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#EndSars: the youth-led movement in the streets, on your timeline and in the hearts of Nigerians

“Good morning and what a wonderful day to #EndSARS. We go again!” writes @fkabudu, retweeted by 51.8K users.

“They are used to people settling for less. They didn’t see this coming at all. We won’t back down till they do our bidding! #Endsars” tweets @adekunleGOLD, retweeted by 39.5K users.

“Is it so much to ask for our rights to be respected??! For our rights to even exist? #EndSARS” says @darlingdami, retweeted by 2.4K users.

If you are unfamiliar with the ongoing protests against police brutality in Nigeria, these tweets may easily pass you by on your timeline, but for us Nigerians, they are a symbol of hope and a generation harnessing the power of social media to fight for their lives.

The last two weeks have been a whirlwind for Nigerians everywhere with physical and online protests erupting across the nation in response to a viral video which circulated on Saturday 3 October.  The video showed a police officer from Nigeria’s Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS) shooting a young man in front of Wetland Hotel, Ughelli, Delta State. This caused an uproar and led to a resurgence in the calls for the Nigerian government to disband the rogue unit which has been accused of extra-judicial killings, robbery, kidnapping, harassment and other crimes which have specifically targeted young Nigerians.

What are the crimes these young Nigerians have committed? Well, they include wearing dreadlocks, owning flashy cars, walking around with tattoos on their bodies and iPhones in their hands or presenting themselves in any of the other countless ways that Nigerian society has deemed unacceptable and thus criminalised.

Breaking these codes has put a target on the backs of these young people as they are harassed by police, branded internet fraudsters or ‘yahoo boys’ (a local slang for the English term), and extorted by these officials who force them to empty out their bank accounts under the threat of being shot. That is if their interaction with SARS doesn’t leave them dead and dumped in a river somewhere, never to be heard of from family and friends again.

Since Thursday 8 October 2020, young Nigerians have mobilised themselves and organised a series of protests around the world, demanding the government to #EndSARS

Since Thursday 8 October 2020, young Nigerians have mobilised themselves and organised a series of protests around the world, demanding the government to #EndSARS. This rallying cry, although often interpreted in a linear manner (at least by members of the government), the disbandment of the Special Anti-Robbery Squad is far more complex. Yes, it entails the disbandment of the unit but also encompasses the arrest and prosecution of SARS officers at all levels, open-room and televised trials, justice and compensation for victims and their families, a specialist truth and reconciliation panel to uncover crimes. 

Officially, the SARS unit has been disbanded. On 11 October 2020, the Inspector General of Police announced that SARS had been dissolved in a statement that was re-iterated by President Muhammadu Buhari in a later address to the nation. But most Nigerians didn’t buy it. After all, this was the third or fourth time a statement like this had been made in just as many years. Two days later, the Special Weapon and Tactics Team (SWAT) was unveiled by the government in a move that was seen by protestors as an attempt to rebrand the now defunct SARS.

The anger of protestors speaks to the fact that the #EndSARS movement is not just about SARS, but rather stresses the need for wider reform of the entire Nigerian Police Force

The anger of protestors speaks to the fact that the #EndSARS movement is not just about SARS, but rather stresses the need for wider reform of the entire Nigerian Police Force (NPF) and further social reform throughout Nigerian society. Although it is SARS and not the NPF that started out as the specific target of the movement, they are just as complicit and guilty in criminalising innocent Nigerians. Ironically the Nigerian Police Force has used the slogan, ‘The police is your friend’ yet I cannot think of a time I have ever felt a sense of confidence or trust in the NPF.

What I have never been more confident about is the power of young Nigerans who have organised the largest and most powerful social movement the nation has seen in years

The role of online protesters who keep the topic trending, amplify the cause and document the movement is taken incredibly seriously. Twitter particularly has helped the cause garner international attention from platforms such as CNN, BBC and Aljazeera, whose reports on the protests have aided in giving young Nigerians a voice at a time when they were being branded as troublemakers by local news outlets.

