#EndSARS: We must listen when they tweet before they protest on the street

Protesters march at Alausa, the Lagos State Secretariat, in Lagos on October 20, 2020, after the Governor of Lagos State, Sanwo Olu, declared 24-hour curfew in Nigeria’s economic hub Lagos as violence flared in widespread protests that have rocked cities across the country. (Photo by Benson Ibeabuchi / AFP)

That the simmering resentment of Nigeria’s youth was close to boiling over into the streets was obvious to everyone – except, it seems, our leaders.

Why was it so obvious? They told us!

For months – if not years – young Nigerians have been using their social media accounts to chronicle their rising anger at a political class they believe to be wholly lacking in accountability, transparency and responsiveness.

But we have not been listening. In 2016, a study of global policing ranked Nigeria’s police force as the worst in the world. Almost five years have passed, but nothing has been achieved to correct this.

And online exasperation has evolved into on-street protest.

And still we do not listen.

This is a generation that has done everything asked of them since childhood. Get an education. Get a job. Start a business. Go to farm. Work hard. And yet they reach adulthood to find that the institutions they were raised to believe were there to protect, serve and support them do not look like them, do not speak for them and seem only to serve themselves.

Social media could have been the tool our leaders used to identify these issues and take action to engage, address and resolve, to make connections, build trust, and share ideas for a better Nigeria.

Instead, it has become the tool protesters use to communicate, co-ordinate, and achieve international attention to their cause.

The #EndSARS protests have been a masterclass in misunderstanding that in the digital age the rules of governance have changed.

The demonstrations began with videos of brutality from SARS officers being shared on social media. In previous generations acts of police violence and extortion – or any other corruption by a public official – would go unnoticed in the next street or village. Today, footage will be seen around the globe in seconds.

In previous generations, the establishment could use their privileged position to paint protestors as criminals, anarchists, or adolescent fantasists with impossible demands.

But we can see from their own digital content that these protestors are young lawyers, chartered accountants, medical doctors, software developers, creatives, entrepreneurs, and some of them are holders of PhD striving only for responsive, transparent and accountable government.

In previous generations, the establishment could write off protestors as “subversive elements and troublemakers” with no wider support. But we can see the 28 million tweets using the hashtag #EndSARS and international support from international icons and world leaders.

Half of Nigerians are under 30. They grew up in the digital age. This is a generation with access to information like no other in our history – and the means to instantly share that information with others.

This is a generation with a window on the world in the palm of their hand which shows them that police harassment, public corruption and poor governance are not facts of nature but specifically Nigerian problems.

This is a generation which has a platform and expects to be heard.

We need to listen. And social media allow us to do it.

At the digital democracy campaign I lead, our mission is to use digital technology to bring electors and elected together, opening the channels of communication that lead to mutual understanding and better government.

Too often social media is only used to shout at people when it could be used to talk with them. So, we sought to create a platform where local leaders and the people they serve can talk person-to-person, one on one. This is the way to build connections and trust between generations and even political opponents and using those connections to improve communities.

Rate Your Leader also gives local leaders a vital insight into the things which matter most to the people they serve, not just allowing them to address those concerns immediately, but also giving them a clear electoral advantage of appearing accessible, empathetic and responsive.

This month Nigeria should be celebrating 60 years of independence by showcasing a young and hopeful nation moving confidently towards the future.

Instead, the eyes of the world turn to us once again to see the Nigerian flag stained with blood.

When the likes of Beyonce, Nicki Minaj, John Boyega and Kanye West are posting about Nigeria on social media it’s easy for us to concentrate on what they are saying. But really we need to talk to each other.

Joel Popoola is a Nigerian tech entrepreneur, digital democracy campaigner and creator of the Rate Your Leader app. You can reach Joel on Twitter via @JOPopoola.

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