The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

How women helped rally mass protests against Nigeria’s police corruption

Too many people ignore African women’s political agency

Demonstrators gather during a protest last month in Lagos, Nigeria, over alleged police brutality. (Temilade Adelaja/Reuters)
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Nigeria’s #EndSARS movement has spawned over 150 mass protests in cities across the country, with demonstrations intensifying after soldiers reportedly fired live rounds into protesters at the Lekki toll plaza in Lagos on Oct. 20. The movement has also inspired solidarity protests in major cities of the world, including London, New York, Berlin and Washington.

Women play a leading role in the ongoing #EndSARS movement against police brutality and government violence in Nigeria, specifically seeking to abolish a federal police unit called the Special Anti-Robbery Squad. One nascent women’s group in particular, the Feminist Coalition, has used digital platforms to mobilize funds and design strategies to support protesters across Nigeria.

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The Feminist Coalition’s work in the #EndSARS movement continues a long history of women leading and supporting political mobilizations across Africa. This engagement, however, has typically been minimized or ignored outright in the retelling of the events. Here’s what you need to know.

After weeks of protesting for police reform, Nigerian security forces approached demonstrators Oct. 20 and opened fire, witnesses and human rights groups said. (Video: The Washington Post)

Who are the Feminist Coalition?

In July, Damilola Odufuwa and Odunayo Eweniyi, both under 30, formed the Feminist Coalition activist group alongside 12 other young women. The group advocates equality for women in Nigeria through a focus on advancing education, financial freedom and representation in public office. Based in Lagos, the group uses online platforms for its work.

The Feminist Coalition gained popularity when it took on a central role in the #EndSARS protests just two months later. It raised and managed funds for the movement, established a legal aid service made up of volunteers, and coordinated help lines to align efforts across the country.

Nigeria’s Feminist Coalition capitalizes on mobile apps

Communication technologies have facilitated the #EndSARS protests. The online mobilization effort has garnered global support, generating over 28 million tweets within 48 hours of the online campaign’s kickoff on Oct. 8.

The speed and reach of new technologies have enabled efficient communication of information for community building and collaboration. These technologies also helped the #EndSARS movement navigate the Nigerian government’s responses to the protests.

Through WhatsApp and Twitter, activists shared information, reaching a wide network of supporters. Real-time transmission of texts, pictures and videos of the protests and violence by police and soldiers also prompted swift domestic and international condemnation of the Nigerian government.

Using traditional money transfers and BTC Pay, a platform that converts cryptocurrency to cash, activists raised money to help pay for food and drinks for protesters, as well as legal and medical services. After the Nigerian government shut down traditional payment channels, the group pivoted to the bitcoin cryptocurrency. The Feminist Coalition mobilized significant financial resources from across the world through these platforms, raising an unprecedented 147,855,788 Nigerian naira (about $388,000) between Oct. 8 and Oct. 22.

Women have a long history of leading protests in Africa

Women have long played leading roles in protests across Africa. These roles include supporting activists in anti-colonial and pro-democracy protests, but women also served as leaders in these revolutionary movements.

An important example is the Tanzanian women’s wing of the nationalist party, Umoja wa Wanawake wa Tanzania. The group drove the nationalist movement’s success between 1955 and 1961 by using its social and economic networks to provide logistics and funding.

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In Mozambique and Angola, women took up arms alongside men in anti-colonial struggles that became drawn-out wars. But subsequent accounts of the events minimize the importance of women’s roles in some cases — and erase them in others.

Even if excluded or diminished in the historical record, women have been integral in shaping political outcomes across countries in Africa, particularly through mobilizations and protests. Increasingly, women are getting due credit in recent anti-government protests across Africa, including Sudan, Algeria and Nigeria.

Women’s leadership in the #EndSARS movement builds on a long, albeit underrecognized, history of women’s mobilizations in Nigeria. In the 1950s, for example, market women’s associations adopted innovative methods to support the anti-colonial independence movement. Using militant strategies like sit-ins, market closures and refusal to pay taxes, market women facilitated the dislodging of native and colonial authoritarianism.

Women were also integral to the return-to-democracy mobilizations during Nigeria’s extended military rule of the 1980s and ’90s. Single-issue micro campaigns led by women marked the era, including the education advancement campaigns, the pushback against adopting a theocratic state and the anti-Structural Adjustment Campaign. This history of pro-democracy protests culminated in the June 12 Movement, massive protests that began in 1993 and ushered in Nigeria’s current democracy.

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Women’s groups have also been crucial to more recent anti-government protests in Nigeria, playing visible roles in the 2010 Enough-is-Enough protests against corruption and government ineffectiveness and #OccupyNigeria movements against the removal of fuel subsidies in 2012. While the ongoing #EndSARS movement started in 2017, women assumed lead roles in the 2020 iteration.

Why women’s leadership is so critical

Women occupy just 5 percent of political offices in Nigeria, though they make up 49 percent of the voting population. Although women play crucial roles in protest mobilization and sustenance, they are mostly excluded from political leadership in Nigeria, including elective and appointive government positions.

Will the effectiveness of young women’s leadership in the #EndSARS movement inspire an interest in political participation among the youth, especially younger women? What lessons might emerge from the effective engagement of women in the #EndSARS mobilization? In Nigeria and elsewhere, these successes may spark the expansion of women’s leadership roles in government and business.

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Chiedo Nwankwor (@chiedochichi) is the director of SAIS Women Lead and teaches African politics at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies in Washington.

Elor Nkereuwem (@eloresin) is a research and advocacy fellow at Transparency International Defense and Security and a doctoral candidate in the African studies program at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies in Washington.

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