The women of the #EndSARS protests come from a long line of often female Nigerian changemakers, their contribution to peace and justice must be recognised, say Taibat Hussain and Ehireme Uddin.
Armed forces opened fire on peaceful protesters on 20th October 2020. The protesters sat on the floor and sang the national anthem. By the time they were done, the once white of the Nigerian flag was red from the blood of those who dared to demand an end to the brutality.
At the heart of the protests, which had been going on for two weeks prior to this fateful event, were women. It’s important to say that. Not in an attempt to erase men or belittle their participation but to ensure that, when this moment goes down in history, women will not be written out of it. Nigerian women have historically been forgotten. We must not allow that to happen again.
Nigerian history has not been gender-sensitive and available data has neglected women’s contribution. But from the Borno women, who occupied important administrative positions in the royal family in the precolonial era, to Queen Bakwa Turk who founded the Modern Zaria, and her powerful warrior daughter Queen Amina, Nigerian history is rich with influential women. The women at the heart of the #EndSARS protests are not an anomaly. They are the descendants of the Aba women, including at least fifty women who were killed, fighting against colonial oppression in 1929.
Regardless of social conditioning, discrimination, and under-representation in key areas, Nigerian women have continued to participate in most aspects of social and economic life. New generations of women are increasingly involved in societal issues, they have efficiently organised various movements and protests to draw attention to inequality, abuse and gender-based violence. Even though their participation in policy and governance remains unsatisfactory, Nigerian women today are changing the dialogue and walking in the footsteps of their predecessors who have come out to demand change fearlessly in the spaces open to them, in homes, communities, online and in the streets.
It should then be unsurprising that they are at the heart of the perhaps the most significant mass movement in Nigeria since the pro-democracy rallies of the 1990s. In October, for over two weeks a series of uncoordinated protests broke out. Led by young people they called for an end to police brutality, and in particular the Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS). The protests against this unit are not new. They have happened every year since 2016 but promises of reform have failed to come to fruition. The unit has continued to extort, abuse, torture and kill Nigerians based on random profiling methods that target individuals on the basis of irrelevancies such as tattoos and piercings. Young people are regularly targeted, especially those aged 18 to 35 and in some cases children as young as 14.
The Feminist Coalition – a newly formed women-led NGO campaigning for gender equality in Nigeria has played an instrumental role in sustaining the protest. Over the course of the protest they raised over £296,476 through crowdfunding, supporting the protests with food and essentials, they continue to provide legal and medical aid. They are providing a new model of leadership, of accountability and urgency, evidencing the fact that it does not take multiple councils, meetings, and commissions to make change happen.In a country where feminists are often dismissed as being ‘man-hating’ women they are showing what feminist leadership looks like.
Even as the government again announced the disbandment of SARS, at the other side of town, members of that same unit were shooting live ammunition at peaceful protesters. The inability of the government to bring an end to this unit demands a larger conversation about; accountability within the government, a lack of a clear chain of command and a lack of care for civilian lives by the political class. The massacre on the 20th October, reinforced this when the army denied its involvement in the shooting, when the governor of Lagos State, said he had no control of the army and when the president refused to acknowledge what happened at all. Youth-led feminist groups are beggining to offer answers to these timely questions.
When Thomas Carlyle said “The history of the world is but the biography of great men”, we bet he did not envision this generation of women! Unlike in the past, their instrumental role will not be so easily swept underground, thanks to technology and social media. A generation of young women have now made it clear that they will no longer be silenced or undermined.
The women of the #EndSARS protests should be known, remembered and cheered.
Feature Photo by Samson Maxwell on Unsplash