In this piece Melody details how social media has been an important contribution to the youth-led anti-SARS protests. End SARS is a social movement protesting against police brutality in Nigeria that takes its name from a 2017 Twitter campaign advocating the disbanding of the Special Anti-Robbery Squad, given its total abuse of power. Whilst President Buhari agreed to disband SARS, Melody, a law graduate, notes how the government has not only sought to paper over the issue but is in fact conducting a targeted campaign against protesters.
At 5.47am on 21 October 2020, I was scrolling through Twitter, attempting to keep up with any news on the Lekki Toll Gate shooting that had taken place the night before. To avoid government surveillance, I had to use a VPN to access the internet. I had barely slept; every time I closed my eyes I was plagued by horrific images of a bloodied Nigerian flag, and the limp bodies of protestors, both of which were widely circulating online. This was a nightmare there would be no waking up from.
Protests against the corruption and violence perpetrated by the Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS) of the Nigerian Police Force (NPF) had been underway since 8 October 2020 but complaints highlighting their abuses had been ongoing since 2016. Every year since then, the Nigerian government declared the disbanding of SARS but these attempts consistently failed.
The recent spate of protests in October began after videos surfaced on the internet of a SARS officer shooting a young man and allegedly appropriating his Lexus SUV on 3 October. Nearly three weeks later, on 20 October, protests came to a head when soldiers and police opened fire on peaceful protesters at the Lekki Toll Gate. Citizens protested against state violence and in return the state killed them.
I was plagued by horrific images of a bloodied Nigerian flag, and the limp bodies of protestors, both of which were widely circulating online.
These events were unsurprising to many of us in Nigeria, with violent suppression being entirely characteristic of the President, Muhammadu Buhari, who formerly served as the military head of state between 1983 and 1985. This regime, which had ousted the democratically elected President Shehu Shagari, was characterized by the imposition of retroactive criminal laws, the restriction of freedom of speech and arbitrary arrests and imprisonments. The angry vow he made to journalist Dele Giwa of the Concord to ‘tamper with press freedom’ was a typical example of the kind of corruption that encouraged Newswatch’s 1985 description of the Buhari regime as the ‘War Against Everybody’.
Today, his new government claims to be running a democracy, with Buhari having defeated President Goodluck Jonathon in the 2015 election. His campaign slogan: ‘Change!’. In a period where the insurgent group Boko Haram was terrorizing Nigerians and had just kidnapped almost 300 schoolgirls in the town of Chibok, the succinct optimism of his campaign appealed to many of us who were desperate for a ray of political hope.
Unfortunately, nothing has changed for the better. The claim of democracy is a farce because our President has not abandoned his military background. Citizens are still being arbitrarily arrested and tortured by law enforcement. Boko Haram and armed bandits are still kidnapping and killing Nigerians, corruption is conspicuous in all tiers of government administration, human rights are generally being violated, and the government does nothing to resolve these fundamental issues. Their only response is to paper over the cracks and accuse ‘fake news’ of causing the disunity. It is almost as if Nigeria is back under military rule, and this begs the question: How could people who have directly experienced Buhari’s brutality willingly re-elect him?
At the nascent stage of the October SARS protests, the Nigerian youth, as the main target of police brutality, were very clear in their decision to avoid appointing leaders. The reason was simple: in the past, leaders of protest movements were either vanquished by government violence or incorporated into the state’s system of oppression. Without direct leadership, individual young Nigerians, like myself, have proliferated political messages through social media, disseminating information in real time. In eschewing traditional forms of hierarchical organisation that have historically failed, the potential of modern technology brings a new hope.
the power of social media as a voice for the oppressed remained as a vital outlet for those opposing state injustice.
