For two weeks, thousands of young people across Nigeria and abroad this month took to the streets to call for the dissolution of Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS), an infamous police unit accused of extortion, extrajudicial killings, rape and torture.
This was far from the first time Nigerians had made such a demand. It was, however, by far, the first time their calls garnered such widespread support and international media coverage – thanks, largely, to the prominent role of social media in spreading the word.
Peaceful protests against police brutality began on October 8 after a video allegedly showing a SARS operative killing a man was widely shared online.
The #EndSARS hashtag swiftly started trending, boosted in part by Nigerian celebrities and high-profile personalities with large followings. As the hashtag also spread beyond the country’s borders, a number of Nigerian Twitter users announced they would help cover the phone bills of others so they could afford to keep tweeting and maintain momentum.
Encouraged by the first protest held in Lagos, Nigeria’s commercial capital, Uloma Nwoke and her friends decided to also organise one in the Lekki area 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 influential people showed up,” Nwoke said.
Meanwhile, thousands of kilometres away, Omolara Oriye, a human rights lawyer, was organising a protest via WhatsApp in South Africa’s capital, Pretoria. She said a video of Nigerian police officers manhandling demonstrators circulating on Twitter prompted her to action.
“I contacted the Nigerian Student Association in Pretoria who put me in touch with Nigerian students,” said 32-year-old Oriye. “We met at the [Nigerian] embassy.”
In mid-October, the protest movement got an extra push from Twitter’s CEO, Jack Dorsey, who used the #EndSARS hashtag as he posted a donation link associated with the Feminist Coalition, one of the most prominent groups supporting protesters on the ground.
Nwoke, 25, decried the tendency of celebrities to monopolise the microphone at protest venues, depriving those most affected by SARS of 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 front. We had to start profiling [speakers].”
It’s a sentiment also shared by Oriye.
“Celebrities are great for amplification, but they are not movement leaders,” she said, arguing that many are ill-informed and have, in the past, diverted attention away from knowledgeable activists.