Chicken, Chips, and Teargas
How protest food fueled the #EndSARS movement in Nigeria
When Nigerians poured into the streets to take down the infamous Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS), a group of young Nigerian feminists and their protest food proved key to supporting the movement.
By Mariam Adetona
On October 3, 2020, Nigerians woke up to a video on social media that showed an officer from Nigeria’s notorious Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS) shooting an unarmed young man in Ughelli, a town in the Southern part of the country. After allegedly killing the man, the video showed the officers pushing his body out onto the street and speeding away in his car.
This was just one in a long line of atrocities committed by SARS — which the Nigerian government had repeatedly vowed to reform or disband — but the video brought the nation’s simmering anger over police brutality to a boiling point. News of the killing spread like wildfire on social media and people took to platforms like Twitter in new force to share their own stories about extortion and violence perpetrated by the Squad. The protests quickly moved from cyberspace to the streets.
But not all believed change could be achieved, at least without certain conditions. As the protests gained traction in cities across the country, Ozzy Etomi, a communication strategist and vocal Nigerian feminist, tweeted:
Ozzy’s statement was rooted in the history of women’s (often forgotten) involvement in social change in Nigeria. From the Aba Women’s Riot of 1929 and the Abeokuta Women’s Revolt, women have been pivotal to the fight for fairer governance and policies throughout Nigerian history. And #EndSARS was no different.
“Nigerian women have been primed for fighting [because] we spend so much time fighting,” Saratu Abiola told Quartz Africa. She was referring specifically to young feminists’ fight for gender equality in Nigeria, a nation that ranks 139th place out of 156 countries in the World Economic Forum’s Gender Gap Index and where women are marginalized by discriminatory laws, religious and cultural norms, gender stereotypes, low levels of education, and the disproportionate effect of poverty. In the time leading up to the #EndSARS protests, the fight Abiola describes had taken the form of a market march against harassment in marketplaces in 2019 and a State of Emergency protest in 2020 calling out the country’s rape epidemic.
“So when [the EndSARS protest] happened it was easy to mobilize,” Abiola said. “It’s become an instinct.”
Young women became the coordinators, fundraisers, and, critically, feeders of the #EndSARS protests. By using food as a tool to fuel peaceful resistance to state violence, these women were in effect reappropriating food as a weapon that in the past has been used against them — by patriarchal forces that dictate women’s roles as provisioners of the household, and by the Nigerian government as a weapon of war against its own people.
It all started with Chef Mosope Odeseye’s emergency fundraising campaign, which initially sought ₦50,000 (US$120) to pay for breakfast for the 50 or so protesters planning to spend the night in front of the Lagos State House of Assembly in Alausa, Ikeja from October 8 to 9. Within 16 minutes, they had already raised around ₦312,000 (US$748), enough to feed the protesters breakfast and lunch the following day, and even to share leftover funds with other demonstration grounds.
Around 40% of people in Nigeria live below the poverty line, so it is no surprise that keeping protestors fed quickly became a topmost priority of organizers. Despite Nigeria’s rich natural resources, food insecurity remains a major challenge in the country. Government policies and state corruption have exacerbated the situation. In 2019, the government banned the import of rice and wheat flour in order to stimulate local production, effectively increasing the prices of these staples to a point that was out of reach of the masses. In 2020, crowds across the country reclaimed the contents of warehouses that were filled with COVID-19 palliatives like rice and instant noodles, meant to be distributed to low-income Nigerians but had instead been hoarded by government representatives. This is not uncommon in the Nigerian context where food has always been closely tied to politics and the government has been known to withhold food and weaponize its access as punishment against those it deemed as enemies: during the Nigerian Civil War of the late 1960s, the Nigerian government enacted a “starvation policy” to force the surrender of the Republic of Biafra, an Igbo secessionist state.
Given the scale of the #EndSARS movement, feeding the protestors was no easy feat. In Lagos and Abuja, the Feminist Coalition set up “The Food Coven”, a structure designed to oversee the procurement of food from vendors at affordable rates and to distribute it across protest grounds in the area. Founded by long-time advocates for women’s rights in Nigeria, the Feminist Coalition had been set up to promote education, financial freedom, and representation of women in public offices. The Food Coven came on top of the group’s long line of ventures ranging from crowdfunding for victims of gender-based violence to running Wine and Whine, a community to foster networking opportunities for women.
For a team of just six women, Food Coven offered an expansive menu, with choices like chicken and chips, plantain kebabs, BBQ wings, and banana bread. Food became a major reason that people showed up to the protests, spurred on by the social media buzz about “protest food”, a goal the Coven and others feeding protesters in other cities, did not originally set out to achieve.
“I just wanted to make sure food, glucose, and water are available to everyone protesting,” said Irianele Virtuous, a volunteer working with the Food Coven. “The SARS officers keep assaulting and killing our men, and this is our only chance to get them scrapped.”