A derogatory name used by older Nigerians for Generation Z is ‘Phone Pressing Generation’, undoubtedly because many older Nigerians are yet to comprehend social media beyond WhatsApp. The gerontocratic Nigerian government was bewildered by the spread of footage exposing the Lekki Toll Gate shooting via Instagram Live. In their confusion, they resorted to accusing entertainer and activist DJ Switch of ‘fake news’ for live-streaming the video as Diddy and CNN shared the post. With increasing desperation, the government has tried to use its own paid Twitter influencers to sow seeds of doubt regarding the authenticity of the protesters’ narrative, but these attempts have been largely unsuccessful, like previous efforts made by the National Assembly (Nigeria’s legislative arm) to pass an anti social media bill, the Protection from Internet Falsehood and Manipulators Bill (2019).
After a failed attempt at censorship and rhetorical delegitimization, the government turned to economic attacks. The Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN) restricted accounts that were associated with the protests but young people began contributing funds online, using third party financial applications like Piggyvest, CowryWise and Flutterwave amongst others, while using Bitcoin and cryptocurrencies to donate. Twitter’s CEO, Jack Dorsey, lent his support by not only donating to Feminist Coalition on behalf of the protests, but by amplifying the protests and giving the hashtag a logo. In all these governmental attempts to co-opt technology for the spread of disinformation, the power of social media as a voice for the oppressed remained as a vital outlet for those opposing state injustice.
The influence of these modern platforms cannot be overstated . They have drawn attention to the government’s infringement upon our basic rights to protest and to peaceful assembly at a time when other routes have been suppressed. Traditional avenues for dissent, such as the press, have been heavily curtailed by the state with News Stations like Arise TV, who covered the protests, being hit with a hefty N3 million ($6,000) fine by the National Broadcasting Commission (NBC). Moreover, the movement of high-profile dissenters has been neutralised as the Department of State Services (DSS) and the Nigeria Immigration Service seized the passport of renowned attorney and End SARS activist, Moe Odele, and placed other popular faces of the protests on no-fly lists. Social media was the last remaining option for a public display of outrage against the violence of the state.
The international access of these applications has also proved instrumental in popularising the protesters’ cause. As testament to this, almost 250,000 e-petitions asking for the investigation of the Nigerian government were signed online and were deliberated upon by the UK Parliament. DJ Switch, who eventually fled Nigeria quietly following attempts on her life, also testified before the Canadian Parliament. Across the globe, the United Nations, the African Union, former US Secretary of State and 2016 presidential candidate Hillary Clinton, and current President-Elect Joe Biden have all condemned the killing of peaceful protesters at the Lekki Toll Gate. It should, however, be noted that many Nigerians are wary of help from the Western world, as the effects of colonialism are still felt in Nigeria. The British were the masterminds behind the amalgamation of Northern and Southern Nigeria in 1914, whilst the United States of America supported the Nigerian state in its civil war, which saw the systematic genocide of an estimated 3 million Igbos.
Nevertheless, the SARS protests showed that we, the Nigerian youth, were – and still are – disaffected. We have nothing to lose. Threats of economic meltdowns, difficulties in transportation or even the spread of COVID-19 cannot deter protesters. There was – and still is – a bigger devil to combat: the Nigerian government. If the political elite could throw big parties and hold rallies during the pandemic, while also hindering pandemic relief for citizens, the masses can protest.
The current government’s response to the End SARS protests mirrors the responses of previous administrations, which were marred with violence and disinformation. Notwithstanding this, our response has set a standard for future protests. The internet has made the world a global village, where information travels quickly, allowing Nigerians to subvert state silencing, spread the truth among citizens and beyond, and call upon the international community to condemn oppression. The End SARS model, with its recognition of the power of social media, successfully plays against the government's greatest weakness: their age. As a gerontocracy, they fail to understand what our generation takes for granted. Their desperate cries of ‘fake news’ reveal their ineffectual attempts to co-opt social media. With a median age of eighteen, Nigeria’s population can utilise this method to create substantive change. We are not where we want to be yet, but we are getting there, one step at a time.