#EndSARS Part 2: Five Lessons From the Protests in Nigeria

An image of Aisha Yesufu with other protesters behind her carrying the Nigerian flag and placards saying End SARS

In Part 1 of this series, I talked about seven stages of the #EndSARS protests in Nigeria. In my analysis, there are five key lessons to be learned from these protests.

Infographic showing five lessons to be learned from the End SARS protests in Nigeria

1. #EndSARS had many roots.

Many roots related to corruption and bad governance in Nigeria leading to the growth of a shrub called End SARS
Image credits: instagram.com/welove2laugh

The video that surfaced on 3 October 2020 was just the trigger for the renewed protests around #EndSARS. The long-term causes related to corruption and bad governance in Nigeria, which have led to increased poverty, inflation, unemployment, and insecurity, to name a few. The long-term causes were evident in the hashtags that surrounded the protests, including #EndBadGovernance, #EndCorruption, #EndImpunity, #EndNorthernBanditry, and #EndInsecurity.

Indeed, the protests can be seen as a reaction against people in authority – both the police and the government. We had the #5for5 to give us a clear focus, but that did not stop us from expressing our discontent about other issues. It is hoped that the #EndSARS protests will be the first step in squarely addressing those other issues and changing Nigeria for the better.

2. Women and youth are up to the task.

An iconic image depicting Aisha Yesufu, one of the people at the frontline of the protests, as a statue of liberty
This iconic image of Aisha Yesufu, one of the people at the frontline of the protests, was created by Akintunde Abidemi Ikudayisi

Nigeria is a very patriarchal society that tends to look down on women at all levels. Nigerians are also very keen on unearned respect, and older people, even those who do not know their onions, can be very condescending to younger ones. But the organisation of these protests showed that women and youth are equal to the task. Strong women, including Kiki Mordi, FK Abudu (and other members of the Feminist Coalition), Aisha Yesufu, Moe, Rinu, and DJ Switch, were at the frontline of these protests in terms of fundraising, organisation, and physical protests.

The decentralised protests in different states were also led primarily by youth, including celebrities like Falz, Davido, and Mr Macaroni. What made these protests truly inspiring was the way in which they were organised. There was food for the protesters, there was medical support for those who were injured, there was legal help for those who were arrested, and there were teams of volunteers who cleaned up after the protests. There was also transparency in the receipt and distribution of funds for the protests. I mean, the Nigerian government could never! This is all the proof we need to show that women and youth should not be looked down on because we have a whole lot to offer. What young people lack in experience, we have in innovation and fresh ideas.

3. Our power is in our unity.

Multiple hands uniting to carry the Nigerian national flag

I’m not going to pretend that everything about the protests was perfect. People recognised the power we had by uniting across tribe and religion, and they tried to fuel ethnic and religious division, which led to clashes in some areas. The thugs who attacked peaceful protesters and destroyed and looted property in the aftermath were also youth.

But there is a lesson to be learned here as well. The lesson is that in a nation as diverse as Nigeria, with two main religions, about 250 ethnic groups, around 500 indigenous languages, and over 200 million people, inclusion and representation are critical. We need to make sure that everyone is carried along; that everyone feels like they have a stake in the process. This includes people from different ethnic groups,  different socio-economic backgrounds, and different literacy levels. Otherwise, we will stop speaking with one voice, and these people will be used against us. Essentially, our power is in our unity.

4. Laws only work when there is widespread compliance.

People gathered in large numbers with a placard displaying End SARS
For two weeks, protesters gathered daily in large numbers, despite two attempts to ban protests. Image credits: crisisgroup.org

This is a legal argument, so permit me to get a little bit technical here. According to HLA Hart’s theory of law, there are two minimum conditions necessary and sufficient for the existence of a legal system. One is that officials accept the rules of recognition (in simple terms, what makes laws valid, e.g. the Constitution). The other is that citizens generally obey the laws that are made under the rules of recognition (although in a healthy system, citizens will not just obey, but also accept these laws as common standards of behaviour that they are obligated to follow).*

Visual representation of Hart's theory of the roles of citizens and officials in a healthy legal system
Simple representation of Hart’s theory of law

Applying this theory to the protests, we saw that Governor Wike and the FCT Security Committee tried to ban protests in Rivers State and Abuja, respectively. Let’s ignore for now the irony inherent in trying to prevent the people who put you in power from complaining. Section 40 of the 1999 Constitution of Nigeria (as amended) protects the right to peaceful assembly and association. By attempting to ban protests, the government already went against the rule of recognition (i.e. the Nigerian Constitution), thereby making the law invalid.