The hashtag #EndSARS has trended globally on Twitter in the last two weeks. At the same time, global celebrities such as Viola Davis, Diddy and most notably Twitter’s founder Jack Dorsey have also pledged their support by tweeting #EndSARS or sharing one of the many informative posts on the movement created by young Nigerians. Dorsey tweeted his support for the movement and Twitter later unveiled a new emoji for the #EndSARS hashtag.

In a similar vein, what started as a spur of the moment tweet by popular podcaster Feyikemi ‘FK’ Abudu to help fundraise N50,000 to feed a small group of protesters has now led to funds of over N73 million being raised by her and an NGO known as The Feminist Coalition which champions the rights of Nigerian women. These funds were freely given by Nigerians in the country, across the diaspora and other supporters to help sustain protests. Although #EndSARS is a leaderless movement, such individuals and organisations act as intermediaries to support protests by funding food, water, ambulances and security which has been increasingly important as the Nigerian police employ violent tactics to crack down on protests.

Furthermore, their daily reports on how the funds raised are being disbursed shows the transparency and accountability Nigerians have long demanded from their government. Other innovative practices they and other protesters and organisations have introduced in just under two weeks include an #EndSARS Helpline fully staffed with volunteers to assist protesters, a domestic network of lawyers on hand to represent arrested and beaten protesters, organised by Twitter influencer and lawyer Moe Odele, and an online radio station to provide up-to-date and reliable information.

So, this was supposed to be the transition to the conclusion of this article. I actually finished writing it just two days before disaster struck my country like I have never seen in my lifetime. On Tuesday 20 October 2020, in what is now referred to by some of the populace as Black Tuesday, the Lagos State Governor, Babajide Sanwo-Olu announced a 24-hour lockdown of the state at around 11:49 pm to begin at 4pm of the same day. They did this to address the ‘monster that is (was) threatening the well-being of our society.’ This statement was a reference to the ongoing protests which he deemed were becoming more violent. However, it is important to note that this violence was coming from armed thugs who were hijacking protests in certain areas, looting and causing chaos. The news of the lockdown was a source of anxiety for many as on any given day, the average Lagosian might sit in traffic for the roughly over 4 hours the governor had mandated until the lockdown and this was not any average day. 

Despite the implementation of the lockdown, a group of peaceful protestors remained at the Lekki Toll Gate which has been one of the central sites throughout the protest, steadfast in their beliefs and convinced that they would prevail through the night. After all, they were holding a peaceful sit-in, waving Nigerian flags and singing the National anthem. How could the state execute them? Unfortunately, it didn’t quite go that way. 

Later addresses via the governor’s Twitter account that the curfew had been shifted by a couple of hours, to come into effect at 9pm given the gridlock traffic. Nevertheless, shots in the area were heard as early as 6:45 and continued through the night. Multiple sources reported that soldiers had arrived at the toll gate and were firing live ammunition at the unarmed protestors. Blood was running through the streets, people were running anywhere and everywhere, ambulances were being rushed to the scene despite being blocked by security forces, the world was watching young Nigerians die on IG live.

It collectively dawned on us that this was happening because we begged the state to stop killing us, because we dared to ask for our fundamental human rights

In those moments, my world and the world of every Nigerian was in chaos and probably will continue to be in the next coming weeks and months. It collectively dawned on us that this was happening because we begged the state to stop killing us, because we dared to ask for our fundamental human rights. Alongside some other states, Lagos is still in lockdown today and it is likely that many more states across the country will enter a similar state. So now I, we, the people of Nigeria are looking to you.

During this fight, young Gen-Z and millennial Nigerians have branded themselves the Sọrọ Sókè generation, a phrase in Yorùbá – one of Nigeria’s most widely spoken native languages – which translates to ‘Speak up’. This shows their unwillingness to inherit the silence of previous generations and relent in this fight against police brutality and other social injustices in Nigeria. In the wake of the Lekki Toll Gate massacre and accompanying tragedies that occurred on 20 October, it has taken on a different meaning. Steadfast but solemn. 

Right now, we are a people and nation grieving. Most of us are unable to enter the streets for the fear of our safety but continue to speak up and shine a light on what is happening. So now that you know what is happening, I ask you: will you take up the mantle and speak up for us?

To get more information on what is happening and how you can help, please visit @feminist_co on Twitter or on Instagram.

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