On the 20th of October 2020, lives were lost when armed forces opened fire on peaceful protesters who, while sat on the floor, sang the national anthem. By the time they were done, the once white of the Nigerian flag was red from the blood of those who merely fought for their right to live. In the weeks preceding the unforeseen unfaithful event akin to a murderous rampage, peaceful protests had been going on for over two weeks. At the heart of the protests, were women.
By no means is this attempt to erase men from the conversation or belittle male participation. This is not that. This is about making sure that, when this goes down in history, women will not be written out of it. This is about women. Nigerian women and how their stories have historically been forgotten and how this one will be hard to forget.
A large part of Nigerian tradition has subjugated women to the role of the caregiver. Till today for many communities and individuals, the “place” of the woman is at home, and it remains an ideal that she depends on her husband, the head of the house. If she does make her own income, there is usually a need that it be less than his, and if perchance it is not, she is encouraged to remit it to her husband and not discuss it publicly.
The continuous perpetuation of women as helpless or incomplete without a man has, as the late Thomas Sankara of Burkina Faso said, “reinforced a position of inferiority to men”. The effect of this is that marginalization of women has led to little recognition being given to them in history.
Nigerian history has not been gender-sensitive and available data has neglected women’s contribution. The irony here is that Nigerian women have always played a major role in all social and economic activities. There is evidence of the political influence of women dating back to the precolonial era. From the Borno women, who occupied important administrative positions in the royal family in the precolonial era, to Queen Bakwa Turk, who founded the Modern Zaria, and her daughter Queen Amina, who was a powerful warrior.
The contributions of women can also be observed in the Aba women’s riot of 1929 against colonial repression. At least fifty women were killed – and even though some narratives were that the women were violent and unlawful, these women were merely fighting against the oppression imposed by colonialism.
Regardless of social conditioning and discrimination, Nigerian women have continued to participate in most aspects of social and economic life, albeit while they continue to be underrepresented in key areas. However, the new generations are breaking out of such stereotypes. In the last years, women are increasingly involved in societal issues, they have efficiently organized various movements and protests to draw attention to inequality, abuse, and gender-based violence.
Even though their participation in policy and governance remained unsatisfactory, Nigerian women today are changing the dialogue and walking in the footsteps of their predecessors who have come out to demand change fearlessly. A recent example is the #EndSars and #EndPoliceBrutality movement that moves from Twitter to the streets of many cities in Nigeria. The movement which started as a demand for the most basic of all civil liberties is perhaps the most significant mass movement in Nigeria since the pro-democracy rallies of the 1990s.
Over the span of two weeks in October 2020, a series of uncoordinated protests across Nigeria by millennials ensued over police brutality, in particular the Special Anti-Robbery Squad (commonly known as SARS). The protests against this unit are not new. They happened every year since 2016, and there have been promises of reform that, however, have failed to come to fruition. The unit has survived and has continued to extort, abuse, torture and kill Nigerians based on random profiling that include having tattoos, wearing piercings and for many just simply breathing. Their main target audience is people between the ages of 18 to 35 and in some cases children as young as 14.
During the protest, the Inspector General of Police announced their disbandment, but whilst he was doing that, on the other side of town, members of that unit were shooting live ammunition at peaceful protesters. The inability of the government to bring an end to this unit sparked larger conversations about accountability within the government, a lack of a clear chain of command, and overall a lack of care for civilian lives by the political class.
The massacre on the 20th October reinforced this when the army denied its involvement in the shooting, when the governor of Lagos State said he had no control of the army and when the president refused to acknowledge what happened at all. Overall following the protests, the question has been how to move the conversation off social media and to those who do not have access to it, and how the 2023 election has to be different.
When Thomas Carlyle said “The history of the world is but the biography of great men”, we bet he did not envision this generation of women! And the instrumental role played by women in recent revolutions cannot longer be easily swept underground, thanks to technology and social media. These protests might prove to be what Nigerian women need all along: a generation of young women who have now made it clear that they will no longer be silenced or be undermined!
The protest also gave the concept of “feminism” another light, a favourable light contrasting with the usual stereotyping of feminists as being ‘man-hating’ women – a view that is still very common in Nigeria. The Feminist Coalition – a newly formed women-led NGO campaigning for gender equality in Nigeria – has played an instrumental role in sustaining the protest, and over the course of the protest they raised slightly above £296,476 through crowdfunding – supporting the protest with food, legal and medical aid. Even though the protests have ended, they continue to cover legal and medical costs. Their level of accountability and the urgency with which they delivered was something Nigerians were not used to, and was evidence to the fact that it does not take multiple councils, meetings, and commissions to make a difference.
Gone are the days of seeing women as powerless. It would be in history that these women took a stand alongside the men, fiercely and with determination! They should be known, remembered and cheered.
Taibat Hussain recently completed a MSc in Development Economics at SOAS University of London, under the Commonwealth Shared Scholarship scheme. Her research interests lie in education, work, inequality, women advancement and youth development. She is an active member of SOAS Feminist Economics Network.