How a youth-led digital movement is driving Nigeria’s largest protests in a decade

Over the past week, young Nigerians have ramped up widespread protests—online and offline—against rampant brutality by local police.

The core of the protests have included a call for the government of president Muhammadu Buhari is to scrap SARS, a notorious “special” police unit designated to combat armed robbery but is largely known instead for blatant extortion and in some cases, extra-judicial killings.

SARS officers typically target and detain young men by accusing them of being online fraudsters, simply on the evidence of owning a laptop or smartphone, and then request arbitrary and exorbitant bail fees before they regain their freedom. In more extreme cases, SARS officers abduct civilian targets and force them to make withdrawals at an ATM in exchange for their freedom, sometimes at gunpoint. The unit also targets young women as well, often claiming, again with scant evidence, they are prostitutes, which is illegal in some parts of Nigeria. There have been several reports of women being sexually assaulted while in detention.

The latest round of anti-SARS protests have morphed organically from online hashtags into street protests in what feels like a tipping point for a generation of young Nigerians.

Online and offline

One of the core components of the ongoing protests has been the seamless transition between online and offline campaigns. Mainly using Twitter and WhatsApp, young people have rallied and mobilized waves of protests to locations across the country with pretty simple formulas.

For instance, when dozens of people converge on a location to host their own protests, they share their location on Twitter asking for “reinforcements”—a move that has seen crowds go from a few dozens to hundreds within hours in some places.

“These protests are different because they are decentralized and not directed by “leaders” or typical “activists.”

Alternatively, strategic locations are pre-identified online with people then encouraged to come out and protest. In one such case, thousands of young people responded to calls to come out before 6am yesterday (Oct. 12) to shut down Lekki toll gate—a key transit point between Lekki, an upmarket Lagos neighborhood, and the city’s main business district. The move resulted in miles-long lines of traffic jams and severe disruptions to activity in the city. It also proved effective as it forced the Lagos state governor to show up and address the protesters in person a few hours later.

The protests have spread to other states across the country in similar fashion with social media also deployed as a key tool for organizing. And there has been little reason to offer extra motivation to galvanize young people to show up for these protests: the notoriety of SARS is such that millions of young Nigerians have either had gory personal experiences or know someone who has.

Speaking up.

The campaigns have also been sustained online where they initially began. The #EndSARS hashtag yielded 28 million tweets over the past weekend alone, according to social media analytics firm, Afriques Connectées.

Wise to the power of amplification and allies, a core part of the campaign has included pushing hashtags to global figures to tap into larger, international platforms. The move has yielded fruit with celebrities, from Premier League footballers in England and American hip hop stars like Kanye West and P Diddy to Oscar-winning Hollywood actresses also sharing the hashtag and lending their support on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook.

But it’s not just celebrities, young Nigerians believe the Buhari government is uninterested in engaging with key social issues until the international press shines an embarrassing or inconvenient spotlight on a problem. To that end many of the early hashtagged tweets were all concerted efforts to catch the attention of big media organizations including the BBC, CNN, Al Jazeera and New York Times. Most of those media houses have indeed obliged and covered the biggest social protest news event since “Occupy Nigeria” protests in January 2012.

While some prominent individuals have been involved in the protests, it’s key to note that much of the organization has happened organically online, without any stated campaign “leaders”—a dynamic similar to the US Black Lives Matter movement which represents a problem of sorts for governments.

People crowd Gani Fawehinmi freedom square on the fifth day of a protest against a fuel subsidies removal in Lagos Jan. 13, 2012

With protests in the country typically fronted by local Nigerian groups like the National Labour Congress or student unions, political leaders often try to resolve them by “negotiating” with leaders of this groups which often leads to accusations of tainted compromise or even corruption.

“These protests are different because they are decentralized and not directed by “leaders” or typical “activists”,” says Gbenga Sesan, an activist and founder of Paradigm Initiative, a digital rights advocacy firm.

Crowdsourcing and crowdfunding

Just like its organization, the funding of the protests have also been decentralized. The costs of the protests are being funded primarily through donations coming from Nigerians at home and abroad. But local tech startups—most of which are led by and have young people as a key customer base—have also become prominent actors in the campaign as well: in addition to making donations, fintech startups have also set up donation links to ease the crowdfunding process.

