Nigeria’s Next-Generation Protest Movement

Demonstrations against police brutality—organized on social media and powered by artists and musicians—have shown Nigeria’s youth that they have the power to change society.


AMA protester poses with a banner reading “End SARS” at the Lekki Toll Plaza in Lagos, Nigeria, on Oct. 18. NELLY ATING FOR FOREIGN POLICY

For once in Nigeria, the youth have united against tribe, religion, and ethnicity to demand change.

For years, the Nigerian police unit known as the Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS)—designed for tactical undercover operations to take down criminals—has extorted, harassed, and killed young people who happen to use expensive phones and drive flashy cars. The plainclothes police also target those who sport dreadlocks and tattoos.

Despite the online campaign against SARS through the #EndSARS hashtag for four years, the government’s indifference and lip service inspired SARS to commit more atrocities against citizens. But a viral video that circulated on social media on Oct. 3—a gory display of a man allegedly killed in broad daylight by a SARS squad—was the last straw.

Young Nigerians had had enough. So they took action, first by trending the hashtag #EndSARS, which hit No. 1 worldwide on Twitter. Next, they deployed a decentralized and organic strategy to drive youth from social media to the streets of Nigeria’s major cities—especially Lagos, Nigeria’s commercial hub—to demand an end to SARS.

A group of young street dancers perform while the audience chants “End SARS” at the Lekki Toll Plaza on Oct. 18. NELLY ATING FOR FOREIGN POLICY

The Nigerian Afro-pop musicians Folarin Falana, known as “Falz,” and Douglas Jack Agu, known as “Runtown”—both millennials—used their social media platforms to call for a peaceful demonstration on Oct. 8, demanding justice for victims and survivors of police brutality. That was how the protest started in Lagos’s upscale Lekki neighbourhood, before it spread to other parts of the city and nationwide.

This strategy motivated more Nigerians to join peaceful demonstrations. It marked the birth of an unconventional nonviolent civil resistance movement, which leveraged Nigeria’s cultural icons to bring people onto the streets.

A woman holds a sign during a protest at the entrance to the Lekki Toll Plaza on Oct. 18. NELLY ATING FOR FOREIGN POLICY

For a generation accused of clinging to smartphones and being addicted to the internet and pop culture, the protest was an unexpected shock. The opposition to SARS caught the government off guard.

As the protests spread across Nigeria, other celebrities and social media influencers led the demonstrations in their various states. When the government made a tone-deaf announcement that SARS has been disbanded, just as it had announced three years earlier, the youth followed up with a five-point agenda. They demanded justice for citizens killed because of police brutality, police training, a judicial inquiry to prosecute perpetrators, psychological evaluation of members of the police force, and increased salaries for officers.

Left: Child boxers from a low-income community in Lagos state came to the Lekki Toll Plaza on Oct. 18 to spar and join the protests. NELLY ATING FOR FOREIGN POLICY

The protest organizers, led by a group of feminists, assisted in drafting the agenda. They circulated it on social media, winning many supporters across the globe from Hillary Clinton to Beyoncé.

Within two weeks, the all-female Feminist Coalition reportedly raked in monetary donations of over $380,000 to coordinate its logistics. They disbursed the funds to pay bail for arrested protesters, medical bills for wounded protesters, food and drinks, and private security to protect demonstrators. They also launched a help line to respond to emergencies.

For a generation accused of clinging to smartphones and being addicted to the internet and pop culture, the protest was an unexpected shock.

Standing behind the protesters were religious leaders, small and medium-sized businesses, and Nigerians living abroad, all lending their voices and platforms to call for the dismantling of the corrupt police unit. Nigerians in the diaspora turned up the pressure through protests at different embassies, calling for an end to SARS.

The sheer organization of these young Nigerians gave hope and renewed faith that Nigeria—a country of more than 200 million people where nearly 40 percent of people live in abject poverty—can work.

Protesters fly the Nigerian flag chanting “Soro soke,” a Yoruba phrase that translates to “Speak up” in English, in Lagos on Oct. 18. NELLY ATING FOR FOREIGN POLICY

The movement has now gone beyond calling for an end to corrupt policing; it is also challenging the misuse of public funds and demanding solutions to the country’s unemployment crisis, poor infrastructure development, and bad governance.

Despite the violence, the #EndSARS protests could mark a turning point; 60 per cent of Nigeria’s 200 million people are under the age of 25. The youth are now aware of their power more than ever.

Although the protests started peacefully, they turned ugly when the Nigerian Army shot at unarmed protesters on Oct. 20 at close range—an event that was recorded live on Instagram by a female DJ. Many young protesters were killed and injured while thugs allegedly sponsored by politicians infiltrated and disrupted the protests.

Despite the violence, the #EndSARS protests could mark a turning point. Nigeria has a youthful population, with about 60 per cent of its 200 million people under the age of 25. But political apathy among the youth has resulted in the election of elderly politicians to public office.

The youth are now aware of their power more than ever. They’ve seen how much can be achieved with unity and are ready to demand change—especially as Nigerians look forward to the next general election in 2023.

