This article first appeared on Minds of the Movement, a blog of the International Center on Nonviolent Conflict. 


In 2017, Nigerian activists launched a movement against police brutality tagged #EndSARS. The campaign was triggered by the abuse experienced by young Nigerians at the hands of the Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS), a unit of the Nigerian Police Force. The movement experienced an outpouring of support in October 2020, after a young man was allegedly shot by an officer working with SARS at Ughelli in Delta State. The campaign moved from Twitter to the streets of Nigeria, as protesters trooped out in mass in 25 of 36 states to campaign against the inhumane treatment of ordinary people by some police officers.

Young Nigerians leveraged their artistic skills to amplify their voice. In this article, I will share a few examples — including photography, video, inspirational designs, illustrations, graphic design, paintings, music and dance — and also offer some analysis of the roles that they played in the campaign.


Photography and the power of symbolism

Nigerian photographer Victor Odiba took an iconic photo of a popular female activist known as Aisha Yesufu, which became one of the symbols for the fight against police brutality across the country. The subject is raising her right fist in solidarity with victims of police oppression.

In addition, Art by Oye (Oyebola Famuyiwa) impressively captured photos of bodies forming the words ENDSARS to amplify the struggle. These images communicated very important messages: that protesters were not only peaceful but also organized and determined in their struggle (including Oyebola himself; he took the aerial photos via a drone!).


Music and dance to rally the masses during the Lekki tollgate blockade

DJ Switch at the Lekki tollgate protest on October 20, 2020. Source: DJ Switch’s Instagram account.


Kaffy is a Nigerian dancer, choreographer, dance instructor, and fitness coach with over 1.6 million followers on Instagram. While introducing her dance crew during the EndSARS protest at Lekki tollgate in Lagos on October 16, 2020, she spoke of the power of music to end injustice in any society (the quote at the beginning of this article). And her crowd-amassing performance itself speaks to the powerful role of artist-activists in nonviolent campaigns more broadly.

Also during the tollgate blockade, one of Nigeria’s greatest vocalists and songwriters Timi Dakolo (2.1 million Instagram followers) played his song, “Great Nation.” His performance to end police brutality motivated the protesters and brought about a spirit of national unity among people of diverse cultures and histories. Further, the Nigerian online newspaper The Cable’s live-feed of the events attracted more people to the protest camp and kept them picketing at the tollgate while artists retained protesters’ attention with various art displays.

Lastly, DJ Switch, a Nigerian DJ and musician with just under one million followers on Instagram, fearlessly campaigned against police brutality at the Lekki tollgate blockade. She took an even bolder step this year at the 2021 Oslo Freedom Forum in Miami to project the video of the shooting that occurred on the night of October 20, 2020. DJ Switch has remained engaged in the struggle for justice for the innocent young Nigerians allegedly killed during the shooting.

According to some estimates, the Lagos state government lost 2.5 billion Naira due to the closure of the Lekki toll plaza and the Ikoyi Link Bridge toll plaza for 95 days as a result of the protest. Without the arts drawing mass numbers of people to the event, the impact could have been considerably weaker.


Over the airwaves and fresh off the press

#EndSARS cartoon animation created by Alagoa Makeni. Source: YouTube.


The day after the shooting at the tollgate, a Nigerian animated comedy show managed by Alagoa Makeni aired a cartoon animation on EndSARS to call for police reform. The creative work educated huge numbers of young Nigerians about the struggle to end police brutality in Nigeria. A collection of poetry on EndSARS entitled Soro Soke: When Poetry Speaks Up was curated by Jumoke Verissimo and James Yeku and diffused online the same week. It’s a compilation of writings by Nigerian poets who wanted to raise awareness about the struggle, boost protester morale, and amplify protester voices.


The arts in today’s movements

Drawing on movements for justice worldwide over the past several decades, scholars have documented more than a dozen categories of creative nonviolent tactics and hundreds of tactics that use the arts.

It is no surprise that the arts continue to be so prevalent in today’s movements: for activists on the streets, the arts provide entertainment value and something to unite around. They also provide some light-hearted reprieve from repression and other hardships that activists face.

For those who are hesitant to join a movement, the arts are an appealing and accessible point of entry and are thus crucial ingredients of movement strategy for attracting new supporters and allies.

The arts transcend national borders because music, poetry, and dance are so easy to disseminate on the internet and via social media. Instagram and, perhaps, Tiktok are particularly adapted to amplifying engaged arts because of their emphasis on visuals and sound rather than text. One way to capitalize on this is for movements to recruit artist-activists — particularly those with huge social media followings — as brand ambassadors, as is the widespread practice in the cosmetic and clothing industries.

As we saw in Nigeria, the arts can be quite effective at drawing media attention. Let’s not forget that journalists and photographers are always keen to lay their hands on attractive and attention-grabbing photos to feature in their articles. So planning and executing spectacular but also message-rich creative actions could be a way for activists to optimize their interactions with journalists.

Nigerian artists’ creative ways of disrupting injustice can serve as examples for people living in oppressed societies around the world. After all, as Kaffy points out in her song, “It was music that brought down the wall of Jericho…”



Created with Sketch.

Related Articles