Like so many young people in Nigeria, Cheche Uduma feels like there’s a target on his back — one placed there by the same people who are supposed to protect him. The 21-year-old UX designer says he has been stopped by Lagos police on “three different occasions” but never because he committed a crime. During one encounter, four armed officers forced him to “settle them,” meaning pay a bribe. He withdrew $13 (a little over 5,000 naira) in cash from the nearest ATM and handed it over. “I felt useless and powerless,” he says.
Experiences like Uduma’s have helped ignite an international movement against police brutality in Nigeria that has gained the support of everyone from Beyoncé to Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey. Since early October, tens of thousands of people have participated in protests over violence committed by law enforcement — particularly, by the infamous Special Anti-Robbery Squad, commonly known as SARS, a tactical police force originally tasked with combating violent crime.
As #EndSARS demonstrators began pouring into Nigeria’s city streets, they were aided by a network of homegrown payment apps and financial technology startups. The nation has one of the most developed tech ecosystems on the continent, and it quickly mobilized in support of a cause that has impacted many of its own workers. SARS has been accused of singling out young people who have iPhones or appear well-dressed and extorting and abusing them. Earlier this year, Amnesty International identified 82 cases of abuse or murder committed by SARS officers between 2017 and May 2020. Many of the victims were men under the age of 35.
In mid-October, Fliqpay, a Lagos-based company that facilitates international business payments, became one of the first startups to donate to the cause, contributing roughly $1,300 (500,000 naira) to the #EndSARS protesters. The company later teamed up with two other startups, cryptocurrency platform Quidax and payment firm Korapay, to make another donation of more than $2,600 (1,000,000 naira). “The #EndSARS protest is important to us as Nigerians because citizens should never have to live in constant fear of their supposed protectors. Nigerians have a right to demand an end to this,” says Jemima Adegoke, Fliqpay’s head of marketing and communications.
Over the course of the protests, donations were also made by other fintech companies like Flutterwave, CowryWise, and Paystack. Ola Oyo, a co-founder of the currency exchange platform KiaKiaFX, says he isn’t surprised financial firms in Nigeria chose to get involved. Many people who work in the country’s tech sector have personally experienced police brutality and corruption, making it easy for them to relate to the demonstrators. “This protest was championed by the youth. Startups are young companies with mostly young executives and team members,” Oyo says.
As the protests began picking up steam, tech companies became an important source of donations that helped sustain the movement. Much of the financial support was organized by Feminist Coalition, a group of 14 Nigerian women who galvanized crowdsourcing efforts during the protests. Together, they received and distributed hundreds of thousands of dollars across the country.
Idunnu Williams, a lawyer based in the capital city of Abuja, says she received around $5,000 (2,000,000 naira) from Feminist Coalition, which she spent on food, medical supplies, and gas for transporting injured protesters to the hospital. Williams believes traditional Nigerian banks, seemingly under pressure from the government, tried to “cripple the movement.” She says Zenith Bank suspended an account she opened after she used it to raise money to fix cars damaged during the protests in Abuja. “When I asked via email, they couldn’t give a concrete reason [why the account was closed],” she says. Zenith Bank didn’t respond to a request for comment.
On October 15, Feminist Coalition announced it would begin accepting donations in cryptocurrency, after, the group says, it experienced “repeated restrictions on all the centralized Nigerian financial channels” it was using. “We have also been informed that, allegedly, Nigerians who receive funding from Feminist Coalition or working in relation to the #EndSARS movement are having their bank accounts restricted,” the group said in a tweet. Flutterwave, the coalition’s former donation platform, denied in a statement that it had experienced any issue. “Merchant payouts and collections are running seamlessly,” the company said.
At first, some Nigerians had reservations about the new donation method. For many in the country, their first introduction to Bitcoin was through the infamous MMM Ponzi scheme, a popular scam that used the cryptocurrency to dupe Nigerians out of money. Ezekiel Ojewunmi, the head of marketing and communications at Quidax, a cryptocurrency exchange, believes the switch to cryptocurrency allowed people from around the world to easily contribute. “A lot of people bought their very first bitcoin to donate to the movement,” he says.
On October 20, around two weeks into the protests, security forces in Lagos reportedly opened fire on demonstrators at the Lekki Toll Gate, killing at least 10 people. Shortly after, Feminist Coalition announced it would stop accepting donations entirely. “We hereby encourage all young Nigerians to stay safe, stay home, and observe the mandated curfew in your state,” the group said. Feminist Coalition had raised more than $386,000 (about 150,000,000 naira), nearly half of which had already been distributed to demonstrators across the country. The remaining funds, according to the coalition, will be used to continue helping protesters get medical, mental health, and legal aid. The group also plans to help the families of demonstrators who were killed.
Now, as uncertainty fills the air, some of the financial companies Rest of World spoke with appear to be staying intentionally quiet, even those that previously raised money and advocated for the #EndSARS movement. “A lot of [these companies] are going dark to avoid being shut down,” says a Lagos-based fintech executive who requested that his name be withheld out of concern for his company. “Most fintech companies — in one way or the other — get licenses from the [Central Bank of Nigeria], and, unfortunately, this agency is political. So what happens when they refuse to give you a license? All your hard work and investment will go down the drain.”