One such donation drive managed by Feminist Coalition, a weeks-old group of young Nigerian feminists that was formed in the wake of the protests, raised around $55,000 in four days through cash and bitcoin donations.

So far, donations have been dedicated to providing protesters with food and water as well ensuring first aid and other medical supplies are available at protest venues across the country. In severe cases of police brutality against protesters, donations are also being used to pay off hospital bills. Laraba, a 30-year old communications and development consultant who was beaten by three police officers while protesting, says her hospital bills have already been paid by Feminist Coalition. “I’m essentially at the mercy of those who crowdsourced finances and so far they’ve come through,” she tells Quartz Africa. “I’ve had to come back to the hospital and they’ve also promised to cover subsequent bills.”

Young lawyers are also working pro-bono across the country, offering legal representation to arrested protesters. It’s a key service given the real threat of being unlawfully detained without a sentence and without access to legal representation. Indeed, 72.5% of inmates in Nigerian prisons are serving time without being sentenced. “We have over 400 volunteer lawyers on standby today and had a training session for them with was facilitated by a senior advocate of Nigeria and other experienced criminal litigation lawyers,” says Moe Odele, one of the lawyers coordinating national efforts to protect the rights of arrested protesters.

Just one message.

The intensity of the protests highlight a key cultural shift in Nigeria: while older Nigerians may have been conditioned against public protests given their lived experiences under successive brutal military regimes in the 1980s and 1990s, Nigerians below the age of 35 either never experienced those dictatorships or were too young to understand what they lived through. Essentially, younger Nigerians are speaking up without fear and tapping into digital tools to make themselves heard by an older generation of leaders.

It’s a developing trend that is being accelerated by social media. With their low bandwidth consumption which is ideal for slower networks, Twitter and Whatsapp have become vital platforms for raising political awareness not just in Nigeria but across the continent. African governments are responding by stepping up online censorship plans through questionable social media laws.

There are plenty of tell-tale signs the Nigerian government is also wary of the power of social media and technology as there have already been several unsuccessful attempts to regulate social media in Nigeria. The bad news for the government however, is that online advocacy will only get louder given current trends: Nigeria will account for more than a fifth of the 475 million mobile internet users in sub-Saharan Africa and will also welcome 25 million new mobile subscribers by 2025, GSMA estimates show.

But unlike some other African countries, Nigeria has yet to shut down internet access as a response to dissent from citizens and one likely reason is the potential steep economic cost: a total, nationwide internet shutdown will cost Nigeria an estimated $134 million daily. For its part however, Sesan’s Paradigm Initiative has launched a campaign offering VPN subscriptions to help people stay connected to the internet in the event of a shutdown or social media blocks during the protests.

Counting the costs

The protests can be said to have already yielded fruit: Nigeria’s police inspector general has already announced SARS has been disbanded. However, it comes with the caveat that SARS officers will be transferred to other units in the police force—a decision that undermines the call to root out impunity from the police force.

Recent evidence also provides little reason to believe that the inspector general’s directive will yield tangible on-ground results: the latest announcement is the fourth time the police leadership has placed restrictions on the unit’s operations in four years.

And so the protests have intensified even after news that the unit has been “disbanded.” Protesters are now calling for the president to take more tangible action for legitimate investigations to bring errant officers to book in a bid to instill a measure of accountability in the police force.

It’s a request that continues to be validated by the police force’s response to protesters on the street. Over the past three days, unarmed protesters have been met with teargas, water-cannons and live rounds from police. There have also been widespread reports of arbitrary arrests of protesters who are being slapped with trumped up charges. “We are seeing a lot of accusations by the police of attempted murder which is bogus as the protesters aren’t armed,” Odele tells Quartz Africa. Even worse, at least 10 unarmed protesters have been killed since the start of the protests, according to Amnesty International.

So far the government’s calls for an end to protests and promises of reforms have been ignored as protesters continue to organize across the country. And there is little indication that will change soon. “Tech and social media are readily available coordinating tools,” Sesan tells Quartz Africa. “But the young women and men sustaining protests, raising funds, organizing legal support, sharing information about protest movements belong to a generation that is impatient in a great way.”

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