To be fair, section 45(1) of the Constitution allows the right to peaceful assembly and association to be restricted if it is in the interests of defence, public safety, public order, public morality, or public health, or if it is necessary for the purpose of protecting the rights and freedoms of other persons. So let us assume that the ban on protests was indeed valid under the Constitution, and accepted as such by officials. There was still a problem: large numbers of people refused to obey. This is what Hart refers to as “the pathology of legal systems”, where people refuse to obey laws accepted by officials.**

Of course, this applied to only one law, so we cannot apply Hart’s pathology argument to our entire legal system in Nigeria. However, I have used this analogy to illustrate that laws can only function effectively when there is widespread compliance. Once the majority of people refuse to obey laws, officials find it difficult, if not impossible, to enforce them. This might explain why peaceful protests and civil disobedience are so powerful.

* These ideas were presented by HLA Hart in The Concept of Law (first published 1961, Oxford University Press 2012) 110-17

**ibid 117-23

5. Social media is an immensely powerful tool.

Hand holding a phone displaying social networks including Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and Whatsapp
Photo by Tracy Le Blanc on Pexels.com

During the protests, social media platforms like Twitter became primary sources of information, as protesters used them to share information updates as well as picture and video evidence. Indeed, in some cases news and information updates went on Twitter first before going on mainstream news stations.

DJ Switch shared live updates on the Lekki Toll Gate massacre through a live video on Instagram. The Feminist Coalition used social media to raise over N70 million for the protests. Dr Chinonso Egemba (@aproko_doctor) raised awareness on social media and helped raise over N3 million in less than four hours to get a prosthetic leg for Jane, a brave Nigerian who came out to protest in spite of her physical impairment.

A physically disabled lady protesting during the End SARS movement
Jane, who has been unemployed since 2013 partly because of her disability, came out to lend her voice to the #EndSARS movement. Image credits: twitter.com/aproko_doctor

Undoubtedly, there are also negative sides to social media, particularly with regard to fake news. It is very easy for false information to spread quickly and become viral. This is why it is important to verify information before sharing. I know that it is not always possible to do this, but I definitely think the benefit that comes from sharing crucial information on social media far outweighs the cost of fake news and misinformation.

Unfortunately, the government has tried to use the problem of fake news on social media as an avenue to stifle expression through the Protection From Internet Falsehood and Manipulations Bill, also known as the Social Media Bill. Citizens have been fighting against this bill since as far back as 2019, but the #EndSARS protests have given the government renewed impetus to revive the bill. This is reminiscent of the National Broadcasting Commission’s attempt to stifle information by imposing ludicrous fines (N3 million each) on three news stations over “unprofessional coverage” of the #EndSARS protests. (Let’s ignore Adamu Garba’s laughable $1 billion lawsuit against ten respondents including Jack, the CEO of Twitter, for raising funds for the protests.)

A civil society organisation in Nigeria, the Socio-Economic Rights and Accountability Project (SERAP), has threatened to sue the Northern governors’ forum and the National Assembly if the Social Media Bill is passed. They, along with 261 other Nigerians and groups, have also sued the NBC over the fines imposed on TV stations. We hope that these actions will be instrumental in protecting our freedom of speech and expression.

Ultimately, our parents did not have the useful resource of social media during their own protests, so we have to utilise this powerful tool effectively and capitalise on the gains made by human rights activists over the years.

These five key lessons form the context for Part 3 of this series, where I suggest next steps we can take.

More in this series:

Related: #ProblemsTheEP: EndSARS

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