What makes a revolution?
Revolution does not come about by chance. It’s an alchemy of time, place, people and circumstance. It also doesn’t happen overnight – but in the wake of last year’s End Sars uprising against police corruption, a new generation of activists and instigators boldly moved Nigeria into a more optimistic and inclusive future.
Looking back in order to move forward, we examine the youth revolution that brought the establishment to its knees and ask: what’s next for Nigerian activism?
THE FIRST WAVE
The only accurate word to sum up the events that took place in Nigeria in the month of October 2020 is historic. For two weeks, young Nigerians took to the streets across the country to call for the scrapping of the Special Anti-Robbery Squad (Sars) – a rogue unit of the Nigerian police force known for carrying out atrocious acts of police brutality. The unit was created in 1992 in response to increasingly widespread cases of robbery, kidnapping and other violent crimes the Nigerian police force wasn’t able to properly handle. Vested with so much power, the unit, inevitably, began to abuse it. But the End Sars movement didn’t happen overnight – rather, it was a culmination of events that firstreached boiling point in 2016.
The archetypal victim of police brutality in Nigeria is young, male and usually alone – driving, walking, jogging, waiting, breathing, existing. Conducting stop-and-search tactics, Sars officials were known to profile their victims as criminals on the spot and charge them with offences they couldn’t provide evidence for. Dreaded or dyed hair? Definitely a criminal. Ripped jeans or tight-fitting gowns? A prostitute deserving of harassment.
To Sars officials, facts seemed inconsequential. Stop-and-search scenarios often ended in arrests and, if the subjects refused to confess to crimes they hadn’t committed, violent threats. Some victims reported being denied access to a lawyer and forced to pay exorbitant sums of money for their freedom. A report by Amnesty International documented 82 cases of torture, ill- treatment and extrajudicial execution by Sars between January 2017 and May 2020. In 2017, when young Nigerians took to social media to share their experiences of harassment and call for change, the first wave of the End Sars movement was born.
The movement was convened in part by Segun Awosanya, a businessman and human rights activist who would often meet with police to help secure the release of arrested Nigerians, on Twitter in 2016. For their part, the police took a defence-and- denial stance on the matter, refusing to own up to abuses of power even after five Sars officials were arrested for the extraju- dicial killing of two men in September 2017. But it didn’t matter: a chain of events had been set in motion that would unleash the largest protests the country had witnessed in a decade.
THE SECOND WAVE
Spurred by a video of Sars officials shooting a young man dead before stealing his car, another round of protests ensued in 2020, sparking a second wave of the End Sars movement. This time around, the protests exploded beyond social media and, on a hot afternoon on Thursday, October 8, young Nigerians kickstarted the most culture-shifting movement the country had seen in recent times through a series of coordinated, decentralised, peaceful protests. Influential Afropop stars Folarin Falana
(AKA Falz) and Douglas Jack Agu (AKA Runtown) joined the protests, and what started as a call to dismantle a corrupt police unit soon grew into a wider fight for social change across all parts of the country.
“I decided to step out because I genuinely felt that it was necessary,” Falz recalls. “We have had way too many cases of police killing, robbing and extorting young people. It was getting way out of hand and we needed to put an end to all that mess.”
“Attending the protests last October was one of the most surreal experiences I’ve ever had,” says Tami Makinde, a writer at Lagos-based culture platform Native Mag. “My friends and I have been profiled and stopped by Sars (police) in the past, and I had a duty as a journalist to tell the stories of young Nigerians like myself. The energy on the grounds of the protest was unlike anything I’d ever witnessed. Young Nigerians from all backgrounds were united under a common cause. Anger was rife in the air, (with) chants resounding on familiar Lagos streets. It was liberating.”
“There was the scary realisation that I or my loved ones may be victims of oppression at any moment. Survival was my propeller” – Rina Oduala
Rinu Oduala, who helped organise and convene protesters across several locations, says the movement is about the collective survival of young Nigerians. “I was compelled to go out and protest to increase public awareness and put a spotlight on the injustice and oppression happening in Nigeria,” the activist and entrepreneur explains.
“Protests are the only language the government (seems) to pay attention to. Many Nigerian youths disappear every day, some get killed recklessly without cause while others are scarred for life – physically, emotionally, or both. There was the scary realisation that I or my loved ones may be victims of oppression at any moment. Survival was my propeller.”