Nelly Ating is a freelance reporter and doubles as a photojournalist reporting from the front lines of conflict zones in Nigeria. Twitter: @NellyAting Instagram: @nelly_ating

AMA protester poses with a banner reading “End SARS” at the Lekki Toll Plaza in Lagos, Nigeria, on Oct. 18. NELLY ATING FOR FOREIGN POLICY

A woman holds a sign during a protest at the entrance to the Lekki Toll Plaza on Oct. 18. NELLY ATING FOR FOREIGN POLICY

Left: Child boxers from a low-income community in Lagos state came to the Lekki Toll Plaza on Oct. 18 to spar and join the protests. NELLY ATING FOR FOREIGN POLICY

Left: Child boxers from a low-income community in Lagos state came to the Lekki Toll Plaza on Oct. 18 to spar and join the protests. NELLY ATING FOR FOREIGN POLICY

From Witnessing Mass Slaughter To Cleaning Bloodstains From Weapons – Nigerian Girls Defy Trauma

by Nelly Ating

Hafsat Hussein (not real name), 13, sits with her peers in the class cheery and reciting nursery rhymes. Hafsat was one of those girls rescued by the Nigerian army in 2016. She was an underage armorer for Boko Haram.

At age 10, she was abducted leaving behind her twin. Hafsat spent 3 years in captivity, witnessing mass slaughter and cleaning the bloodstains from weapons.

Away from the stolen years of education, traumas, psychological anxiety, are 100 young girls like Hafsat who are defying their experiences to reclaim their self-esteem and dignity through creative education.

The young girls’ age 11-14 consisting; children of Boko Haram fighters, Joint Task Force (JTF) Fighters and unaccompanied children all victims of the 9 years ongoing Boko Haram insurgency in Northeast Nigeria sit together in one classroom to learn under the Lafiya Safari meaning safe space an informal education run by Neem Foundation.

The literacy center sits in the epicenter of insurgence – Maiduguri, a town known to be resilient despite a series of scalding attacks threatening its peace.

The schoolgirls were identified by the community leaders are enrolled in a small class size of 16-17 in each class. The six classes are colorfully decorated.

In one of the classes, a girl is backing her peers solving a quantitative reasoning equations on the board, another class has a teacher hugging a student for finding a missing word in a sentence while her mates cheered on.  Classrooms are decorated with springs of positive words and mathematics/English/Hygiene murals.

Like Hafsat, many of the girls who were abducted suffered PTSD, trauma, stress, and anxiety. But through the core values such as unity, forgiveness, justice, embedded in their education the girls are slowly gaining their confidence, foster logical reasoning and empowered of which is the secular education the militants believe corrupts their Islamic values.

Ben Tivkaa, Clinical Psychologist Neem Foundation says the girls’ recovery in the program is very impressive. “When Hafsat first joined the program, she was aggressive, suffered flashbacks. The mere sight of a slaughtered chicken triggers flashbacks.”

Their psychological assessment is confidential, some had moderate PTSD symptom, after post assessment, we check their level has psychosomatic complex.

For the past 8 months, Neem Foundation has been working with these girls also providing psychosocial support with the help of an in-house counselor in the school. They are also offered one-meal per day and work closely with their parents and guardian.

“We try to replicate the formal education system complementing by providing an approach which involves psychological assessment and vulnerability checks. Getting them to understand the more conventional science of education. Giving them a different narrative from what they’re exposed to,” Ahmed Jumare, Senior Program Officer.

Within 2009-2014, Boko Haram has launched a series of attack on schools in Yobe, Borno, and Adamawa State. In northeast Nigeria, education has seen a major hit as the group whose name signals “western education is forbidden” has constantly attacked schools. Human right watch records that “between 2009 and 2015 than 910 schools have been attacked and forced at least 1,500 to close. By early 2016, an estimated 952, 029 school-age children had fled the violence.”

Mostly the group keeps launching subtle yet pervasive attacks on the girl-child education.

Early this year, February 19, about a hundred school girls age 11-19 were kidnapped from a government secondary school in Dapchi, while in 2014, 276 schoolgirls were kidnapped from Chibok. Both towns approximately a few kilometers from each other in Yobe State

104 of the 110 Dapchi girls and 154 of 276 Chibok girls few were released. Some are still in captivity. The Buhari led administration promised to foresee the freedom of the remaining girls in captive.

For an initiative like the Lafiya Safari, it is a little water in the ocean to offset lost years of their education. They worry about the lack of funding to transfer the schoolgirls to private formal education.

“We teach the girls: respect, dignity, peace, unity forgiveness, tolerance, and justice as well as critical thinking and problem-solving skills,” says Aisha Bukar, assistant education center manager, “we are hoping the program run for a year or two with generous support from our donor, but it is still not enough.”

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They survived Boko Haram, now returnees are fighting hunger

By Nelly Ating, for CNN

Updated 2046 GMT (0446 HKT) July 18, 2017

Adamawa, Nigeria (CNN)In September 2014, Boko Haram attacked Bdagu – a village in Adamawa state, northern Nigeria.

