Thousands of people have been taking to the streets of Lagos over the past week to protest against police brutality – and Irianele Virtuous has always been there, always working behind the scenes.
Her mission? To support her fellow demonstrators.
“My focus is making sure people in these large gatherings don’t get dehydrated,” said the 22-year-old. “I’m always ensuring that water is on the ground, that glucose is available, as well as food [and …] masks so that people will wear them to shield against coronavirus.”
Virtuous is just one of the many women at the heart of the peaceful protests sweeping Lagos and other cities across Nigeria, helping to organise and fundraise the demonstrations as well as strategising on how to use the movement’s momentum to achieve substantial changes in the country.
And while some women – like Virtuous – prefer being away from the limelight, others have no problem assuming a more visible role.
“I’ve been talking with the [journalists] at protest grounds, speaking with government officials,” said Baliqees Salaudeen, a prominent female activist in Ilorin, Kwara state. “I have been putting in my resources and I have used my influence to encourage people to really get involved.
“I am really proud of this movement and I believe we’re making progress.”
I saw a generation with one voice during the #PrayerWalk in Ilorin Today.
We prayed in Christianity & in Islam. We prayed for those who have lost their lives to #PoliceBrutality & insecurity & we prayed for our dear country, Nigeria🇳🇬.
— Baliqees Salaudeen | #ClimateAction (@humanitarian_bs) October 15, 2020
Mobilised through online platforms such as Twitter and Facebook, the youth-led protests that began on October 8 initially targeted the federal Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS), a notorious police unit long accused of harassment, torture, extortion and extrajudicial killings.
After days of #EndSARS demonstrations across Nigeria and the diaspora, authorities on Sunday announced the dissolution of SARS and later ordered all personnel to report to the police headquarters in the capital, Abuja, for debriefing and psychological and medical examination. Meanwhile, the forming of a new Special Weapons and Tactics (SWAT) team was announced to replace SARS.
However, the announcements did not satisfy protesters, who viewed them as just another renaming exercise and pledged to stay on the streets until their demands are met.
These include the immediate release of all arrested protesters, justice for all deceased victims of brutality and appropriate compensation for their families, an independent body to oversee the investigation and persecution of all reports of police misconduct, psychological evaluation and retraining of all disbanded SARS officers before they can be redeployed, and an increase in police salary so they are adequately compensated for protecting the lives and property of the citizens.
“They did this rebranding in 2018, changing from SARS to F-SARS yet nothing about the officers changed. They have continued harassing us,” Seun Gbadamosi, a 23-year old protester in Ibadan, said.
“Last week, they harassed me and my friends, called us [bad names] and said they wanted to feast on us.
“This is why we protest; this is why we march. We want total disbandment; we need actionable changes. We have given them our five demands, once it’s done, we’ll get off the streets. Until then, I’ll keep bringing people out here to protest.”
— feministcoalition (@feminist_co) October 17, 2020
Meanwhile, the Feminist Coalition – a newly formed women-led NGO campaigning for gender equality in Nigeria that has also been at the forefront of the protests – said it had crowdfunded more than 37 million naira ($97,000) to support the movement with first aid supplies, masks, food, water, hospital bills for injured protesters, and more.
Members of the group have also been involved in the release of detained protesters and the provision of legal counsel to those still under arrest.
“We asked for five things, they’ve barely done one. The protests are far from done, I am going to be at this for as long as I can,” Virtuous said.
“We are not backing down for anything until our five demands are met, every single one of them. Once these are met, we’ll relax, then we’ll reassemble again to face other sectors.”