The protests were held together by a striking display of communal effort and selflessness. While there were people on the ground protesting, social media still played an important role, to raise awareness not only in Nigeria but the rest of the world, and keep the #EndSars hashtag trending. Beyond catching the attention of the international media, the campaign proved fundamental in uniting members of the Nigerian diaspora across the world, who also began staging protests and amplifying the mission of the movement.
With an ingrained culture of divisiveness across class, ethnicity, state and background, among other factors, Nigeria does not have a tradition of coming together in the name of activism.
“I wasn’t feeling very well on the first day of the protests (so) I decided to stay home and join people tweeting,” says Feyikemi Abudu, another prominent voice in the second-wave movement.
“But when I saw pictures and videos of people sleeping overnight, right in front of one of the state-houses in Lagos – I have never seen us care about anything this much, and that really moved me.” Abudu, jokingly known as ‘president’, was at the forefront of organising and providing welfare for protesters, raising over 1.3m naira to pay for breakfast for people who were at the state-house.
“My thinking was that, with all the demands that young Nigerians had, (the effort might take some time), and so if we were going to insist on our demands until the government did something, it had to be in a conducive setting for everyone involved.” This same spirit was reflected in the everyday Nigerians who also set up fundraising efforts, providing food and refreshments and even setting up a legal aid unit to bail out demonstrators arrested for protesting peacefully.
Although the protests were peaceful, they were met with violence from the police. Demonstrators were hit with teargas, blasted with hot water from a fire truck and even shot at, resulting in the death of a young man named Jimoh Isiaka. Three days after the protests began, on October 11, the Nigeri- an government agreed to dissolve the Sars unit. But young Nigerians still had demands, including the immediate release of all arrested protesters and justice for families affected by police brutality. None of them would be addressed.
Soon after, the Nigerian police force introduced the Special Weapon and Tactics Team (Swat), a new police unit charged with the same responsibilities as Sars. But with many ex-Sars officials permitted to join Sars subject to psychological examination and training, protests continued unabated. The tactics of intimidation and breaches of power didn’t stop at Swat: In November, prominent End Sars activist Eromosole Adene (AKA EROMZ) was detained for ten days by authorities for alleged “criminal incitement, cyber-stalking (and) breach of public peace”, prompting a viral Twitter hashtag campaign, #FreeEromz.
For all the movement’s progress, there was a lack of recognition for all of its voices in some areas. Although women – from Oduala and Abudu to the Feminist Coalition and the activists working the food stalls at rallies – were at the forefront of the protests, it didn’t stop them being attacked on social media.
“Women showed up in such a major way,” says Abudu. “Of course, men showed up too, but most of the people I worked with during End Sars were women. It was phenomenal, because Sars affected women but it affected men more, and it didn’t matter because they still showed up. It was also exciting to see women taking positions at the forefront of an important movement, and I look forward to seeing more of that in future.”
Cracks began to appear within the movement itself, too. Awosanya, maintaining that protests should have ended with the dissolution of Sars, accused feminist and LGBTQ+ factions of bringing a “demonic agenda” to the movement in an apparently homophobic series of tweets. “The movement wasn’t intersectional,” says activist Matthew Blaise of the bias that silenced LGBTQ+ campaigners during the protests. “It was just about cis heterosexual men and their encoun- ters with Sars. Even women and queer people who supported the movement at that moment came from the angle of how (Sars) affected cis het men (rather than) how it affected us. For me, as a queer person, I’m profiled based on my gender expressions and sexuality. Which is very different from the ‘normal’ Sars profiling.”
“It was one of the first times we had seen the Nigerian youth come together with one collective voice” – Ozzy Etomi
The protests continued until the night of October 20, when young Nigerians watched in horror as live footage captured by Warri-born musician DJ Switch showed armed forces opening fire on protesters at the Lekki toll gate, in Lagos state. The incident, which trended online as #LekkiMassacre and prompted a cover-up by the Nigerian government to mask the number of casualties, marked the premature end of the movement. “Young people were beginning to imagine a new future and we were rudely shaken back to reality by the sound of military guns and the cries of wounded colleagues,” says Oduala, recalling the tragic events of the night.