Jafiya Nuhu, a 52-year-old commercial farmer, hid under maize cobs in his farm with his wife and two children as the insurgents raided their neighbors, looting and torching houses.His family and a few others were lucky to escape unhurt.

“It all happened so fast,” Nuhu recounts. While the attack occurred on a Sunday morning, his family stayed hidden till late in the night and ran through the bushes till they arrived in a village, five kilometers away from Michika.They found safety in the embrace of sympathetic villagers. “They offered us food,” he says, admitting that he struggled to fend for his family, having been cut away from his source of livelihood.Today, Nuhu and his family have returned to his community but he has not farmed since.According to the International Organization for Migration’s Displacement Tracking Matrix (DTMRound XV February-March 2017 report, Adamawa State has had the highest number of returnees with the total of 655,122, followed by Borno and Yobe.The report shows that about 1,151,427 internally displaced persons returned home in March with over 10% (122, 507) returned to Michika.These days, Nuhu hews firewood and earns a meager N500 ($1.50) daily from wood sales – selling about five packs at N100 each (30 cents) – to support his family.”The last time I farmed in Bdagu was 2014, and after Boko Haram attack I have not gone back to farming,” he says. “I tried [but] they chased me from my farm.”Many other farmers from the settlement have similar tales to Nuhu’s – unable to farm and earn a livelihood since the aftermath of the September 2014 capture of their community by the insurgents.Internally Displaced People (IDPs) are gradually returning to their respective communities, many of which remain bullet-ridden ruins and unsafe for farming.The timing of the return coincides with the worst economic crisis experienced by Nigeria in over two decades.The local currency naira has fallen significantly against the dollar as the recession bites hard.Food insecuritySince 2009, Boko Haram militants have ravaged north east Nigeria; Adamawa, Yobe, and Borno states have been the most affected – with thousands killed and over two million people displaced according to estimates by the Internal Displacement Monitoring Center.The consequence is severe as most of the displaced adult population are farmers, putting their immediate communities at risk of food shortage.Already, there are ominous signs that things could be even worse.A recent food security projection for the months of February to September 2017 by the Famine Early Warning Systems Network reveals a great need of assistance as food insecurity threats increase – in spite of the large presence of humanitarian agencies in the region.”A large portion of the population remains in need of food assistance and other basic services driven primarily by ongoing insecurity and displacement.”Worst affected accessible LGAs are facing emergency acute food insecurity with an increased risk of high levels of acute malnutrition and excess mortality. Less accessible areas, likely experiencing similar or worse conditions to neighboring, accessible areas, face an increased risk of famine in 2017,” the report adds.Before the 2014 attacks, each harvest from the farm of Mrs. Hajara Tumba – an early returnee to Madagali – could yield a total of 90 bags of maize, groundnut, and millet.Trade between the communities and neighboring countries such as Cameroon, which borders Michika, has been greatly affected causing hikes in food prices and putting pressure on the declining local production.”Borno for example, produces the highest number of maize we eat in this country, Adamawa produces the highest number of sorghum and other crops not favorable to the tropical area but suitable to the weather of the northeast,” Adamu Kamale, a federal legislator told Machacha, a social change platform.Most of the farmers lack support from the Ministry of Agriculture, and have no farming equipment or the capital to procure them.Advocating for increased attention by government and international development agencies, Kamale, who looks resigned to fate, delivers a damning prediction; “If this train continues, government reserves will be depleted. Most of government reserves are beefed up from the produce in the northeast.”Nothing’s happeningBefore the 2014 attacks, each harvest from the farm of Hajara Tumba could yield a total of 90 bags of maize, groundnut, and millet.The responsibility of farming has fallen on her four unemployed children who produce for subsistence, she says. Hajara is still traumatized from her last experience and how she survived an attack by the insurgents.”I thank God for escaping alive,” she recounts in her native Hausa. She believes the insurgents still hold part of Madagali, contrary to narratives by the Nigerian security agencies and that is holding her back.Food scarcity in Michika is an issue on the rise, agrees Galaxy Harat, founder of Hope And Rural Aid Foundation (HARAF), one of a few non-profit organizations working in the area.”About 60 percent of children in Michika and Madagali were suffering malnourishment,” says Harat. “If something is not done this year we will be facing food scarcity in this region.” The first glimmer of hope is that as she reveals, the FAO in partnership with some local NGOs is about to initiate agricultural support for rainy season farming in the two local governments.A survivor makes local groundnut oil for their family.According to her organization’s assessment, most of the returnees are facing psychological trauma while others were maimed by the insurgents or suffered long-lasting injuries while trying to escape.Currently, the town is in complete darkness as electricity infrastructure is yet to be restored and government presence is skeletal.Civil servants attached to the local government secretariat now work under an acacia tree just outside the ruins of their former offices.

David Ishaye, a pastor whose church was burnt down by the insurgents said: “How do you want us to move on from what happened in Michika, when there is no food and life here is hard?”This article was first published in the social change platform Machacha

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