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How Food Changed the Course of the #EndSARS Protests in Nigeria
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Nigeria — February 23, 2021

How Food Changed the Course of the #EndSARS Protests in Nigeria

Food played a crucial part in the #EndSARS protests against police brutality in Nigeria, bringing young Nigerians together in a fight against injustice and oppression.

Words by Zainab Onuh-Yahaya
Photography by Khalid Ozavogu Abdul

Although Nigeria has witnessed a handful of protests over the past decade, the organic and decentralized #EndSARS protests against police brutality were incomparably the longest, largest, and most unifying to have ever happened in the country. Food played a crucial role in sustaining the protests across various cities.

 

In 2012, twenty-year-old Chijoke Iloanya was arrested and handed over to men of the Special Anti-Robbery Squad in Awkuzu, Anambra State. He was neither seen nor heard from again. In 2013, in a bid to find closure, his aged father swam through a river of dead bodies, suspected to be a dumping ground for corpses who were victims of extrajudicial killings by Awkuzu SARS, to find his son so his last rites could be performed. Chijioke’s father never found him.

In 2013, twenty-four-year-old Hassan Alfa was reportedly arrested and tortured by men of the Special Anti-Robbery Squad in Kano State; he died as a result. The officer under whose command the alleged act had been perpetrated was later transferred to the Federal Capital Territory, Abuja, and promoted. Neither the order for public apology nor damages pronounced by the court were granted to the bereaved family.

In May of 2020, twenty-year-old Rinji Uzziel Bala was allegedly shot and killed by a police officer in Jos, Plateau State. Barely sixteen days later in Lagos State, seventeen-year-old Tina Ezekwe was hit by a bullet when a reportedly drunk officer of the Nigerian Police Force shot into a crowd.

Across the country, young Nigerians have become familiar with the particular kind of grief that comes with losing a loved one to police brutality. So when the #EndSARS protests started and spread like wildfire, young Nigerians agreed this outcry had been a long time coming.

Founded in 1992, the Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS) was a branch of the Nigerian Police Force established to detain, investigate and prosecute people involved in crimes like kidnapping, armed robbery, motor vehicle theft, bearing and use of illegal firearms, and other violent crimes. 

But over the past decade, SARS has become an even greater menace than it was created to curb. The unit has been accused of and recorded to be involved in various human rights violations, illegal arrests, and extrajudicial killings, sexual harassment, oppression and brutality. In 2016, Amnesty International indicted the unit for human rights abuses, torture, cruelty, and degrading treatment of Nigerians in their custody, contrary to various national and international human rights laws. A subsequent report in 2020 documents at least eighty-two cases of torture, ill-treatment, and extrajudicial execution by the unit between January 2017 and May 2020.

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“It is not unusual for a SARS officer to say ‘I will kill you and nothing will happen’ with his gun cocked at your head, and it is not unusual for it to be true,” says Daniel*, a victim of the unit’s brutality. “The station where I was taken is popularly known as the abattoir, and like its name implies, it is a slaughterhouse.” Daniel was arrested on suspicion of being an internet fraudster for no other reason than the fact that he had a MacBook and wore dreads. He was in detention for seven days before he was released; his friends paid 100,000 naira (about $249) for this. 

On October 3, 2020, a video surfaced and promptly trended on social media in which a SARS officer allegedly shot a young man in Ughelli, Delta State. This incident led to an outpouring of accounts, just like Daniel’s, on near-death encounters, extortions, oppression, and brutality young Nigerians have faced in the hands of the now-infamous Special Anti-Robbery Squad, with calls for the immediate disbandment of the unit and a definite end to police brutality in Nigeria.

When the protest started in Lagos State, protesters camped out in front of the Lagos State House of Assembly in Alausa. This spurred Mosopemi, a Nigerian food vendor, into action; a tweet was sent asking for a 50,000 naira (about $105) donation to provide breakfast for those protesting overnight. This was the beginning of a movement food became an important part of, as within the space of twelve minutes, donations running to the tune of 200,000 naira (about $425) had been made. Donations poured in from Nigerians at home and abroad; donation channels even expanded to include cryptocurrency.

“It felt empowering to see young Nigerians hitting the streets to protest against an issue that has haunted us for a long time,” says Tobi* who donated weekly to the protest. “I could not be physically present because I had tested positive for COVID-19 and was quarantined. Donating money to sustain the protests was my own way of standing in solidarity with my brothers and sisters who have been victims of police brutality.” Tobi, who is a digital strategist, says he has been a victim of SARS oppression and extortion more times than he can count.

As more and more people continued to donate to the cause, and as more cities across the nation and abroad joined in the protests, Food Coven was formed by the Feminist Coalition to coordinate and distribute funds for food and drinks to protesters across Nigeria. The work done by Food Coven was also consolidated by food vendors and restaurants who donated food to protesters at various locations.