SARS was a plain-clothed unit of the Nigerian Police Force set up in November 1992 to combat waves of robbery, kidnapping, and other violent crimes that were sweeping across major cities in Nigeria. At the time, the country was ruled by a military dictatorship and frequently rocked by the violence of coup d'etats and assassinations. Violence became hardwired into policing, spurred by the precedent of the commodification of people set during the British colonial rule and perpetuated through local and native forces.
Almost as soon as it was created, SARS officers began to perpetuate the very crimes they were charged with fighting. They engaged in extortion, illegal arrests, torture, sexual harassment and assault, and extrajudicial killings. It wasn’t until 2007, that the first formal public reports about SARS’ crimes emerged in the form of reports from organizations within and outside of the country. Despite the subsequent creation of a presidential committee on police brutality, corruption let these atrocities go unchecked. To this day, no SARS officer has ever been prosecuted for a crime.
Social media changed the way Nigerians could draw attention to SARS’ abuses, and it became common to share stories and videos online. Some women began posting about incidences of sexual harassment and assault by SARS officers, but most of the stories shared online were about men — even though SARS violence affected all facets of society. In addition to the direct consequences of assault, women are impacted by the trickle-down effects of the violence and incarceration perpetuated by Nigerian police. Police and judicial violence are systemic drivers of gender-based violence and abuse — levels of which were spiking in the country when #EndSARS took off.
Deeply-rooted gender discrimination also presents in less overtly violent ways. As in other patriarchal societies, many in Nigeria consider women’s main role to be the maintenance of their households, including caring for and feeding their husbands and children. In this sense, food and the responsibilities associated with domestic provisioning have been used as a mechanism to keep women subservient.
By dishing up meals at #EndSARS protest sites, Nigerian feminists reclaimed the power of food back from state and patriarchal forces to emerge as leaders of the largest protest against state violence in Nigerian history. The food they served at the protest sites kept participation rates high, and it fed not only protesters but also people passing by on their way to work, artisans, and neighbours. Communal eating brought people together across class, ethnic, and religious divisions — the fractures of which are felt most by Nigerian women and other vulnerable members of society.
In addition to feeding protestors, the women of the Feminist Coalition were actively involved in sustaining the protests in other ways. Women from this group initiated the organization of security and coordination of medical services. Rinu Oduala, a student and media strategist, helped to disseminate important information during the protests and was a youth representative of the Lagos Judicial panel on police brutality when the happenings at the protests were investigated.
The Feminist Coalition also raised $200,000 through a crowdfunding campaign built on the momentum of an initial breakfast fundraiser, amplified by Feyikemi Abudu, a founding member of the group. Within days, the Feminist Coalition was able to fund over 150 protests around Nigeria, and made a point to update the public every day on how much had been raised and how much was spent. In a country with one of the worst corruption indices, this came as a welcome surprise to many Nigerians, some of whom began using the Feminist Coalition logo as their display picture on social media and referring to Feyikemi Abudu as their president.
Despite being lauded by civil society, their participation in the protests came at great personal risk. Moe Odele, a tech-focused lawyer licensed in Nigeria and the US, helped provide legal aid by creating a network of over 50 lawyers working around the clock to provide legal advice to detained protesters. She later had her passport seized at the airport without explantation. Aisha Yesufu, a community organizer, who had previously been involved in the Bring Back Our Girls Campaign in 2014, marched with protesters in Abuja and was instrumental in maintaining calm at the demonstration grounds — even when tear gas was sprayed at the crowd.
The protests came to an abrupt end on October 20, 2020 when the Lagos state government ordered the shooting of protesters at the Lekki toll gate in Lagos in what is now referred to as the Lekki Massacre. Although the Nierian government announced its plan to dissolve SARS on October 11, 2020, protests continued, pushing for more meaningful reform of the country’s law enforcement. Protesters were gathered at the tollgate singing, chanting the national anthem, and waving flags when, just before sunset, army officials were deployed to the venue. They removed the CCTV around the tollgate and turned out the streetlights before charging the crowd. Chaos broke out as the army sprayed teargas and shot live bullets into the mass of protesters. Over 150,000 people watched the Lekki massacre on an Instagram-live that was streamed by another feminist activist and DJ, Obianuju Catherine Udeh, popularly known as DJ Switch.
SARS was disbanded, but a new unit took its place shortly after. Police brutality remains an issue, and many protestors live in fear of retribution. But despite the protest ending the way it did, the impact of protest food reiterated the importance of women-led advocacy in Nigeria. Since then, the Feminist Coalition has been focusing on what they were originally set up for: empowering women. They have created the Girls Education Program which is a full scholarship for girls with outstanding academic performances in low-income communities, and have hosted two editions of a food drive which saw them providing bags of food to 1,000 women in low-income communities.
At the end of the protests, Ozzy, the feminist who suggested the movement would go nowhere without women’s participation, quote-tweeted her original tweet.
It was a confirmation of the fact that the Feminist Coalition’s intervention helped #EndSARS stay its course.
Mariam Adetona is a Nigerian writer who enjoys writing essays and reports on the experiences of Black women. Her writing has appeared in Al Jazeera, VICE, Meeting of Minds UK, etc. She tweets at @Amamayoyo.