The idea of mass protests that flew directly in the face of social distancing guidelines would have seemed unthinkable in March when the coronavirus gained a foothold globally. But 2020 has been a year that has defied and challenged our accepted way of living. Not only has it delivered more than its fair share of plague and death in devastating numbers, but the year has also been marked by a reckoning in politics and social issues around the world — and Africa was not left out.
Across the continent, several movements sprung up or became electrified, calling for an end to gender-based violence, police brutality and the impunity of elected government officials. Young people filled the streets, most of them for the first time in their lives, questioning the status quo and envisioning a world currently better than the one they live in.
This will be remembered as the year Nigeria’s #EndSARS movement progressed from a tiny online agitation to a full-blown movement demanding an end to the violent excesses of the country’s Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS). When a video of a young man shot to death by SARS officers went viral in early October, it set the stage for the largest protests in Nigeria since the return of democracy in 1999. Nigeria’s youth marched on the streets of Lagos and Abuja, and other metropolitan centres. Their counterparts in the provincial cities of Ibadan in the southwest, Port Harcourt in the oil-rich south-south, Kano in the northwest, and several points in between added their voices to the crusade. SARS, originally created to combat a rise in violent crime, had grown into a feared unit that committed the types of crimes it was instituted to prevent.
An Amnesty International report in June — before the protests caught fire — found at least 82 cases of “torture, ill-treatment and extra-judicial execution” in the past three years. The actual numbers almost certainly exceed the reported cases. SARS extorted young Nigerians for a variety of absurd reasons: owning an iPhone or MacBook; wearing your hair in dreadlocks or sporting a tattoo; or sometimes for simply existing as a young person in the country. For years, young Nigerians had demanded, begged even, that the government rein in SARS. But for the most part, the Nigerian government paid lip service to the problem with a series of ineffectual decrees “overhauling” or “reforming” the police division. The protests were deliberately leaderless but the women of the Feminist Coalition, a women’s rights group, led the coordination of fundraising efforts that provided medical and legal aid for protesters.
The theme of women leading protests continued in Namibia, where they were at the forefront of the #ShutItAllDown movement that sought to bring the southern African nation to a standstill after a wave of violence against women. It began in early October when police found a body in a shallow grave believed to be that of 22-year-old Shannon Wasserfall, who had gone missing in April. Two days later, the protesters marched in Windhoek, the capital, and in other parts of the country. Women in Namibia are subjected to appalling levels of sexual and gender-based violence including rape and femicide. In 2019, the police unit in charge of preventing gender-based violence said it received 200 reports of domestic violence every month. More than 1,600 cases of rapes were recorded in the 18 months ending in June 2020. And to underscore the direness of the situation, 27-year-old Gwashiti Tomas was allegedly murdered by her boyfriend because she wanted to end the union. The murder happened during the protests against femicide. The women of Namibia are facing a double assault of pandemics: COVID-19 and violence.
In the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), young people rallied behind the #CongoIsBleeding hashtag to raise awareness of the decades-long violence against women, the exploitation of child labourers working in mines to extract cobalt, a mineral used to make mobile phones, and continued fighting between armed groups in the country’s eastern region.
Violence against opposition politicians has been another unwelcome feature in Africa this year. In Uganda, security forces arrested prominent opposition politicians running against the long-serving president, Yoweri Museveni, in next month’s presidential election. Bobi Wine, real name Robert Kyagulanyi, and Patrick Amuriat, another opposition candidate, were arrested for allegedly flouting COVID-19 restrictions, while the president and his supporters went about their own routine. At least 36 people were killed and more than 600 arrested in the protests that followed Wine’s arrest.
Tanzania’s elections in October was marked by arrests and deaths in opposition strongholds like Zanzibar. President John Magufuli won a second term.
The common theme running through most of the political and social movements in Africa is that young people are overwhelmingly involved in organising, often on the internet, and translating online concerns into real-life marches. The reasons for youth involvement are myriad. Africa’s population is mostly young — 19 of the world’s 20 youngest countries are on the continent. In Nigeria, Africa’s most populous nation and the scene of the largest movement of 2020, more than half of its 182 million people are younger than 30. And according to Amnesty’s report on SARS, young people between the ages of 17 and 30 are “most at risk of arrest, torture or extortion by SARS” who accuse them of being internet fraudsters or armed robbers. Socio-economic factors are also at play in the country: the unemployment rate among young people between 25 and 34 is 30.7 percent. Simply put, Nigeria’s youth have fewer opportunities to succeed and are being harmed by the same security forces designed to protect them. In a country where the technology scene is booming and young people are making headway for themselves in the arts and culture, often without government assistance, it is no surprise the internet savvy decided to take matters into their own hands.
The same frustrations are evident in other countries. In Uganda, Wine, 38, is half the age of the incumbent Museveni who has been in power for 34 years. Wine’s supporters are young people desperate to see a change in leadership after knowing only one president their whole life — 70 percent of Uganda’s population was born after Museveni came to power in 1986.
And Africa’s young women, less likely to be content with the patriarchal systems in place across much of the continent, are lending their voices to various campaigns, demanding fairer societies where they are seen as equal members.
With most of the movements having flamed out, it’s important to ask how effective they have been. Nigeria’s #EndSARS movement notched a vital win when the police chief and the presidency announced an immediate dissolution of the controversial police unit. But those same authorities have reacted with unprecedented levels of violence towards protesters. Things came to a head on the 20th of October, in the Lekki district of Lagos when army and police officers shot at unarmed protesters, leaving at least 10 people dead.
The killings effectively stopped the protests. Nigerian authorities have since gone on to target prominent voices associated with the protests: a lawyer who provided legal aid to arrested protesters was prevented from leaving the country and had her passport seized for bogus reasons; another protester was taken from his home and detained for two weeks before being granted bail by a court. In response to the Lekki shootings, states across Nigeria instituted judicial panels to investigate claims by citizens against SARS but the sincerity of those panels is in doubt. The police itself filed (and subsequently withdrew) lawsuits urging the probes against it be stopped. Previous panels convened to investigate SARS’ conduct have had little effect. The findings of an August 2018 judicial inquiry set by the federal government have yet to be released to the public almost two years after its submission. When the Nigerian president, Muhammadu Buhari, broke his days-long silence on the Lekki incident, he threatened his own citizens and denounced activists. Press freedom has also been curtailed since the protests with the broadcasting regulator fining three media outlets for their “unprofessional coverage” of the protests.
In east Africa, Tanzanian opposition leader Tundu Lissu had to seek refuge at the German embassy and he eventually returned to Belgium where he holds permanent residency after losing the widely disputed vote. There is almost no realistic chance that Wine or any other candidate will unseat Uganda’s dictator. In Namibia, activists’ demands for the resignations of gender equality minister Doreen Sioka and her deputy Bernadette Jagger have not been met.
Yet despite the seemingly slow pace of progress, activists across the continent can take pride in the small changes they have effected, safe in the knowledge that this is the beginning of a long and arduous journey towards building more equitable societies. The road ahead will be rough, no doubt, but young people in Africa and the diaspora are more equipped than ever before to take on this task. And for that reason alone, 2020 has provided a small ray of light in Africa.