In Nigeria, a trio of high-profile cases of violence perpetrated against women have sparked large online protests, as citizens and activists alike demand action from government leaders to combat both gender-based violence and police brutality.
The current spate of online protests was set off last week after 16-year-old Tina Ezekwe was killed when police opened fire on a bus stop in Lagos, Nigeria’s commercial capital. The incident happened during a COVID-19 nighttime curfew.
Days later, the protest momentum increased after 22-year-old university student Vera Uwaila Omozuma, known as Uwa, was raped and killed in her church in Edo State, Southwestern Nigeria. News reports say she had been studying in the church hall.
On Tuesday this week, an 18-year-old undergraduate Barakat Bello, was reportedly found dead in her home in Ibadan, Oyo State. She had been raped and killed. At the time of writing, there have been over 57,000 tweets protesting Barakat’s murder and further amplifying the online protests.
Police say two suspects have been apprehended in one of the cases, and there is an ongoing hunt for other suspects said to be on the run.
The Nigeria protests — which have gained momentum following the Black Lives Matter protests against racial inequality in the US — have adopted hashtags including #JusticeForUwa, #JusticeForBaraka, and #SayNoToRape, as citizens and activists alike express concerns on the roles police brutality, incompetence, and neglect play in maligning women in Nigerian society.
Online protests have become a veritable tool for Nigerians to demand accountability from their leaders in a country where bloggers are often arrested for “insulting” government officials, and protests are often clamped down violently by police forces.
Nigeria’s celebrities, who are often criticised for their silence on national issues, are now speaking up amid the online protests. Don Jazzy, Rema, Patoranking, and Falz are among those who have posted messages to their millions of followers to rally against rape and sexual harrassment.
Singer Tiwa Savage tweeted: "#WeAreTired of senseless killings, lorries falling on road and killing passengers, ACs catching fire and burning houses, young girls getting raped, young boys killed. Please add your own frustration because my list is long."
#WeAreTiredpic.twitter.com/ABNexP0ga0— Tiwa Savage (@TiwaSavage) June 1, 2020
Nigeria is no stranger to police brutality. On several occasions, police have opened fire on peaceful protesters and reports of citizens being harassed daily are rampant.
In 2016, the World Internal Security and Police Index (WISPI) ranked the Nigerian Police Force as the worst in the world. Complainants (such as Uwaila Omozuma’s father) are often asked to pay “mobility fees” by the police when they report incidents. There’s also been a separate online protest dedicated to demanding police reforms.
"Social media is a tool to bring light on police, or institutions," Segun Awosanya, the head of Social Intervention Advocacy Foundation, told AFP news agency. "Once the light is on them, they have to go back to the cases and dig them up. They can't keep quiet anymore." Awosanya’s organisation campaigns against abuses by law enforcement.
Experts believe these issues concerning police brutality and the need for reform partly underscore the problem of gender inequality in Nigeria, where the constitution has no civil remedies for sexual harassment in the workplace.
Nigeria also has very low conviction rates for rape cases — which contributes further to gender-based violence because perpetrators aren’t held to account. In 2011, there were 283 reported cases of sexual abuse of children in Lagos State yet only 10 were prosecuted and convicted.
Meanwhile, in the poorest parts of the country, 75% of girls are out of school, and in some regions, there are twice as many unenrolled girls as there are boys. Women also have lower access to health care, financial services, and are more likely to be illiterate.
Issues of gender inequality and police violence, and the subsequent protests, have also served as a springboard for a larger conversation about the myriad of problems plaguing Africa’s most populous nation.