#EndSARS: How Nigerians Harness Social Media Against Police Abuse | Nigeria

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Port Harcourt, Nigeria – For two weeks, thousands of young people across Nigeria and abroad this month took to the streets to call for the disbandment of the Special Anti-Theft Squad (SARS), an infamous police unit accused of extortion, extrajudicial killings, rape and torture.It was far from the first time that Nigerians had made such a request. However, this was by far the first time their appeals garnered such wide support and international media coverage – thanks, in large part, to social media’s prominent role in spreading the message.

Peaceful protests against police brutality began on October 8 after a video showing a SARS operative killing a man was circulated widely online.

The #EndSARS hashtag quickly started trending, spurred in part by Nigerian celebrities and high profile personalities with large following. As the hashtag also spread beyond the country’s borders, a number of Nigerian Twitter users announced that they would help cover other people’s phone bills so that they could afford to keep tweeting and to maintain momentum.

Encouraged by the first demonstration organized in Lagos, the commercial capital of Nigeria, Uloma Nwoke and his friends decided to organize one also in the Lekki district of the city. They shared a flyer detailing the time and location of the protest on various social media platforms – and on the morning of October 10, they were surprised to see that nearly 1,000 people had descended on the site.

“A lot of celebrities and influencers showed up,” Nwoke said.

Meanwhile, thousands of miles away, Omolara Oriye, a human rights lawyer, was staging a demonstration via WhatsApp in the South African capital, Pretoria. She said a video of Nigerian police mistreating protesters circulating on Twitter prompted her to act.

“I contacted the Nigerian Students Association in Pretoria which put me in touch with Nigerian students,” said Oriye, 32. “We met at [Nigerian] embassy. ”

On October 15, the protest movement received additional impetus from Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey, who used the hashtag #EndSARS to post a donation link associated with the Feminist Coalition, one of the support groups. the most important to the demonstrators on the ground.

While the amplification of the protest by celebrities and social media influencers filled the information gap left by local media, protesters resisted attempts by government officials to nominate influential people as spokespersons through media outlets. invitations to join newly instituted panels on police reform.

Having seen other movements crumble as a result of closed-door meetings between protest leaders and government officials, many activists have warned against such appointments.

Nwoke, 25, spoke out against the trend for celebrities to monopolize the microphone in protest venues, denying those most affected by SARS the opportunity to share their experiences.

“It was one of the biggest challenges for me,” she said, of celebrity worship and narcissism. “Most of them just want to always be in the lead. We had to start profiling [speakers]. »

This is a sentiment also shared by Oriye.

“Celebrities are great at amplification, but they’re not movement leaders,” she said, arguing that many are misinformed and have in the past distracted sophisticated activists.

In addition to raising awareness of police brutality and coordinating protests on the ground, various #EndSARS organizers have used social media to connect with volunteers, accept donations from other parts of the world and post accounts on funds disbursed. thanks to frequent updates.

Information about hotlines and how to get around a possible Internet shutdown has also spread freely and widely.

Essentially, observers say, social media has democratized the #EndSARS movement, allowing users with varying numbers of followers to pitch, enhance or reject ideas, solicit donations, or set up food banks to feed. the protesters.

“This whole movement was born, raised and picked up online,” said Chioma Agwuegbo, communications manager for Not Too Young to Run, an advocacy group dedicated to bringing young Nigerians to public office. “There was a constant reminder that there was no leader, [which] helped to strengthen the voice of the people and to close all avenues of compromise.

On the news front, online posts largely run by and aimed at millennials have kept the protest at the forefront alongside witnesses armed with smartphones, like most mainstream media – perhaps beware of the directive from the Nigerian Broadcasting Corporation to be careful with the user. – content generated and in order not to “embarrass” the government – kept away.

Their reluctance disappointed protesters such as Nwoke.

“It hurt me personally that people are falling dead on the streets and the news channels are showing a cooking show or talking about an irrelevant topic,” she said.

Protesters gesture at protest against police brutality in Lagos [File: Temilade Adelaja/Reuters]

As the peaceful protests gathered momentum after the start of their second week, gangs attacked protesters in various cities, including Lagos and the capital, Abuja. Thugs also vandalized public buildings, torched private businesses, and stormed penitentiaries to help inmates escape, prompting state governors to impose curfews to stem escalating crime. troubles.

President Muhammadu Buhari said on Friday that 51 civilians had been killed and 37 injured since the protests began, attributing the violence to “hooliganism”. He added that 11 police officers and seven soldiers had been killed by “rioters”.

Buhari’s statement came two days after Amnesty International estimated the death toll at 56, with around 38 killed on October 20, the same day security forces opened fire on unarmed protesters in Lekki, in an attack that was broadcast live on Instagram by a witness and caused contempt.

Amnesty said its field investigation by Amnesty International confirmed that the army and police killed at least 12 peaceful protesters in Lekki and Alausa, another area of ​​Lagos where #EndSARS protests were taking place. The army has denied the involvement of their men in the shooting.

Oriye expressed her admiration for the dynamism of Nigerian social media savvy people.

“The Nigerian press refused to cover the issue initially, so they forced us to rely on social media to record information in order to preserve the truth and any evidence,” she said.

Yet some Nigerians are still not convinced by the video evidence. In a now-deleted tweet, an actress with more than a million followers has apparently questioned Lekki’s filming, asking those bereaved to “speak out.”

Others, however, are urging those with proof to store them in the cloud, away from potential government interference.

And despite the brutal crackdown, many see a silver lining.

“One of the things that would help us [gain political power] is community engagement, ”Nwoke said. “This is something that we tried to implement during the protest, educating people on the issues.”

For his part, Agwuegbo believes that the events of the past two weeks have transformed Nigerian youth into a force to be reckoned with in the general election in less than three years.

“I think 2023 will be interesting for the future of the country because there is rabies,” she said. “But there’s also the realization that if we come together and plan something, we can make it happen.”



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