Last year, on her way home from a concert in Victoria Island, an affluent area of Lagos, a 25-year-old woman and her then boyfriend were detained by armed members of Nigeria’s controversial police unit, the Special Anti-Robbery Squad, better known as SARS. First formed back in 1992 to tackle violent crimes, the group gained notoriety for the wrongful profiling, extortion, and torture of Nigerian citizens. During her time in detention, the woman says she was demeaned by officers and subjected to a full-body cavity search by a male guard against her will. After having to pay a bribe, she was eventually released, and she counts herself one of the lucky few.
Filled with feelings of rage and pain but also hope for a better future, she is now one of thousands of young protestors who’ve recently taken to the streets across the country to end SARS and its unsanctioned reign of terror. Her case is by no means an isolated incident. Last year in April, 65 women were arrested in the capital city of Abuja after police stormed several nightclubs and detained some on charges of prostitution. A police spokesperson claimed that some of the women “dress provocatively,” and several women said the officers demanded money in exchange for their release from custody. Those unable to pay were forced to have sex with the officers, the women claimed. Protests at the time, largely attended by women, called for an end to the sex and gender-based violence.
Even today, many of the guilty officers are unaccounted for, and some have used religion and culture to justify their actions, revealing a society invested in subjugating women. Their reality lays bare the limitations of the law when it comes to protecting women.
As a young woman in Nigeria, this is a cycle I know all too well. You are constantly made to feel lesser than and faced with a broken justice system. It’s even more alarming when you consider the data. Since lockdowns began, the numbers on gender-based violence have skyrocketed, with Nigeria recording one rape case reported every five hours in the first five months of the year alone.
Despite these shocking statistics, the conversation around women’s rights has been largely sidelined. Many on and off social media contend that it is simply a bad time for intersectional feminism to take center stage, with detractors arguing that it dilutes the collective fight. But these comments are extremely reductive. Women face harm from the system and from the men they fight alongside—and yet we are constantly told to seek justice through this very system. When will be the right time for these discussions about gendered violence?
Nigerian women are saying the time is now. Spearheading the ongoing End SARS movement, women are organizing, mobilizing, and pooling resources to help sustain the protests all across Nigeria. The Feminist Coalition, a three-month-old group, has taken on the bulk of this work. Founding members Damilola Odufuwa and Odunayo Eweniyi created the women-led group earlier in July with a view to increasing the economic and political power of women. When the protests broke out on October 8, they rose to the occasion, offering solutions at a time when national emergency services had turned their backs on us. Thanks to this network of feminist activists, there is now a reliable support system for protesters, which includes mobilization costs, medical support, legal aid, counseling, and even the provision of daily meals on protest grounds.
In Nigeria’s deeply patriarchal society, it’s nothing short of inspirational to witness women take a leading role in this unprecedented movement. As a journalist reporting on the front line of the protests in Lagos, I catch glimpses of a new Nigeria come into focus as sprawling crowds march with raised fists along major highways. But the Lekki Toll Gate, where we once converged, has now become the epicenter of last week’s devastating attacks by the Nigerian army, a firm reminder that victory is not yet ours.
Navigating this period has felt like a constant balancing act, walking a thin line between optimism and hopelessness. The city has gradually begun phasing in to its first reopening stage after a week of imposed curfews. But for me, the lives we lost at that site still haunt the streets. I’ve resigned to staying at home; driving past that site is a trauma I am not ready to face. But there have been moments that have felt truly momentous as international pressure continues to mount and the failures of the government are on full display. Online, there’s a swelling sense of camaraderie, and this is mostly a result of the invaluable work of the coalition.
However, last week the Feminist Coalition announced that it would be closing its crowdfunding channels after the Nigerian government issued severe warnings for protesters to desist from another week of demonstrations. The group went silent on social media after the release of their most decisive statement yet, in which they urged the Nigerian youths to observe state-mandated curfews in an effort to save lives. The news sent shockwaves of sadness across the timeline, as we all reflected on the impact of these women. In just two weeks, they raised close to half those funds distributed at the height of the protests.
The road map that these women have laid out is one that other emerging groups would be wise to follow. For a long time, feminism in Nigeria has been seen as an affront to our culture and tradition, and pleas for equal rights have been met with violent opposition. Misogynist internet trolls lead harassment campaigns against women who dare to speak up, labeling us witches or covens. The Feminist Coalition has been the latest target of this vitriol.
Currently, judicial panels have been set up across various states to begin to investigate SARS-related abuses, quelling protests in Nigeria. But there is still a sense of lingering distrust given the government’s reputation for disregarding such panels in the past. How useful are new panels when no responsibility has been assumed for the 38 lives we lost just days ago? When will justice catch up with the present? To a young feminist like me, the road to true change is long and undoubtedly hard. But it is only through empowering women and bringing marginalized groups to the forefront that justice will prevail.