“The next few days were horrific,” says Abudu, who was working in one of Lagos’s call-centres at the time of the shootings. “I remember we were trying to get an ambulance for a boy who was shot during an altercation (with) the police, and not only did he pass away because the police wouldn’t let the ambulance through, the boy’s family couldn’t move his body because we couldn’t get there in time.” Lagos’s state government had imposed a curfew to block protesters, and police officers on the ground were stopping ambulances from reaching the injured. “It was the best and the worst time, because I’d never seen us so united, but that unity also led to major bloodshed that many of us will never forget.”
At the time of writing, it has been five months since the Lekki toll gate shootings, and no one has been held accountable for it. “I think the protests ended rather abruptly for many of us,” says Makinde. “Because of social media, we witnessed in real-time how the Nigerian government and its army were not hesitant to end young Nigerian life on our own soil. Seeing all this reminds me that the struggle is far from over and there are still many more (battles) ahead for us to make this country habitable for all its people.”
In spite of the outcome of the second wave, Makinde believes that young Nigerians won in other ways. “An entire generation learned how to speak up for themselves and challenge the leadership of our rulers in public office,” he says. “I’m really proud to have stood beside fellow young Nigerians last year and I’m ready to stand beside them again when the time comes.” Fahd Bello and Juju of skate collective Iter Mob, who joined the protests last year, say the movement played a “huge role” in changing the ways in which young Nigerians interact with social justice, adding that “people are more confident now, more willing to express themselves through their art. (There is) beauty behind the madness.”
There are other positives. Outlets like Native and Zikoko changed their editorial approaches during the protests and, more widely, there’s a feeling that the movement has effected permanent change for Nigerian journalism. “At that moment, End Sars was youth culture, and so as a team we recognised our contribution to the fight and decided that nothing else was important,” says Native’s managing editor Damilola Animashaun.
“We had to shut down our daily processes in order to focus on the protests and document what was happening when traditional news outlets wouldn’t,” says Tomiwa Aladekomo, CEO of Zikoko’s publisher Big Cabal Media. “Now we have extended that ges- ture to create a vertical which aims to improve the understanding Nigerians have of their government.”
Falz believes the movement means a great deal for the future of social justice in Nigeria. “This is a build-up of many years of corruption and impunity,” he explains. “(There have been) many years of mismanagement of a very wealthy country’s resources. It’s the result of a select few criminals enriching themselves at the expense of the rest of the populace. This revolt was waiting to happen.”
Similarly, Abudu thinks that the spirit of collectivism that the movement symbolised can inspire future generations, and that history will see the second- wave End Sars protesters as true agents of change.
“I am hoping that we bottle this energy to want to come together for good causes,” she asserts.
“And use it to set up strong systems and structures across the country.”
“We always joke that End Sars was our baptism by fire,” adds Ozzy Etomi, a member of the Feminist Coalition, a non-profit organisation founded by Damilola Odufuwa and Odunayo Eweniyi which raises funds and awareness for female-led initi- atives. “But what it really did was help us quickly form a structure and identify our key strengths as an organisation.”
Though the second-wave protests were a lesson in collective action that has undoubtedly pushed Nigerian protest forward, for Eweniyi, it highlighted shortcomings in Nigerian society that urgently need addressing. “The protests showed very glaringly that there is still a lot of work we have to do to make sure marginalised voices are not silenced,” she says. “It raises a lot of questions: if the protests were focused on issues that affected women, or just queer people, would it have gotten that amount of support? I don’t think so.”
For the Feminist Coalition, the second wave’s failings have only emboldened their mission. “Following the protests, there have been a lot of ideas about who we should be and what we should do,” says Etomi. “With the protests behind us and with all that we experienced both as young Nigerian millennials and as an organisation, we are more dedicated than ever to our mission: the advancement of women in Nigerian society.” Despite this, the collective – whose international presence has blossomed since the protests in 2020 – gather around one profound final truth.
“It was one of the first times we had seen the Nigerian youth come together with one collective voice.”
Hair Kehinde Are, skin Lauretta Orji, set design Ayeblue Gbenga, talent Smart Song, Nicholas Oloto, Solomon Stephen, Seaboy Tamara, Ali Olakanmi, Ayomide Onafeko, Elizabeth Sobiye, Kelly Smith, lighting Frank Macaulay, photographic assistants Laura Zepp, Noma Olusola, styling assistants Laura Ugbegde, Maro Young, hair assistant Adebisi Sherifat, skin assistant Ifetoma Kalu, production Gina Amama, production assistant Omokeko Olufela, local casting Dafe Oboro