There has never been any doubt as to whether women make effective leaders, but with #EndSARS the fact has finally taken root in the minds of every Nigerian.
For about three weeks in October last year, Nigerian youth shook Nigeria. We marched, wrote to the government, raised alarm to international news organizations, crowdfunded, and amid a global pandemic, led one of the largest yet decentralized social upheavals in Nigeria’s history. While some leaders would have come before their disgruntled citizens cap in hand, the Nigerian government launched a dedicated gaslighting campaign; one so intentional that even we began to doubt what we saw on live stream. Ultimately, international media organizations like CNN showed they cannot be easily intimidated or forced to quietly escape the country and published investigations that reassure us justice is a bare-minimum expectation.
A few days after the protests began, an image of Aisha Yesufu, an activist speaking at the protests in Abuja circulated on social media. In full hijab and with her fist in the air, many started calling her the new Statue of Liberty. A few people said in praise, ‘This woman is a man,’ meaning she is too courageous, too significant to be just a woman. The statement, however, is ironic for several reasons.
The sustenance of the #EndSARS protests was largely thanks to a group of women who identify themselves as The Feminist Coalition. On October 8, podcaster Feyikemi ‘FK’ Abudu tried to crowdfund N40,000-50,000 to feed protesters at Alausa, Ikeja, one of the earliest protest locations. The donations never stopped gushing in. People became inspired by the Alausa protests and quickly organized in their communities. The Feminist Coalition or ‘FemCo’ took up the responsibility of managing the funds, eventually supported about 180 protests across Nigeria, and meticulously accounted for every kobo spent. The group’s efforts are familiar when we consider the history of demonstrations in Nigeria.
WOMEN AGAINST OPPRESSION
Nigerian women are no strangers to organizing. The Women’s War (Ogu Umunwanyi) or Aba women’s riot is one of the earliest documented instances of Nigerian women pushing back against government incompetence and injustice. In 1929, the British government introduced direct taxation to its provinces. Under the new tax system, women, children, and domestic animals were to be counted. A rumour spread among the women—many of whom were petty traders and had less resources at their disposal, as is essentially encouraged under the patriarchy—that the men’s tax was being extended to them. Margery Perham reported in her 1937 book, Native Administration in Nigeria, that Okugo, the warrant chief who was charged with spreading the news, sent a messenger to carry out the census. He entered a woman named Nwanyeruwa’s compound to count her goats and sheep and she responded, ‘Was your mother counted?’ at which point they ‘seized each other’s throats.’ The women held a meeting and the assault on Nwanyeruwa confirmed the rumours they had heard. Afterwards, a palm leaf, both a symbol of trouble and a call for help, was sent to all the women in the village and they proceeded to make the best kind of trouble: they ‘sat’ (a form of boycotting during colonial times) on the man that harassed Nwanyeruwa, danced around his house, and mobbed Okugo. Soon, the movement spread to other Igbo provinces.
There have been attempts to sanitize history’s retelling of the ‘riot’ by insisting it was completely peaceful, but that is not the full truth. In addition to mobbing Okugo, the Aba women burned down several district offices and government infrastructure—after two of their protesters were struck down by a British official. Administrators often meet their citizens with violence be it through physical means, inadequate infrastructure (infrastructural violence) or predatory taxes. The people are allowed to return the favour in an effort to enact positive change. In the words of Angela Davis, ‘When you talk about a revolution, most people think violence; without realizing that the real content of any kind of revolutionary thrust lies in the principles and the goals that you’re striving for—not in the way that you reach them.’ But what was revolutionary about the #EndSARS protests is that despite the long marinating anger, the socioeconomic inequality, and the disregard for Nigerian life by the government, the protesters were staunchly non-violent.
The Lagos Market Women’s Association (LMWA)’s protest methods, for instance, are also interesting because of their parallels to #EndSARS. In response to the Income Tax Ordinance of 1939 and the Pullen Price Scheme of 1941, the women rallied, wrote petitions to the government, and sought help from lawyers when their members were arrested for resisting. Even without formal education, the LMWA’s leader, Chief Alimotu Pelewura, was able to pull on available resources to articulate the position of her members and preserve their autonomy.
Another notable instance of women rising against oppression featured the Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti-led Abeokuta Women’s Union (AWU) in 1940. History has mostly praised Ransome-Kuti for birthing Afrobeat star, Fela, and for being the first woman to drive a car, but Beere (a traditional title meaning ‘the first of all equals’) had more impressive achievements. Through AWU, she lobbied against unfair taxes imposed on young girls and traders. On one occasion, the union seized the oba’s palace (in an amusing repetition of history, #EndSARS protesters also ransacked the oba’s palace in Lagos). Ransome-Kuti told South Africa’s Drum Magazine in 1959, ‘We gave a hell of a time to the chiefs, government, and all those who were responsible for the systematic pauperization of the mass of the people.’
THE VALIDITY OF E-FEMINISM
In the colonial era, organizing took place mostly among a network of traders and women in the same villages before spreading through word of mouth. Many of the protests that have happened in recent times are catalysed in a similar fashion but through social media. ‘Twitter feminists’ are often regarded as aggressive women who only agitate online, but many of the agitations that begin as hashtags and threads have translated into real life with successful outcomes. One of numerous examples is #FreshStartForFarishina, a hashtag about the heinous rape of a 12-year-old girl that quickly morphed into a fund that covers her secondary school fees, counselling, household provisions for her family and more. It was set up by the women who host the I Said What I Said podcast and most of the donors were other women. E-feminism, even without a real-life component, is just as valid. In addition to financial assistance, people have formed alliances that transcend class and geography, and become radicalized, all through social media.
In October 2018, Damilola Marcus, ‘Twitter feminist’ and architect, led Market March, a demonstration against male traders harassing women in markets across Nigeria. When I was younger, I dreaded following my mother to the markets. The stalls were narrow, and pickpockets lurked around us. To make matters worse, she would not allow me to wear shorts and tank tops despite the heat because male traders were fond of grabbing and fondling women as they walked by their stalls. But after the march, some women noted that the level of harassment they face in these markets has reduced significantly.
In 2019, Angel Nduka-Nwosu began the #SayHerNameNigeria hashtag. Nigerian women in several cities marched in protest of members of the Nigerian Police Force arbitrarily arresting scores of alleged sex-workers and raping them.
So many women played principal roles in the #EndSARS protests: Modupe ‘Moe’ Adele, a lawyer, and her team have helped to release over 80 peaceful protesters from unlawful imprisonment; Chef Imoteda from Heels in the Kitchen provided protesters with meals; journalist, Kiki Mordi, helped to fund other journalists covering the protests; ‘Amara the Lesbian’ a YouTuber, provided queer protesters with money and support and reminded Nigerians that we are not free until everyone is.
When the Feminist Coalition announced the end to its donation efforts, some took this as a ‘gotcha’ moment, insinuating that the group had only ever sought to spread the feminist—and not the people’s—agenda. Feminism is for the people, however. Others even suggested that the Feminist Coalition had no right to stop sustaining the protests, even though the Nigerian government decided to match unarmed protesters with military-grade artillery, killing and injuring several. Women do not owe anyone labour, especially not at the expense of their physical and mental wellbeing.
In the new Nigeria that the youth are lobbying for, women—especially young women and feminists—need to be given more recognition in government and policymaking. There can be no real societal advancement if the voices of a large section of the populace; voices that have shown up for justice time and time again; are ignored. There has never been any doubt as to whether women make effective leaders, but with #EndSARS the fact has finally taken root in the minds of every Nigerian⎈
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