Women Who Lead Feminist Protests and Politics in Nigeria

For protests such as #EndSARS where women play prominent leadership roles, gender stereotypes that assign leadership roles to men encourage the ‘fizzling’ out of these protests at a much faster rate than protests led by men.

The actions, struggles and contributions of women at every stage of Nigeria’s development are an undeniably important aspect of Nigeria’s economic and political development. Yet, it is only male leaders that have generally been promoted as transformative and revolutionary leaders in Nigerian history. Sociological research shows that women groups are a strong pillar for grassroots politics, and this is true in the context of Nigeria. Across Africa, feminist and gender-based movements, dating back to the pre-colonial era, have been at the forefront of reimagining democracy, gender relations, and even power relations that have continued to impact intergenerational grassroots movements for political action.

So, why have our ‘sheroes’ been excluded from Nigeria’s domestic political landscape and how are women today countering this exclusion and reclaiming their role as transformative leaders? This is a question made even more pertinent by the recent emergence and actions of the women’s group, Feminist Coalition also known as FemCo, which played a vital role in the 2020 #EndSARS protests. FemCo evidenced that women are important political actors in Nigeria but what similarities does the group share with previous women movements in Nigeria?

FEMCO AND THE #ENDSARS PROTESTS

‘#EndSARS’, which first emerged in 2017 as a campaign on Twitter, called for the disbanding of the rogue Nigerian police unit, Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS). The hashtag drew attention to the numerous human rights violations SARS had committed. By October 2020, protests under the banner of #EndSARS had gained popular support and morphed into mass demonstrations across Nigeria. Members of the Feminist Coalition, the group originally formed in 2020 to advocate for women’s equality, played a vital role in mobilizing resources to support peaceful protesters, and contributed to the organization of many of the mass demonstrations that took place.

Building on the #EndSARS protests’ wide and popular reach on various social media platforms, especially Twitter, FemCo organized a fundraising campaign and disbursed the funds raised towards providing social services such as food, shelter, healthcare, physical security and legal aid which were vital to sustaining the #EndSARS demonstrations across the country. Both Nigerians at home and in the diaspora, along with the wider global community, donated to the fundraising campaign via online payments, bank transfers, and importantly, through the decentralized digital currency, Bitcoin. In accepting donations via Bitcoin, FemCo led the first popularized incident of Bitcoin fundraising in Nigeria, and doing so enabled the protection of donors’ identities, an advantage that would become even more invaluable following the retaliatory actions by the Nigerian government.

During the #EndSARS campaign, FemCo supported 183 peaceful protests in at least 30 states in Nigeria, and raised over 150 million naira for legal and emergency services. The coalition also received an endorsement from Twitter’s CEO, Jack Dorsey, with Twitter amplifying the #EndSARS protests by creating a custom emoji—a tight-fist emoji draped in the Nigerian flag—in support of the campaign.

The social media popularity of #EndSARS along with FemCo’s fundraising on Twitter were not well received by the Nigerian government. In June 2021, the Nigerian government officially banned the use of Twitter in Nigeria claiming that ‘there has been a litany of problems with the social media platform in Nigeria, where misinformation and fake news spread through it have had real world violent consequences.’ The move was widely regarded as retaliatory action against Twitter for its support of the #EndSARS protests and the removal of a controversial tweet by President Muhammadu Buhari.

Additionally, government officials have consistently framed the peaceful protest as an agenda to topple the current administration and the corporate existence of Nigeria, and have accused supporters of the movement of financing and sponsoring terrorism. Despite the Nigerian government’s claims, it is undeniable that the #EndSARS protests and FemCo’s offline and online advocacy efforts successfully and accurately documented several incidents of police brutality and harassment. The role FemCo played in the organization and mobilization of various #EndSARS protests is demonstrative of the value that women provide to social movements and the increased need to have more women in leadership roles.

The EndSARS protests culminated in the deadly shooting of unarmed protesters in Lagos by the Nigerian Army on October 20, 2020. A year later, in November 2021, the findings from the judicial panel investigating the incident determined that the Nigerian Army committed a massacre and attempted to cover up the shootings.  And yet, the government and military officials have continued to reject claims that they killed peaceful unarmed protesters in Lagos who were protesting police brutality. Despite the setback to the #EndSARS protests by the events of 20 October 2020, FemCo’s contributions to the #EndSARS protests highlight two important observations. The first is the important role of transformative leaders. The second is the need for leaders that are not only responsive to the needs of the people but are also accountable and transparent.

TRANSFORMATIONAL LEADERSHIP: FEMCO AND OTHER NIGERIAN FEMINIST GROUPS

FemCo’s work and impact can be compared to the work and impact of two major Nigerian women groups—the Abeokuta’s Women’s Union (AWU) and the Bring Back Our Girls (BBOG) advocacy movement.

