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How Nigeria’s #ENDSARS protesters embraced Twitter as rallying point to demand justice


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AS protesters took over the streets calling for the disbandment of Nigeria’s notorious police unit, Special Anti-Robbery Squad, SARS, many Nigerian youths turn to Twitter as a tool of choice to transmit and amplify their message to the world in pursuit of global attention.

On October 6, a video that later went viral emerged on Twitter, showing a young man shot in front of Wetland Hotel in Ughelli area of Delta State by the policemen suspected to be members of SARS while they fled the scene.

Hours later, the video generated a social media campaign amongst Twitter followers who tweeted their experiences with SARS operatives using the hashtag #ENDSARS. Nigerian youths on the social media platform shared their personal experiences and videos of abuses by SARS operatives.

The online grievances gathered momentum and moved to the streets as young people started converging in major cities across the country demanding that the Federal Government put an end to the deployment of SARS operatives.

Some of the first protests were led by entertainers like Debo Macaroni, a skit comedian in Lagos alongside Folarin Falana also known as “Falz” a singer and other opinion leaders who encouraged Nigerians to protest police brutality regardless of who was leading the charge.

Officially the protest has no leaders because people who appear to be co-ordinating action on social media do not want to be identified as leaders.

However, the protest, championed by celebrities and social media influencers in the country, has spread to other countries as Nigerians in the diaspora have also shown solidarity.

So far, no fewer than 10 people have been killed in the protests, according to Amnesty International, while hundreds have been arrested as police cracked down on protesters.

The protest garnered global attention in early October after celebrities and global icons like Kanye West, John Boyega amongst others started showing support for the protest on Twitter.

The hashtag has been tweeted over 2.4 million times as of October 9 and became the number one trending topic in several countries as Nigerians and foreigners continue to show their support on social media.

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Twitter’s pivotal role in the #ENDSARS protest has helped to organise protesters, transmit their message to the world and make demands on the government.

The latent power of a hashtag

Using the #ENDSARS, protesters have been able to pull together everything from water, food and banners to arranging bail for protesters who were arrested by the police using Twitter to mobilise support.

According to a survey in November 2019, Nigeria has 36.9 million Twitter users which represent about 20 percent of Nigeria’s population which is driven by the high rate of smartphone use.

The rallying cry of the protesters which is #ENDSARS is not new as the brutalities of SARS operatives dates back to several years, however, the hashtag gave the protesters demand for justice widespread public recognition.

The #EndSARS campaign has attracted support from Black Lives Matter activists in the US and Twitter’s Dorsey, also created an emoji of a clenched fist in the colours of the Nigerian flag to allow people to support the campaign.

Jack Dorsey, Chief Executive Officer (CEO) of Twitter called for #ENDSARS donations and tweeted his support by tweeting links to websites where people can donate to support the protest.

 

The #ENDSARS discussion on Twitter from his post peaked at over 83,000 tweets engagements from his post on #ENDSARS which escalated the hashtag on Twitter.

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A major factor behind the massive attention of the #ENDSARS could be attributed to the protesters’ attempt to shame brands and media houses by tagging their Twitter handles in tweets and inquiring from them why they weren’t covering the protests.

The tweets below were directed at some media houses that were perceived to be reluctant in covering the protests.

Tweeters were actively involved in stacking tweets calling on local media houses by engaging in cut and paste of the text of such tweets and tweeting it on their own accounts.

This action caused the media houses to increase their publicity and the retweets of the tweets by tweeters led to more visibility of the #ENDSARS hashtag.

Foreign media firms were not left out as CNN, BBC, Sky News amongst others were tagged by tweeters to pick up stories on the #ENDSARS protest across the country.

Another strategy the #ENDSARS protesters used was to bombard celebrities Twitter accounts by tagging them to respond to their cause.

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On October 16, there were about 3.3 million tweets with 744,000 retweets of Twitter posts containing the #ENDSARS hashtag.

The protests have continued despite the Federal Government’s agreement to disband the dreaded SARS unit which was replaced with the Special Weapons and Tactics (SWAT) unit.

Osai Ojigho, Amnesty International’s director in Nigeria said the setup of SWAT does not meet the demands of accountability expected from the police in the face of abuses by SARS.

“The announcement falls short of demands for accountability and justice for abuses committed by the unit and police in general.

“The police authorities must state strongly the concrete steps they will take to ensure all officers alleged to have committed human rights violations are investigated and brought to justice,” she said.

However, the protests have also evolved into calls for wider reforms with protesters now also using the hashtags #EndBadGovernance, #BetterNigeria and #FixNigeriaNow to build support on social media.

 

A 2015 study on Twitter hashtag ethnography at the University of Massachusetts by Yarimar Bonilla and Jonathan Rosa examined the internet’s central role in amplifying protests and inequality in society.

The study notes that Social media participation has become a key site from which people contest mainstream media silences and the long history of state-sanctioned violence against the citizens.

The #ENDASARS protest on social media is a confirmation of the conclusion reached by the study.

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