Future Tense

How Twitter Amplified the Divisions That Derailed Nigeria’s #EndSARS Movement

Twitter bird hovering over an #EndSARS poster amid a crowd of protesters
An #EndSARS protest in Lagos, Nigeria, on Oct. 14. Photo illustration by Slate. Images by Twitter and Adekunle Ajayi/NurPhoto via Getty Images.

In October, when protests against police brutality erupted across Nigeria’s major cities, not even the harsh weather could deter crowds of protesters from staging public displays of dissent. With fists in the air, under the downpour of rain, scores of angry protesters—some shirtless and waving the Nigerian flag—chanted, “Who is a bad boy? Buhari is a bad boy!” referring to President Muhammadu Buhari.

In the commercial capital of Lagos, business activities stopped. For days, Africa’s biggest economy was paralyzed. As the protests got bigger and spread to other cities, the Nigerian government capitulated on Oct. 11, announcing the dissolution of SARS, the special anti-robbery unit of the Nigerian Police Force that was responsible for indiscriminate arrests, extortion, and extrajudicial killings.

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The dissolution of SARS was a significant victory for the #EndSARS protests and millions of Nigerians who have been affected by police brutality. This story was widely covered—and generally celebrated—in the international press. Far less well-known but equally important is what happened next. The demonstrations split the movement, with fatal consequences. When protests continued after the formal ending of SARS—a decision about which there was serious disagreement—Nigerian security forces attacked crowds of protesters and killed several people on Oct. 20. The internal struggles of Nigeria’s main protest groups and the violent clashes between the state and its citizens may tell us a great deal about the country’s future and the shrinking civic space under the Buhari regime. But one of the most curious aspects of this story is the outsize role of the American social media company Twitter, whose CEO Jack Dorsey chose to recognize and mobilize donations toward one faction of the #EndSARS movement, inadvertently amplifying its divisions.

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The campaign to end SARS began long before many in the West had heard of it. In 2017, Segun Awosanya, a realtor and human rights activist, created a nongovernmental organization called the Social Intervention Advocacy Foundation to advocate for victims of police abuse. The group promoted a two-pronged social media campaign: #EndSARS, which focused on disbanding the police unit, and #ReformPoliceNG, which advocated for police reforms. When Nigerians were arrested, extorted, or brutalized by SARS officers and other police, they immediately contacted Awosanya. His ability to effectively engage Nigerian police authorities and seek redress for many Nigerians brutalized by police instantly turned him into a social media celebrity.

But when the #EndSARS movement expanded into large street demonstrations in October, Awosanya’s role diminished. Some protesters even demanded a leaderless movement. Awosanya described it to me as a “palace coup” by his detractors and competitors to hijack the movement. He says that people began rewriting the Wikipedia page dedicated to #EndSARS and minimizing his contribution to the movement while promoting the role of others. (The Wikipedia page did indeed change to limit discussion of his role in #EndSARS.)

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Ndi Kato, a gender activist who participated in the protests, disputed this characterization and insisted the reality was much simpler: The campaign changed as it grew into a mass movement. “Young people wanted to hold the government accountable, young people needed to rise up, and young women showed up. It wasn’t hijacked from anyone,” she told me. While Awosanya deserves credit for his work in starting and promoting the movement, Kato thinks he suffers from something of a “savior complex.”

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One of the groups that emerged as the protests escalated in size and importance was the Feminist Coalition, which created a nationwide system that worked to ensure the release of arrested protesters by raising and disbursing funds for the movement and establishing a legal aid service composed of volunteers. The Feminist Coalition is part of a long Nigerian legacy of women spearheading social movements, including the Aba Women’s Riots of 1929 and the Abeokuta Women’s Union founded by activist Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti in 1946. And it is mostly to the credit of the women-led Feminist Coalition that the #EndSARS protests endured after Oct. 11, when Buhari announced that SARS had been disbanded. The Feminist Coalition felt confident that unless protests continued, this would remain an empty promise.

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The demonstrations escalated domestically and abroad, as members of the Nigerian diaspora in London, Berlin, New York, and elsewhere organized #EndSARS protests in solidarity.

Awosanya, however, considered the strategy of continued protests overly aggressive, unrealistic, and unsustainable. He later described it as “the old system of throwing tantrums, burning things, creating chaos, blocking roads, and inconveniencing the people.” Isolated and on the sidelines of a movement he had helped start, Awosanya found himself on opposite sides from some of his former allies.

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On Oct. 14, Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey got involved. He tweeted two links with the hashtag #EndSARS, one to a page curating stories of victims of SARS and police brutality in Nigeria’s tech community and the other to the official website of the Feminist Coalition—a significant endorsement for the group. Dorsey went further with another tweet calling for Bitcoin donations “to help #EndSARS.” Twitter subsequently created a tight-fist emoji draped in the Nigerian flag to support the movement. With the help of Dorsey’s endorsement, the Feminist Coalition managed to raise $150,000 in Bitcoin donations after its bank account was deactivated by Nigerian authorities.

