Since early October 2020, the #EndSARS movement has rocked Nigeria online and offline. Nigerians have been protesting to disband the Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS), a notorious unit of the Police with a long record of abuses. As part of our Tech & Humanity series, we sat down with Ashoka Fellow ‘Gbénga Ṣẹ̀san to understand how digital rights and police brutality are intersecting.
Hanae Baruchel: Can you give us some context about the recent #EndSARS protests against police brutality in Nigeria?
‘Gbénga Ṣẹ̀san: Police brutality is an age-old problem. The #EndSars protests started in 2017. Thanks to digital media, a lot of videos were recorded and shared on social media about police brutality. People knew about it before, but seeing it first-hand changed things. People are now able to relate to the issue because it includes stories of their neighbor, friend, student, family member. A lot of people came out for the 2017 protests, but they were not as intense, because politically it seemed like the country might be at a turning point.
The recent wave of protests happened after a young man was shot by SARS and the news went viral. People connected with it because three years ago, they had protested the same issue. Every year, the government has said they would solve the police brutality problem but did virtually nothing.
Baruchel: This time the protests were sustained over weeks, across Nigeria and the globe. What was different about this recent wave?
Ṣẹ̀san: A few things. First, we have to remember that people have been at home under lockdown since March. Schools are closed. There were a lot of job losses during Covid. So there were a lot of idle young people.
Second, this is part of a growing culture of offline and online mobilization. Since 2008, internet access has become more ubiquitous. There were a series of protests in 2010, largely driven by organizing on Facebook and Blackberry Messenger. In 2011 people used their mobile phones to monitor elections. In 2012 we had the Occupy Nigeria protests, where the information was shared largely through tweets, not big media. And this trend just grew.
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Third, this recent wave of protests was led by an entire generation of young people, making it harder to disband or divide.
Baruchel: This is a protest about police brutality. How do digital rights factor in?
Ṣẹ̀san: A large number of people arrested by SARS work in tech startups. They are targeted because of their dreadlocks or because they have expensive electronic devices, for example. The police seize their laptops, mobile phones and force people to give up their passwords, claiming they are cybercriminals.
Baruchel: Your organization Paradigm Initiative started to get involved.
Ṣẹ̀san: Yes. Even before the protests started we went to court to challenge the abuse of these laws . We lost the first case. We even lost the appeal, but we’re now waiting for a date from the Supreme Court where a final decision will be made on two sections of the law: a section that talks about cyberstalking and a section about data protection, that have both been abused by the police.
There are also two social media bills that have been proposed by the government – one on hate speech and one on fake news – that are still going through the approval process and that we are worried about. After the protests, the National Security advisor said Nigeria needs to revise its cybersecurity laws. The government is also actively trying to tie the protests to the destruction of public property, as a way to stop future protests from happening.
Our basic idea is to protect this online civic space both when police brutality targets people based on their use of digital platforms or digital devices, and when, post-protest, there’s an upsurge of online censorship and clampdowns on digital civic spaces.
Baruchel: There seems to be a global trend of using strategic litigation to protect digital rights. Why do you think that is?
Ṣẹ̀san: Strategic litigation is an area we’ve explored too. We don’t always win the cases, but it highlights the issues for researchers to pick up, or for the media to report on. Typically, people want to measure litigation outcomes as winning a case, but there are countries where the judicial process is corrupted. Going to court is a way to show how serious we are and raise public awareness through the media.
Baruchel: Fake news and misinformation are on the rise, and you’ve already mentioned Nigeria’s current social media bill proposals are not the answer. What do you think is needed instead?
Ṣẹ̀san: Yes. The problem is real. There are three things that we’ve outlined. One, there needs to be a lot more information out there in terms of how to identify dangerous and false information. Educating users is critical. When people see pictures or videos, they should know they can easily do a google reverse image search to find out if it is real or not, for example. People need to start fact checking a lot more.
The second thing we’ve advocated for is also proactive disclosure by governments. For example, during the #EndSARS protests, there was a widespread belief that if you wave a Nigerian flag as a sign of patriotism, the military will protect you or not shoot you if you break curfew. It would have been great if the government had clearly said that was not true. Since that did not happen, we reached out to a military General, who provided context on this myth and we created an infographic that we shared through WhatsApp groups. There’s so much that the government could have done to dispel that myth.
The third, which we think is a difficult but necessary part is allowing communities to develop their own codes of engagement. Journalists have their own code of ethics, the medical profession does as well. Different communities have different codes, and it allows people to self-regulate; to identify what doesn’t conform, flag it and delegitimize it.
Baruchel: What do you think this movement is teaching us?
Ṣẹ̀san: It is a historical moment. I was on a call two days ago with a young person who was part of the feminist coalition that raised money to support the protests. She said, “I have never been part of a protest in my life. I am not a professional protester. But when issues touched me, I had to get on the streets and support it.” And that’s the whole essence of everyone being an activist, everyone being a Changemaker. Two or three days before the protests started again this time, I tweeted to say that when Nigerians are ready to protest, they’re not going to be asking the question, “Who is going to lead us?” People will just find themselves on the streets. This is a moment where we are seeing everybody look for where they can add value. They jump in and get the work done.
‘Gbénga Ṣẹ̀san is the Executive Director of Paradigm Initiative, a pan-African social enterprise working on digital inclusion and digital rights through its offices in Cameroon, Ghana, Kenya, Nigeria, Tanzania, Zambia and Zimbabwe. ‘Gbénga became an Ashoka Fellow in 2008.
Follow him on twitter at @gbengasesan
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