Amplifying awareness, organising protests and disseminating messages worldwide: a look back at the role of social media during the #EndSARS movement
Africa is one big continent and her people are always seen as fragile beings without any voice of their own. Activists such as Nelson Mandela, Kwame Nkrumah, Fela Aníkúlápó Kuti and Martin Luther King Jr have fought hard for her people and culture in ways that can never be imagined. They passed down the torch to the next generations, yet, even now, Africans are still fighting against the ill acts poured at them by their oppressors.
But, we are in the era of digitalisation and social media has taken a full force in creating a movement for African youths to speak out against any discrimination and persecution. However, one question remains: Will the power of social media be enough to create lasting change for African youth?
The #EndSARS protests were a movement against police brutality in Nigeria that began in October 2020. The movement was sparked by a video showing a man being beaten, allegedly by members of the Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS), a unit of the Nigerian police force.
Peaceful protests quickly spread across the country, with young people using social media to share videos and images of police brutality, using the hashtag #EndSARS. They were joined by Nigerian influencers and actors, including Rinu Oduala, who’s impact spread like wildfire to other African countries who needed a charge to rise up for their own country. The #EndSARS movement called for an end to police brutality, extrajudicial killings, and extortion by the police. The protesters also demanded justice for victims of police brutality and the prosecution of police officers who had committed crimes.
Through social media, the #EndSARS movement gained international attention, with celebrities and politicians around the world expressing support for the protesters. The movement also led to a wider conversation about police reform and accountability in Nigeria.
The rise of social media was, hence, a blessing to many African youths. Platforms, such as Twitter and Tiktok were used to organise protests, raise awareness about important issues, and hold those in power accountable. Ultimately, the #EndSARS was a movement and a powerful message to African youths that are being oppressed by any governing body. It paved the way for the growth of activism as people have the ability to find ways to connect, share their stories and mobilise for political and social change.
But, whilst social media have provided young African people with new ways to effect change, there are also significant challenges that they face, censorship being one of them.
Whilst some governments have embraced social media, for example the Kenyan government has launched a social media platform called Huduma Namba to provide citizens with a single digital identity that can be used to access government services, many have taken a more restrictive approach.
During the #EndSARS movement, a former Nigerian Presidential aspirant, Adamu Garba, instituted a $1 billion lawsuit against Twitter and its former founder, Jack Dorsey, at the Federal High Court Abuja, over his role in the protests. The lawsuit didn’t hold any water with its absurd conditions and was later scrapped. Notwithstanding, the Nigerian government shutdown Twitter but the relentless Nigerian youths still found a way through vpn to keep airing their voices for a change in their country against the police brutality.
Online harassment is also a major challenge. Activists face threats, bullying, and other forms of harassment, which can limit their ability to participate in online activism and have a chilling effect on free speech. During the #EndSARS movement, this was seen majorly by supporters of the oppressors.
The growing influence of social media and technology has significant implications for the future of youth activism in Africa. On the one hand, it has provided new opportunities for young people to organise and mobilise around issues that matter to them. Africans are energetic to the core and they create this great solidarity and sense of community amongst themselves in times of crisis - social media has proved a useful tool to do this digitally. On the other hand, there are also challenges, such as censorship, and online harassment, all of which can limit the impact of online activism.
Most importantly, addressing these challenges will require a concerted effort from governments, civil society organisations, and technology companies to ensure that young African people have access to the tools and resources they need to participate in online activism safely and effectively.