For Muhammad Lawal El-Sadat, owner of El’s Kitchen, he was excited to discover that young Nigerians were finally willing to stand side by side, against all odds, to protest police brutality and oppression. El-Sadat, who donated energy drinks, water, and food ranging from small chops (Nigerian finger food like samosas, spring rolls, skewered beef, and puff puff) to jollof rice from his kitchen at the Abuja protests, was sought out afterwards and intimidated.

“After the protests ended, strange men came to my restaurant and began to ask questions,” El-Sadat says. “Who funded the protests? Who was bankrolling protesters? They wanted to know if we were agents of the opposition party.”

In a country characterized by a lot of lack, food became the one thing that was abundant during these protests—so much so that activists at different protest grounds would send tweets informing vendors who intended to donate food that there was enough already. 

“This, perhaps, was one of the most shocking parts for a lot of us,” says Musa*, a protester in Lagos State. He muses, “An average Nigerian never rejects food.”

“It was not entirely about rejecting food though,” Damilola*, Musa’s protest partner says. “Fundamentally, we all just realized that food was a great part of keeping the protest going, so we wanted everyone else to get some.”

Khalid Ozavogu Abdul, a frontline protester in Abuja, believes food helped the #EndSARS protests by bringing Nigerians together in the fight for justice. “Food strengthened the protests and provided an opportunity for social cohesion. It was a way for protesters to band together and explore cuisines from other parts of the country, and a way for persons who could not be physically present to show support by donating. It gave everybody a great feeling of involvement and solidarity.” 

Abdul, who is a travel documentary photographer and filmmaker, expresses that Nigerian food, just like its people, is diverse. The #EndSARS protests would, in the long run, foster camaraderie amongst young Nigerians across ethnic groups.

This sentiment is echoed by Malikah Maryam: “Young Nigerians eating together in protest grounds across the country is very reflective of the communally-minded living we are so used to as a people.” Maryam also strongly believes food played a crucial role in sustaining the protests; it gave people reason to stay. “Protesters didn’t need to leave to get food or water because they had all they needed on the protest grounds.”

As the protests gained traction across various cities including Jos, Calabar, Warri, Ibadan, Benin City and others, the role of food became even more glaring. In Agege, Lagos State, Kamalu*, who is a vulcanizer apprentice, joined the protests because it meant the promise of three meals each day. “My boss gives me 100 naira ($0.25) at the end of every work day. Sometimes, customers also tip me so I have enough money to eat,” he says. According to Kamalu, the absence of food would have made him reconsider his decision to protest even though he and many of his friends have been victims of police oppression. “Any day I don’t make money, it means I won’t get to eat. So if there was no food at the protests, it would mean skipping work and then going back home to sleep on an empty stomach.”

Kamalu’s experience is reflective of a nation where close to half its population lives below the poverty line and survival takes precedence over anything else.

This formed part of the reasons Project F.E.E.D: Lagos, a network of decentralized soup kitchens in Lagos founded by Chef Imoteda, Chike Akah, Eat.Drink.Lagos, and others, was born. The project aims to Feed, Empower, Educate and Develop grassroots communities in Lagos State. According to Maryam, who is the former managing editor of Eat.Drink.Lagos, the #EndSARS protests exposed the need to start building change from the ground up. “It was Eat.Drink.Lagos’ way of taking care of our own—trying to ensure that [grassroots] communities are empowered and educated on issues concerning government policies, rights and obligations,” she says. Maryam also believes there is a disconnect between what we see on social media and what actually happens in reality, noting that for many people—especially those in low-income communities—the fight for survival transcends the fight for liberty and freedom.

As more and more food policies that deliberately affect lower- and middle-class survival in Nigeria are enforced and food insecurity ravages the country and her citizens, the politicization of food means the lower- and middle-class are more concerned with survival than with any fight, whatsoever, for their rights and freedoms.

Mr. Chike*, a seventy-five-year-old Biafran survivor, notes it was the government’s modus operandi to weaponize food, just as it had done during the Nigerian Civil War, which had crippled the Igbo economy and led to over 50,000 starvation-related deaths as the Nigerian military cut off food supply to Biafrans. This “starvation policy” was aimed at inducing the Biafran surrender, and it has been argued that this lack of food—more than any other factor—did indeed lead to their surrender.

On October 20, 2020, the night of the Lekki Toll Gate Massacre, which brought the #EndSARS protests to an abrupt end, young Nigerians watched in varying degrees of grief and disbelief as ambulances were refused passage to care for protesters who were believed to be shot by men of the Nigerian Army.

For people like Mr. Chike who had witnessed what withholding these supplies can do to a movement, it was a reenactment of an all too familiar affair.

As the Nigerian government uses deprivation to punish anyone who is deemed to be standing against them, the mobilization and supply of food by young Nigerians during the #EndSARS protests served as a very important instrument in the fight against injustice and oppression in a state that seeks to stifle all forms of expression.

*Names have been changed to protect the identities of the persons interviewed.

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