How #EndSARS Motivated Nigerian Women to Get Involved

“Speak up! Sọrọ sókè!”

In October 2020, often violent protests erupted throughout Nigeria in reaction to systemic police brutality.

These protesters, mostly disaffected youth, were demanding that the government put an end to the Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS), a specialty unit of the Nigerian police, alleging that it had links to blackmail, illegal organ trade, extortion, torture, rape of both men and women, armed robbery, kidnapping, and extrajudicial killings. Multiple media reports have confirmed that Nigerian youth were killed by the police with impunity. Unfortunately, to this day, no justice has been served.

For a country that hasn’t taken any significant measures to combat high youth unemployment, young men and women had decided to carve out niches for themselves where they could to make a living.

Yet, the police systematically harassed and targeted Nigerian youth for “looking too good,” “using high-end phones,” “carrying dreadlocks,” and “driving big cars.” Because of this targeted harassment, the youth decided to speak up. The “sọrọ sókè!” moniker emerged, and of course, the #EndSARS hashtag started trending on social media, which prompted Nigerians living abroad into organizing solidarity protests to support the movement.

In the course of writing this article, I spoke with notable figures involved in the #EndSARS movement. Some of these individuals include women involved in politics and civic engagement, a women’s rights activist, a newly elected member of a state legislature, and a comedian. I won’t be specifically focusing just on the #EndSARS movement, but spotlighting the strategic roles that women played in the movement and how Nigerian women have more than proven themselves capable of leading Nigeria.

A name that comes to mind when people talk about the #EndSARS protest movement is Aisha Yesufu, an activist and organizer of the #BringBackOurGirls movement.

“My motivation to join the #EndSARS protests was to support the people who were making demands for an end to police brutality. I felt citizens were making demands for their lives to matter, and I needed to be there,” Aisha told me in an interview.

#EndSARS protest in Lagos
#EndSARS protest in Lagos. (Wikimedia)

Aisha stressed that women have been involved in several movements from the Aba women’s riot to the Egba women’s protest, the #BringBackOurGirls movement, and so on. So, when it comes to advocacy and activism, you always find Nigerian women at the forefront. And this is something that requires selfless leadership.

“Seeing women lead and actively engage in the #EndSARS protest in 2020 made me feel immensely proud and inspired,” said Adebowale Adedayo, a comedian and thespian, popularly known as ‘Mr Macaroni’ and one of the Nigerian celebrities that steered the #EndSARS movement with his voice and platform.

Adebowale joined thousands of protestors on the streets of Lagos in the early weeks of the protests. He was arrested alongside dozens of others and molested by the police while in custody.

Despite this, he and other young Nigerians didn’t stop advocating for change and making their voice heard during the height of the #EndSARS protests.

Chinemerem Onuorah, a Communication Officer for YIAGA Africa, a non-profit that is committed to promoting democracy and development across Africa, actively participated in the protests.

“Aside from various social media posts I made in support of the movement, I was also on the streets of Abuja to join in the multitude demanding a change,” Chinemerem told me.

Chinemerem told me that she wrote two articles as a way of lending her voice to the movement demanding an end to police brutality.

This is a pointer that many Nigerian women used available to them to power the #EndSARS movement. Not only did they participate physically, but they also provided support in other ways. Just like Chinemerem, many Nigerian women supported the movement in ways that exceeded expectations.

“There’ll be some traction to the [#EndSARS] movement when women organize around it,” Ozzy Etomi, a founding member of Feminist Coalition — a group of young Nigerian feminists who work to promote equality for women in Nigerian society — tweeted on Oct 4, 2020.

Her prediction, it turns out, proved to be true as women like Rinu Oduala and Aisha Yesufu displayed audacious leadership during protests in Lagos and Abuja.

While these women were at the forefront of the protests, others played less obvious roles, ensuring that things went well. Feminist Coalition, for example, played a huge role in steering the financial ship of the movement. They organized a fundraiser that raised around $200,000 within two weeks. Lawyers, doctors, and even chefs stood up to provide assistance to the protesters, and the sense of responsibility portrayed by these women was beautiful to see, but more importantly, highly commendable.

Chinemerem Onuorah holding a poster just before a #EndSARS protest in Abuja
Chinemerem Onuorah holding a poster just before a #EndSARS protest in Abuja. (Chinemerem Onuorah)

“Women have always been at the forefront of societal change, and witnessing their strength and determination during the protests was a testament to their unwavering commitment to justice,” Adebowale Adedayo said, adding that he believes in encouraging society as a whole to embrace women’s leadership and empowerment.

Aisha also shared her thoughts on Nigerian women’s capabilities during the 2020 protests. “We must be able to find a way to channel that, to ensure that these women get into politics to put in their leadership towards building a working country.”