Similar to the AWU under the leadership of Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti, membership of FemCo and AWU remained free from the ethno-religious tensions that usually plague Nigerian civil society groups and movements. For example, the AWU is regarded as one of the first proto-nationalist feminist activist groups in Nigeria.  By uniting working-class and middle-class citizens regardless of tribe or region, both groups opened their platforms, initially intended for other purposes, to wider audiences in order to effectively strategize, organize and sustain campaigns in demanding change. For instance, through the Abeokuta Women’s Revolt in the late 1940s, AWU protested the unfair taxation imposed in Abeokuta by the colonial government which disproportionately affected Egba women. AWU strategically employed concerted and unprecedented tactics that included petitions to the British government, intense press coverage of the injustice both inside and outside of the country, provision of legal assistance to challenge the unfair tax in the courts, and the hiring of an accountant to audit the accounts of the colonial administration. The unprecedented tactics utilized by AWU is akin to the multifaceted efforts of the FemCo in leveraging technology via social media platforms like Twitter and the group’s use of Bitcoin to mobilize medical, legal, and financial assistance to #EndSARS protesters in sustaining the movement and creating awareness to end police intimidation, oppression, and brutality.

FemCo’s effective utilization of social media also builds on the social media advocacy tactics employed by BBOG for the #BringBackOurGirls campaign. In 2014, BBOG used online advocacy methods, with much of their communications going viral, to mobilize people towards demanding that the Nigerian government rescue the over 200 schoolgirls abducted from their school dormitories in Chibok, Borno State by the Islamist insurgent group, Boko Haram. In particular, BBOG’s use of the hashtag #BringBackOurGirls, which was tweeted over 3.3 million times within weeks of the abduction, demonstrated the power of social media platforms in garnering collective action for change.

However, unlike BBOG, which is reported to have rejected funding from donors, FemCo utilized social media to raise donations which it used to provide aid to #EndSARS protesters. Funding raised by FemCo was crucial in maintaining the spirit and intensity of the #EndSARS protests that occurred across the nation. FemCo also showed a great level of accountability by being transparent about their dealings and transactions.

Yet, a common challenge to protests in Nigeria, and one not unique to the #EndSARS protests, is the inability of protests to build strong and lasting organizational structures. The majority of mass protest movements are usually in opposition to the Nigerian government and its policies/ programmes. They are also generally difficult to sustain in the long run, with periods of peak protest activity often fizzling out when the desired outcome is not forthcoming. Unlike community organizing, which prioritizes the slow and steady building of organizational structures, the fluctuating cycles of wide-scale uprisings—particularly, their boom-and-bust nature— often results in despondency among their supporters. This despondency makes it even more difficult to achieve the desired results.

In particular, for protests such as #EndSARS where women play prominent leadership roles, gender stereotypes that assign leadership roles to men encourage the ‘fizzling’ out of these protests at a much faster rate than protests led by men. In Nigeria, despite contributions by women-led protests in shaping political outcomes, subsequent accounts of their contributions have been excluded or diminished, resulting in the limited access of women leaders in spaces where they can push for greater change.

FORGING AHEAD: BRIDGING THE PAST, PRESENT AND FUTURE OF WOMEN LEADERSHIP IN NIGERIA

Societal and cultural norms that permeate Nigerian society have led to women often occupying secondary roles in society and being poorly represented in leadership positions. Nigerian history has tended to focus solely on men leaders such as Wole Soyinka, Fela Kuti and Ken-Saro Wiwa, and left Nigerian women leaders on the periphery of social and political discourse. Additionally, the Nigerian government’s lack of political will in involving more women in positions of power has further hindered women leadership and the efforts of women-led movements. Despite the global push to have more women in leadership and political positions, only seven out of 109 senators and 22 of the 360 House of Representatives members in Nigeria are women. To erase the role of women’s actions and leadership in Nigeria’s political struggles and movements is to deny their existence as fundamental agents of social change and reform.

FemCo, like other women activist groups, have continued to provide the social structures needed to promote prosocial actions and behaviours such as food for low-income earners as well as their recently introduced girls education programme. Such initiatives can serve as the foundation of transformational leadership needed in ensuring that the rights of citizens are respected and protected. A key part of FemCo’s efforts, for example, has been the group’s transparency in regularly sharing detailed information on the funds raised as well as disbursement details with the public, and their effective use of social media advocacy. The vital and invaluable role that FemCo and FemCo’s networks played in the propagation of the #EndSARS protests cannot be denied.

Despite FemCo’s significant contribution to #EndSARS, some of the group’s members have faced significant backlash, including a lawsuit alleging destruction of property as well as unfounded claims on mismanagement of funds. Yet, FemCo’s innovative resistance tactics and strategies provide a valuable blueprint of how young Nigerians can advocate for social change and reform, and transform the civic and political landscape of the country. It is imperative that we leverage the strengths and successes of FemCo’s tactics and strategies as well as learn from other women activist groups and women-led movements in building the needed institutional capacity that can promote grassroots movements that transcend social class, tribe and religion.

One way to do this is by including more women with leadership experience in positions of political power and influence through a quota system. This quota system would reserve a fraction of electoral positions for women, paving a way for women representation similar to models in Rwanda and South Africa. Although the implementation of quota systems does not necessarily mean that there will be changes in societal norms and attitudes, such a system may, at least, encourage more women to aspire to leadership roles by providing role models of women in positions of power.

The media can also play a role in educating and dispelling harmful gender stereotypes by providing better media coverage of women political leaders and women-led movements in ways that are relevant to leadership, women issues, and an equitable participation in civic and political life. Finally, it is important to create opportunities for networking and mentoring while empowering reciprocal relationships of solidarity, learning and support. This will ensure that the larger goals of women-led movements and participation in national discourses are sustained and remembered

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