By Winifred Òdúnóku
Speak up! Sọrọ sókè!
In October 2020, an unprecedented wave of nationwide protests swept through Nigeria, galvanized by a collective demand for the disbandment of the Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS) within the Nigerian Police Force. The protesters vehemently argued that instead of curbing violent crimes, the SARS unit operated with an alarming sense of impunity, subjecting innocent youths to arbitrary arrests, framing them as criminals, and even resorting to fatal measures.
For a country who haven’t taken any calculative measures to combat its high unemployment rate, the youths decide to carve out niches for themselves where they could thrive in and survive, as it were. Yet, the federal government, through SARS, harassed Nigerian youths for “looking too good,” “using high-end phones,” “carrying dreadlocks,” and/or “driving big cars.” It was not enough that the government didn’t provide an enabling environment for its youth to thrive, now it wants to wipe them off from the face of the earth. Nigerian youths decided to speak up. Alas! A “sọrọ sókè generation” moniker emerged and of course, the #EndSARS hashtags which trended the world and over with Nigerians in the diaspora organizing solidarity protests to support the movement.
This report is not focusing on the #EndSARS movement per se, but on the strategic role that women played in it, and how they’ve proven to be capable of leading the nation. While making this report, I spoke with notable figures involved in the #EndSARS movement, women involved in politics and civic participation, a women’s rights activist and an academic professor, on how women have proven their leadership capabilities through the #EndSARS movement, the factors hindering Nigerian women’s participation in politics, and the way forward.
Women at the Forefront of the #EndSARS Protest
A name that comes to mind when people talk about the #EndSARS protest is Aisha Yesufu, an activist and co-convener 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.” Madam Aisha Yesufu shared with me via a zoom call.
She also stated that women have been involved in movements all through Nigeria from the Aba women riot, to the Egba women protest, #BringBackOurGirls movement, and so on. So when it comes to advocacy and activism, you always find women there. 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.
Mr Macaroni joined thousands of protestors on the streets of Lagos in the early weeks of October 2022, to demand an end to SARS. Despite being unlawfully arrested, alongside other young Nigerians who played strategic roles in the #EndSARS movement — at some point, Mr Macaroni didn’t stop advocating for change and making his voice heard.
I spoke with Chinemerem Onuorah, a Development Communication practitioner working as a Communication and Media Officer for YIAGA Africa, a non-profit that majors in promoting democracy and development in Africa, who also participated actively in the #EndSARS 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 narrated. She further stated that she wrote two articles relevant to the #EndSARS movement as a way of lending her voice to the end of police brutality in Nigeria.
This is a pointer that many Nigerian women used the means available to them to power the #EndSARS movement. Not only did they participate physically, they also provided support in other areas. Just like Chinemerem, we saw many women supporting the movement in ways that transcended Nigerians’ 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 in the wake of the #EndSARS protests. Her prognosis, it turned out, proved true as women like Rinu Oduala and Aisha Yesufu displayed audacious leadership in the Lagos and Abuja protests respectively.
While these women were at the forefront of the protests, some others were at the ‘back’ ensuring that all things went well. Feminist Coalition, as a group, played a huge role in steering the financial ship of the #EndSARS movement in Nigeria. They organized a fundraiser that amassed almost $200,000 (equivalent to N74 million) within two weeks. Lawyers, medics, and even chefs stood up to provide assistance to protesters, and the sense of responsibility portrayed by these women was beautiful to see, but more importantly, highly commendable.
Women’s Capability for Nation Building
“Women have always been at the forefront of societal change, and witnessing their strength and determination during the #EndSARS protests was a testament to their unwavering commitment to justice,” stated Mr Macaroni. He further mentioned how he believes in encouraging society as a whole to embrace women’s leadership and empowerment.
In clear and concise words, Aisha Yesufu also shared her thoughts on women’s capability for nation building. She opined that if women are leading so well in movements, in activism, in making demands, and in protests, then they can definitely replicate it in leadership.
“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,” she said.
I also spoke with Grace Anuforo, a women’s rights activist and founder; The Graciella Initiative, a non-profit working to end female illiteracy in Nigeria.
“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 in different parastatals, because in her opinion, women have been proving that they are capable of being successful leaders. Rather than wait to let the Nigerian government throw dog bones at them, women are taking charge of their lives and situations.
And this is evident in how Rukayat Shittu, a twenty-seven year old political aspirant, contested for and won a seat in Kwara State House of Assembly in the just concluded elections. Speaking with Rukayat brought hope to my heart as I shared in her excitement of winning the election despite being charged to court several times by her co-contestant.
She also shared that when they were jubilating and felicitating their victories, the State Governor, AbdulRahman AbdulRazaq, challenged the five women who got elected into the Kwara State House of Assembly to gird up their loins for the journey ahead.
“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 female in Kwara State. So I’m so glad that by this time next month, we will get to start the work fully.”
Women Versus the Nigerian Political Structure
Like Rukayat, women have always had challenges to grapple with on the journey to making their marks in 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.” Rukayat shared with great concern. In her opinion, women may be the very hindrance to the growth of their fellow women, and that has to change if we want to take our participation in politics seriously.
In the same vein, Frederick Odorige, the founder of Global Coalition for Security and Democracy in Nigeria (GSCDN) who led the #EndSARS solidarity protest in Hungary, opined that women seem to be their own enemies. But that is not only the problem. He used a vivid analogy to paint how women are being viewed a certain way in Nigeria; expounding his point by citing the fifty naira note design which has seven people imprinted on it, with only one being a woman. He maintained that the currency design sends a message of how the country sees its women, and it symbolizes the inequality that has eaten deep into the Nigerian 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 over 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 stifles the full participation of women in politics and especially, leadership.
Call to Action
“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,” shared Aisha Yesufu.
She opined 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 is important to get more women into the policy-making rooms so they can stand for the rights of their fellow women.
Similar to that is the need for the government to oust all forms of discrimination against women. The international treaty: Convention on the Elimination of all forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) which was signed by Nigeria on 24th April, 1984 and ratified without any reservations on 13th June, 1985, should, thus, be reinforced.
Chinemerem shared her thoughts on why we can’t leave this reinforcement only to the women in parliament. According to her, “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.” To further discuss her point of view, 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.”
In addition, Kafayat attributed her win to the support she got from and the efforts of 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 the 35% affirmative action for every government appointment in the State.
If other governors can consolidate the enactment of the 35% affirmative action into law in their various States, women’s participation in politics in Nigeria will increase drastically.
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-play field to competitively run for political offices. He however 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.
This story was supported by African Women in Media, as part of the AWIM/LUMINATE Media and Young Women in Politics’ Project