Grace Anuforo, a women’s rights activist and founder of the Graciella Initiative, told me: “We know about how women stood in the forefront of the #EndSARS movement, one of the most coordinated and effective human rights advocacies done in the history of Nigeria that produced a revolution.”

“We see women chairing board meetings and so much more. This is how to fight for and earn our rights. Now, we have a few percent of women in politics, which was not the case some years ago. Soon, we will have more, and one day, half the lawmakers will be made up of women.”

Grace further commended the efforts of Nigerian women, because, in her opinion, women have been proving that they are capable of being successful leaders. Rather than wait to let the government throw dog bones at them, women are taking charge of their lives and situations.

This is evident in how Rukayat Shittu, a twenty-seven-year-old political aspirant, recently won a seat in the Kwara State House of Assembly. Speaking with Rukayat brought me hope as I shared in her excitement about winning her race.

Rukayat also shared that when she and other newly elected women were celebrating their victories, AbdulRahman AbdulRazaq, the governor of Kwara State, challenged the five women to be prepared for the journey ahead.

Rukayat Shittu, the newly-elected member of the Kwara State House of Assembly
Rukayat Shittu, the newly-elected member of the Kwara State House of Assembly. (Rukayat Shittu)

“He said ‘Your community has given you, their trust. I have also given you, my trust. It is now up to you,’” Rukayat recounted. She further shared how she felt about her win. “I feel so good and privileged. Like I’ve been saying before, this is a rare opportunity for such a young person, a Muslim, and a female in Kwara State. So, I’m so glad that by this time next month, we will get to start the work fully.”

Like Rukayat, Nigerian women have always faced challenges on the journey to making their mark on the political terrain. While there were people that showed her support in different forms, from prayers to monetary donations, she noted that challenges abound.

“We will see women that are not even in the election, like women groups, not supporting co-women that are contesting. And we say we’re being sidelined; I think this is up to us.” In her opinion, some women may be the very thing that is holding back Nigerian women, and that has to change if we want to take our participation in politics seriously.

Frederick Odorige, the founder of Global Coalition for Security and Democracy in Nigeria, who led solidarity protests in Hungary, opined that Nigerian women seem to be their own worst enemies. But that is not only the problem. He used a vivid analogy to paint how women are viewed a certain way in Nigeria. Frederick cited the fifty-naira note design which has seven people imprinted on it, but only one is a woman. He maintained that the currency design sends a message of how the country sees Nigerian women, and it symbolizes the inequality that has eaten deep into the system.

“You know structures are deep. It’s really difficult to pull down long-standing structures. We live in a patriarchal society. A society that sees it as an ‘abomination’ for women to be placed on an equal playing ground with men,” stated Grace Anuforo. She agreed that the system has relegated women to the back, but showed optimism at how women are changing the narrative for themselves and by themselves.

On this same issue, Aisha Yesufu lamented the fact that “there’s always the issue of religion and custom, where people just feel that women shouldn’t be in leadership positions.” She said these are core challenges that stifle the full participation of women in politics and especially, leadership.

“What we need to do is to, first of all, get as many women as we can into the legislative arm of government because that’s where the laws are made,” Aisha Yesufu told me.

She added that when one is not facing the brunt of injustice, sometimes they hardly even recognize the injustice. Or even when they do, they can easily discard it. And this is why it so important to get more women into the policy-making rooms so they can advocate for the rights of Nigerian women.

Similar to that is the need for the government to oust all forms of discrimination against women. The Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) which was signed in 1984 and ratified without any reservations in 1985, should be reinforced.

Chinemerem shared her thoughts on why we can’t leave this reinforcement only to women in parliament. According to Chinemerem, “parliamentary interference is only about 40% of the problem solved.” She believes that “there needs to be a conscious social awakening which, sincerely, is much higher in the current generation and also since the #EndSARS movement in 2020.” She added that “when the media and citizens too continue to rise above the discrimination of women in politics, it builds a society where women feel supported to contest and participate in politics.”

Rukayat Shittu attributed her win to the support she got from her state governor, who believes that women are great team players and corroborates this with his actions. She noted that the governor had already signed a significant number of bills dealing with gender equality. If governors in other Nigerian states could replicate this, women’s participation in politics would increase significantly.

Beyond this, Frederick Odorige believes there’s much more to be achieved if women started supporting themselves. He asserted that the country’s policies are not making it any easier for women to have a level-playing field to competitively run for political office. He suggested that this narrative can be changed if the first ladies of all 36 states and the first lady of the country come together and act.

For any real progress, the push has to start at the top.

This story was supported by African Women in Media, as part of the AWIM/LUMINATE Media and Young Women in Politics Project.