• Analysis

How EndSARS protesters re-emerged to upend Nigerian politics

By channeling their energy into the Obidient movement, Nigeria's anti-police brutality activists have turned a fringe political party into a powerful force for change.
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In October 2020, young Nigerians mobilized across the country against their inhumane treatment by the Special Anti-Robbery Squad, or SARS, a division of the Nigerian police. The historic protests — organized by what came to be known as the EndSARS movement — turned bloody when security forces opened fire on unarmed activists at the Lekki toll gate in Lagos, killing and injuring dozens.

Violent reprisals by hoodlums and perceived agents provocateurs across the country gave the Nigerian security forces the legal ground to violently repress protesters, which precipitated the end of the demonstrations. Since then, attempts to mobilize to demand justice for those brutalized by police and killed during the protests have been greeted with further government persecution.

Given the danger they faced in the streets, demonstrators returned to Twitter, where the movement first began, and kept raising their voices for good governance and justice online. In June 2021, to silence their campaign, the government banned the use of Twitter, which lasted for seven months.  

At that point the movement appeared dead, but activists found a new avenue to call for change during the build up to the 2023 general elections. To push for a new government that would meet their demands, they helped start the Obidient movement, which made them a major force in Nigeria politics.

During the pre-election campaigns, this new generation of Nigerian youth, also known as the Soro Soke, or Speak Up, generation, made it clear that if they could unite, they had the numbers to overthrow the current political order run by a few old and corrupt men. This old guard had allegedly ordered the security forces to shoot at them during the EndSARS protests.

About eight months before the elections, Peter Obi, the former governor of Anambra State and a well-known sympathizer of the EndSARS movement, announced that he would run as the presidential candidate of the Labour Party. The party aims to promote and defend social democratic principles and ideals to achieve social justice, progress and unity. However, since it was formed over two decades ago, the party has never threatened the major parties that dominate Nigerian politics — winning only one governorship.

Peter Obi surrounded by supporters. (Twitter/@TheOfficialPOMA)

Peter Obi joined the party on May 27, 2022, greatly boosting its membership and support. He helped draft the party’s 62-page manifesto and projected himself as an agent of change ready to tackle social, political and economic injustice.

Leading #EndSARS activists saw an opportunity to use Obi’s run to change the political system and open the space for ordinary people to take power. As a play on his name, they created the Obidient movement, believing that he was the best vehicle to bring about good governance and meet their demands.

Becoming a contender

The movement gathered support with tactics similar to those used by #EndSARS. There were lively discussions on the internet about the best approach to pull off the biggest political upset in Nigerian history. They ran targeted YouTube ads and hosted live conversations on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook, among other events, to get people to register and vote.

Twitter became the most powerful social media tool used by activists to build momentum for the movement. Twitter Spaces were organized to attract educated young Nigerians. One conversation hosted by Modupe “Moe” Odele, a well-known social media influencer and tech lawyer, attracted over 60,000 viewers and an average of 5,000 listeners per minute for more than three hours. They discussed various strategies, including how to break language barriers, build a mass movement of volunteers, leverage voter data and information and mobilize support for other candidates in the Labour Party.

Value Driven Leadership, a group of professionals dedicated to changing Nigeria’s political environment, even developed a mobile app called Obidient Townhall Platform, to mobilize supporters. 

The movement’s savvy use of social media to mobilize support for the party was criticized by opposition parties who argued that elections cannot be won online. However, the Obidient’s social media campaign proved them wrong, leveraging young people to organize their followers and building serious momentum for the party.

A Obi supporter door knocks ahead of the election in February. (Twitter/@vsntongs)

The majority of young Nigerians came to view Peter Obi as a “third force” and the candidate for anyone opposed to the current elite. In addition to their use of digital and analog media, Obidients built a community of supporters across the country through grassroots mobilization. They formed groups of canvassers and voters who engaged locals in the streets and marketplaces and went door-knocking for the Labour Party. At the same time, volunteers worked to overcome linguistic and religious barriers and enhance Obi’s appeal across the country.

They also organized political rallies, marches, comedy skits, speeches and other events. These helped increase awareness about the party, attract millions of voters and successfully mitigate an increase in election violence. The campaign turned Obi into a serious contender for the presidency.

Changing the political landscape

Two main political parties have dominated Nigeria since 1999. Their regimes have been marked by corruption, socioeconomic inequality, increasing poverty and political terrorism that has claimed many lives.

Elections in the country have long been characterized by violence. In the buildup of the 2023 elections, at least 100 deaths were recorded, and no less than 39 died during the national elections. Police officers, elected officials, hired thugs, voters and even an unnamed staff member of the Independent National Electoral Commission were among those killed during the presidential and governorship elections that were held on Feb. 25 and March 18.

The movement undermined the culture of violence during elections through rallies, protests, marches, walkouts and speeches. This helped debunk the idea that the use of violence is necessary to outshine political opposition. Despite violent attacks on the Labour Party supporters, they were able to withstand repression from machete and gun-wielding thugs sponsored by the opposition, who have long built their organization through violence.

In the official count for the presidential election, Obi came in third place with over six million votes — a shocking result for a movement that started only eight months prior. The party won 11 out of 36 states and the federal capital territory, Abuja ­, as well as 40 seats in the National Assembly. And in the March 18 gubernatorial elections, the party won Abia state and several seats in the state house of assembly across the country.

However, the technology deployed to accredit voters and transmit election results from polling units malfunctioned, which disenfranchised many Obi supporters and created room for rigging. Violent attacks on members of the Labour Party and electoral malpractices also affected the results.

Obidients protest against election rigging. (Twitter/@CNWAOKOBIAJNR)

The alleged rigging by the Independent National Electoral Commission, a body responsible for the conduct of elections in Nigeria, in favor of Bola Tinubu, the ruling party’s candidate for president, has created widespread suspicion about the electoral process. Disgruntled political parties such as the Labour Party and People’s Democratic Party have sought legal redress. Activists, civil society organizations and others have continued to protest the presidential result.

The Labour Party has been granted the right to inspect electoral materials and are contesting the outcomes of the presidential election and the governorship elections in several states. They are disputing the election results in court, and are determined to not let electoral fraud decide the election, as it has in the past. This has continued to raise citizens’ awareness that political parties should be held accountable when they engage in electoral malpractices.

As the Labour Party contests the results of the elections, the newly-elected lawmakers — eight senators and 34 House of Representatives members — have been charged by the leadership of the party to ensure quality representation and champion policies and programs that will benefit all Nigerians.

At the same time, with members everywhere — in the entertainment industry, soccer, churches and mosques, academic institutions, media and civil society organizations — the Obidient movement is here to stay.

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The movement altered the practice of vote buying and made it possible for candidates to run for office without needing to spend such large sums of money. This leveled the political playing field and allowed the average Nigerian to run for office and win. It has also opened the political landscape — allowing ordinary people a forum to voice their complaints and call for political change — and disproven the rationale behind the ruthless and self-serving political “godfatherism” that backs candidates to pilfer the nation’s wealth.

The people are no longer required to choose between two political parties that have failed to fulfil their campaign promises. Many EndSARS protesters and others who seek change have found solace in the Obidient movement, making the Labour Party a powerful third force in Nigerian politics.

Ultimately, EndSARS’ resurgence in a new form offers an important lesson for organizers: When a movement is on the verge of losing its voice, building a chain of resistance with a political party that shares its vision can be the saving grace.

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