This week, protesters once again filled the streets of several Nigerian cities as activists called for “Phase II” of the #EndSARS protests that rocked the country in October. While the protesters’ initial grievances focused on police violence by the country’s Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS), many in the movement have since expanded its aims, criticizing government corruption, with some calling for the resignation of President Muhammadu Buhari. While the initial protests seemed to have faded after the army opened fire on peaceful protesters at the Lekki Toll Gate plaza in Lagos, the underlying grievances of the protesters remain unresolved.

A protester spreads various placards that convey messages against the unlawful killings carried out by SARS, October 8, 2020. (TobiJamesCandids/CC License 4.0)
A protester spreads various placards that convey messages against the unlawful killings carried out by SARS, October 8, 2020. (TobiJamesCandids/CC License 4.0)

Perhaps one of the most distinctive elements of the first phase of the EndSARS protests was the transnational resonance the movement quickly gained as activists, politicians, and celebrities offered public statements of support, and helped the movement raise funds for bail, medical care, and protest coordination. What have the effects of this kind of transnational support been on other movements and what can that tell us about the likely next steps for the EndSARS movement? 

Transnational Support to Movements

Historically, transnational support for nonviolent action was relatively rare, with only global celebrity activists like Mahatma Gandhi garnering significant international solidarity. Yet with the rise of an integrated global media landscape, and particularly with the ease of direct communication between activist communities in different countries facilitated by the rise of the internet and social media, transnational solidarity has become increasingly common. During the 2011 Arab uprisings, activists used social media to draw attention to the political situations in their countries, which led to international exposure. More recently, protesters in Thailand, Hong Kong, and Taiwan have expressed solidarity with one another by claiming membership in a transnational East Asian “Milk Tea Alliance.”

Transnational support can help movements succeed if it is directed toward the social groups and institutions that make up a movement’s opponents power bases. For instance, transnational activism against the Apartheid system in South Africa brought significant economic and social pressure on the South African government. And international pressure on the government of Indonesia played a key role in supporting the successful movement for the independence of East Timor in the 1990s.

Similar international solidarity was evident at the peak of the EndSARS protests in October. Nigerians showed up to protest at the Nigerian embassy and consulates in the U.S. and outside the British Parliament. In the United States, some called their senators and organized to support politicians in speaking out against the abuse by SARS. Celebrities from Beyonce to Star Wars actor John Boyega issued statements of support for the movement. Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey encouraged users of his platform to donate bitcoin to EndSARS organizers’ cryptocurrency wallets to get around government freezing of activist bank accounts. This wave of domestic and international condemnation appeared initially to have been effective, with the Buhari administration agreeing to dissolve SARS.

Yet, as Nigerian activists quickly pointed out, the dissolution of SARS was almost entirely symbolic, and the Nigerian government almost immediately constituted a similar unit under a different name. So far, there has been little to no meaningful security sector reform. While protests have continued, and Nigerian activists have continued to try to get #EndSARS trending on social media, international attention has largely moved on to other things.

This sequence speaks to the some of the weaknesses of transnational support for nonviolent action, particularly when fueled by the rapidly fluctuating attention cycle of global social media platforms. While these platforms can easily mobilize huge numbers, they often lack staying power. A catchy hashtag can bring hundreds of thousands to the streets across countries and around the world shockingly quickly, achieving in days what once took months or even years of organizing. Yet as extensive cross-national research shows, this mobilization advantage of “networked protest” comes with a cost. Large protests without an underlying organizational infrastructure can make a movement brittle and easily demobilized once the intensity of the moment has passed. Decision-makers, hesitant to engage in the hard work of real reform, often discount social media-fueled protest movements and simply wait for the storm to pass, even if people demonstrate support from all around the world.

Nigeria has experienced this unfortunate dynamic in recent years. The 2014 kidnapping of 276 schoolgirls from the town of Chibok by the Islamist insurgent group Boko Haram sparked both a domestic protest movement and a wave of displays of international solidarity channeled through the #BringBackOurGirls hashtag. Yet despite promises of government action, and the eventual return of some of the girls after negotiations between the Nigerian government and Boko Haram, six years later the international community has largely moved on, while 112 of the kidnapped girls remain missing.

These trends help explain why, while recent years may have seen more large nonviolent action movements than any previous era, the success rates of those nonviolent movements have been declining significantly relative to past rates. And they indicate that, despite its time at the center of global attention, the EndSARS movement is likely to struggle to turn that moment into long-term security sector and governance reform.

What Does this Mean Going Forward?

As the movement fades from international conversations, prominent supporters of the EndSARS movement have faced severe repression from the Nigerian government. Many activist leaders remain under arrest or have had their bank accounts indefinitely frozen. A massive security force deployment kept a “Phase II” protest from occurring at the Lekki Toll Gate in Lagos this week. And the government has focused intense pressure on waging a full-scale information war, denying that the October 20 Lekki Toll Gate massacre even occurred, claiming that the protests have been entirely hijacked by “hoodlums,” and vastly overstating the degree of violence and destruction perpetrated by protesters.

The young protesters at the vanguard of the EndSARS movement have not been dissuaded and continue to push for change. Yet if the moment of transnational attention to EndSARS is going to be translated into long-term policy change, it will likely not come through flashy celebrity endorsements and massive social media condemnation, but through lower-profile, careful transnational organizing to target the pressure points of the Nigerian state in a way that is sustained and committed for the long term.

Erin Zamora is a senior program assistant for the Nonviolent Action program at the U.S. Institute of Peace.

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