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Twitter also took the somewhat unusual step of verifying the handle of the Feminist Coalition as well as those of some of its members and other protest advocates. Twitter reserves its blue verification checkmark for accounts it regards as especially prominent, authentic, and authoritative. However, Twitter did not verify Awosanya’s account, even though it has more than 700,000 followers, nearly four times more than the Feminist Coalition, and had been the face of #EndSARS since 2017. The support of Twitter and its CEO was seen as a recognition and endorsement of the Feminist Coalition’s leadership of the entire #EndSARS movement. Twitter had inadvertently selected the leaders of Nigeria’s social movement against police brutality and effectively escalated the rivalry that had already fractured the movement.

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But “Twitter really helped to amplify the movement, and that was a great thing,” according to Kato, who supported the Feminist Coalition in this fight but is not a member. “I like that Jack cares about causes and this is one of them.” In contrast, she pointed out, Facebook took down some of the #EndSARS posts on its platform, a move the social media company subsequently apologized for. (It said that the takedown was a result of anti-COVID misinformation measures; the algorithms were keeping an eye out for the acronym SARS because it’s also the name of the 2003 disease caused by a coronavirus.)

Embittered by Twitter’s role during the #EndSARS protests, Awosanya said it merely reflects how much the world now equates social media clout with the meaning of truth, calling it a form of “jungle justice.”

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Bolstered by the endorsement it had received from Twitter and the tremendous goodwill it was now enjoying from many Nigerians, Feminist Coalition continued its protest campaign and fundraising on social media. In the days that followed, it managed to fund more than 154 protests across Nigeria and successfully raised more than $190,000.

On Oct. 18, Awosanya issued a statement withdrawing from the #EndSARS protests, going so far as to say continued actions were “threatening the integrity of our nation and gunning for youth insurrection in the name of #EndSARS”—essentially, insinuating that the sustained protests were tantamount to a mobilization of Nigerian youths to overthrow the government.

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Two days later, Nigerian security forces fired on crowds of demonstrators in Lagos, killing at least 10 people, according to Amnesty International.

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Two days after the Oct. 20 shooting, Buhari made a nationwide broadcast in which he made clear that any further protests would not be tolerated. He urged the protesters to “resist the temptation of being used by some subversive elements to cause chaos with the aim of truncating our nascent democracy.” Failure to do this “will amount to undermining national security.”

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Many heard clear echoes of Awosanya’s own words in the language Buhari was using to squelch the protest movement. Kato said that Awosanya, by using phrases like “youth insurrection” and “threatening the integrity of our nation,” gave the Nigerian government justification for using force. “Those words put a lot of young people in danger. People have lost their lives.”

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Awosanya disputed accusations that his controversial statements provided the Nigerian government with the ammunition to discredit and descend on the demonstrations with force. “Nobody discredited anybody—they did that all by themselves. They were already discredited.”

Professor Chidi Odinkalu, a former chairman of Nigeria’s National Human Rights Commission and currently senior team manager for the Africa Program of the Open Society Justice Initiative, recently reflected on the split in the protest movement. “On social media, people can get lost in their own propaganda and begin to see the growth of others in that ecosystem as a diminution of their own worth. Someone like Segun Awosanya, for instance, began to see himself in a world entirely of his own making as the alter ego of #EndSARS,” Odinkalu told me.

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But more broadly, Twitter’s role in Nigeria’s #EndSARS protests raises concerns about how big American tech companies make decisions on developments in countries with contexts they do not understand. “If you’re sitting in Toronto or San Francisco or in a place other than Lagos, unless you have the benefit of exposure to the cultural dynamics of the country, it is going to be difficult to take a constructive step,” said Enrique Piracés, director of the technology program at the Carnegie Mellon University Center for Human Rights Science.

In May, in another example of how cultural and geographic distance can flummox U.S.-based tech companies, Facebook deactivated the accounts of at least 60 Tunisian activists with no explanation. Citing “technical error,” it later restored some of the accounts, after a petition by  Access Now. The online advocacy group noted that Facebook’s “technical error” “reinforces the widely-shared perception that Facebook is only committed to honoring the rights of users in the United States and Europe.”

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Twitter did not respond to a request for comment. But on April 12, Jack Dorsey announced in a tweet that the company will be opening its first African office in Ghana. The announcement comes after Facebook announced in 2020 that it was opening a new office in Lagos.

Meanwhile, as conversations continue on Nigerian social media about a second wave of #EndSARS protests, Buhari has tweeted about his disgust, particularly with CNN’s and BBC’s coverage of the protests. But how far his government will go to crush future #EndSARS protests remains to be seen.

Whatever happens, Kato believes the coming wave of protests is unstoppable, noting that the protests will be carried out by “people you cannot tell to go back inside.”

Future Tense is a partnership of Slate, New America, and Arizona State University that examines emerging technologies, public policy, and society.

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