the protests while Rinu was away.
Her grandmother was her backbone.
“She always came to school, paid my school fees and gave me feeding money. Even though she regarded me as a big girl now. She was my supporter, always giving me advice.”
During the protest, while she wasn’t at home, her mom and the rest of her family weren’t aware. They only found out when she started appearing in newspapers and on television.
“I kind of lost my footing but people didn’t notice. I was trying to keep up the tempo, going to protests and trying to keep up the energy. I’ve not gotten it back. I don’t think I’ve properly mourned her.”
While her grandmother was the supportive one, her mom was less welcoming of her activities.
Rinu, imitating her mother’s response to her, says, “what’s all this, please oh, we don’t want any wahala oh.” raising her hands in mock surrender.
When Rinu was voted to join the judicial panel, her mum was hesitant stating she didn’t trust the government. In response, Rinu had to explain the importance of what she was doing.
She says, “I told her we have to do something; there needs to be a change. I have younger ones. You don’t want to see your son (10 years old) being shot by a police officer because he owns an iPhone I bought for him or he got for himself. You don’t want him to be shot for doing nothing or hit by a stray bullet. So this is the fight we have to fight.”
Dealing with newfound fame and aspirations for the future
For Rinu, the fame didn’t stop online.
“Even Uber drivers recognize me, I enter a vehicle and the driver turns back and says I know you now, you’re the EndSars lady. It has happened to me over 10 times.” She says.
It usually ends up with the driver wanting to take a picture together with her, which she consents to most times.
Citing more instances where people recognized her, she tells me about a time she entered one of Lagos’ many yellow ‘Danfo’ busses and was recognised with her mask on.
“The person said sorry oh are you Rinu? What are you doing here? I replied saying I’m entering transport like you. Is Danfo for some special kind of people? Activism is not money.”
In January, she visited a restaurant to talk to someone and by evening she saw her picture online with the caption ‘I saw savvy Rinu at this restaurant.’
In school, she had to think of the possibility of lecturers targeting her, as they were weary of her causing a mutiny inside the school.
In January, close to the time for her exams, people started saying the school should suspend her, there were a lot of targeted attacks and harassment. It was also during this period that someone posted her house address and insulted her mom online.
Having to choose between her life and school, she chose the former. So she missed all her exams which started on the 18th January.
“I tried catching up, I was dealing with a lot of pressure. I couldn’t go to school.”
“It was just a lot but like the fighter I am, something definitely is gonna work out,” Rinu says with a determined look on her face.
When I find out if there are plans or conversations to make up for the exams she missed.
She replies, “Nothing. Nobody would do a makeshift for me.”
“I’m taking charge of my future. There are plans on the way for me to continue my schooling. Probably I’d just miss a semester. I’d just have to go back and take the risk. Maybe now that I’ve left the panel I’d be able to finish school. There’s just a lot of uncertainty but like the popular Naija mantra, We move!”
Chemists are known for mixing substances for fun or profit, her life looks like an interesting mix. What does she intend to make out of all her various pursuits?
Rinu turns philosophical as she shares a lesson she learned from her grandmother; “Whatever you find yourself doing, do it well.” “I don’t know if it’s my clothing brand that would catch the eye of one international brand or if it’s my chemistry that would lead me to find the cure to Covid-19.”
“I won’t limit myself and that’s one of the things that makes me Rinu or a coconut head. I want to do many things and experience life.”
She goes on to say that she could even be the vice president of America. I quickly chip in a question asking why she didn’t say the vice president of Nigeria.
We both burst into laughter, after which she replies “You see that before you finished asking the question, you’ve already started laughing.”
Political ambitions will have to wait for now, this 23-year-old has chosen to challenge the status quo one step at a time – very characteristic of “a coconut head.”