How the Festival of Lights captured the heart of EndSARS protests

Festival of Lights was set up in Abuja, Lagos, Enugu, Ibadan, Port harcourt, London and some states in America to tribute the lost heroes with a candle light vigil

Since the #EndSARS movement developed into a nationwide protest three weeks ago, the Nigerian authorities have vilified protesters, accusing them of “disrupting the peace” in Nigeria. Bank accounts used to raise funds for medical and finical support for the movement were blocked, while prisoners and hoodlums were released on to the streets to delegitimise the peaceful demonstrations. The armed forces also took advantage of this narrative and used brute force to suppress protesters at the Lekki toll gate where the likes of godson45 and DJ Switch live recorded the massacre that took the lives of several innocent Nigerians.

Two days after the Lekki massacre, president Buhari gave a speech saying “The spreading of deliberate falsehood and misinformation through the social media, in particular, that this government is oblivious to the pains and plight of its citizens, is a ploy to mislead the unwary within and outside Nigeria into unfair judgement and disruptive behaviour.”  The speech lasted for nearly 10 minutes and was broadcasted nationwide before being seeded into social media via a twitter thread. By painting protesters as national adversaries and refusing to acknowledge the military’s attack on Lekki protesters, the genocide attack was thrown into doubt. The Governor of Lagos state, Jide Sanwoolu declared that no life was lost at the Lekki toll gate and the Nigerian Defence Headquarters’ Director of Information, Maj, Gen. John Eneche claimed it was fake news and the videos we saw on Instagram live were “photoshopped”.

I studied political science in the University of Ibadan, but none of my lectures compared with the real time experience of witnessing the government employing denialism to alter history. Facebook and Instagram flagged posts about #EndSARS as “Fake News” and since the speech on Sunday evening, we’ve seen the Nigerian cyberspace become more dysfunctional as conspiracy theories (for example, Buhari being replaced by a clone called Jubril) have started to fester. Like most young Nigerians, I had hoped that at this point in our history, the available technological resources would prevent people from using disinformation for political gain. I assumed, arrogantly, that our nation’s democratic institution and free press would expose anyone attempting to cover up the murder of our citizens. Instead, we’re being censored by Facebook and insulted by politicians who go as far as staging investigatory performances to validate their involvement in the movement against police brutality.

With the current climate where our leaders are refusing to even acknowledge that its citizens were killed by the very people appointed to protect them, it’s important to highlight how the Festival of Lights were able to honour the fallen, shining the spotlight on the core reason behind the movement. Festival of Lights was set up in Abuja, Lagos, Enugu, Ibadan, Port harcourt, London and some states in America to tribute the lost heroes with candle light vigils where victims of police brutality shared their stories. With its organisers being from different creeds, religions, sexual orientations, genders and such, the Festival of lights was an inclusive vigil that did not discriminate against anyone.

One of the particularly moving narratives was the story of Chijoke and his family’s tragic encounter with SARS officers, as it covered the emotional and physical abuse dealt out by the police unit. The video recording of the narration of Chijoke’s story from the Festival of Lights vigil held in Abuja has been watched over 500,000 times on twitter and it helped raise awareness on the genocidal atrocities of the SARS unit and why it is important for the world to join the movement to #EndSARS.

Like most young Nigerians, the organisers, Theo Awobokun Allanso, Damilola Waterton, Zara, Dara and Iyiola Ajala have also suffered at the hands of the rouge police unit. Dara whom I spoke with over WhatsApp had a very traumatic encounter, physically abused by SARS in February. Dara relocated to Lagos, Nigeria in 2017 and, because of her privilege, she was regularly harassed and extorted by SARS officers and had started to normalise it. However, she recalls that things went left at her last encounter with them, “they said they were going to rape me, they’d fuck me in the dirt and they’d kill me; that there’s nothing anyone could do”. Before she knew what was happening, they pushed her and tore her blouse open while she begged them to stop. She explained that they only let her go because she began to chant the Bismillah after hearing one of them’s Muslim name. Dara was forced to set aside her agnostic religious status and also part with some of her money just so that her life could be spared.

For her, the Festival of Lights was a therapeutic experience; “[my encounter with SARS] damaged quite a lot of my confidence and some personal relationships. It required a lot of healing and [organising the Festival of Lights] was just [another step in] healing for me.” Another organiser whom I spoke with, Zara, was lucky that her experience with SARS didn’t get violent. A medical practitioner, though Zara had her medical coat in her car, she was stopped out of nowhere on a busy street in Abuja at 8pm and was subjected to an annoying search. Fortunately, nothing was planted in her car to implicate her, but other victims aren’t always so lucky.

Dr Zara struggled to make time out in her work schedule to be at the protests in Abuja, but one evening while she was there, she noticed that some protesters were beginning to forget the reason they were gathered. She got talking with other protesters that she knew, Theo Awobokun Allanso, Damilola Waterton and Iyiola Ajala. “We realised it’d be a nice gesture and a way to sort of refocus everybody into realising that the reason we’re fighting is because of the amount of people we’ve lost to police brutality,” Zara explained. Damilola Waterton shared the idea for honouring the dead with a candle light vigil on his twitter and it instantly went viral as it resonated with people like Dara who had been trying to figure out how best to lend her voice during this #EndSARS movement. The rallying cry came at a moment when other protest sites, namely the Lekki toll gate, were beginning to lose sense of their reason for protesting, so the vigil quickly became an essential part of the nationwide movement to help refocus protesters.

“So Festival of Light is like a thing that happens in India, but it’s called ‘Diwali’,” Dara explained. “I saw the tweet and was like it’s just like Diwali but even though Diwali is used to celebrate other things and it’s a different thing entirely, it just made sense that we should focus on honouring people that had passed and were not lucky enough to be here to see this movement.” She was motivated, by Damilola’s tweet, to champion the event in Lagos and when she tweeted about her intentions, people started to DM her about how they too would like to be involved. “It just kinda morphed into this huge thing that just took off everywhere. [I came] to find out that a lot of our friends were the people also championing it in other places. Some complete strangers, some friends. That’s how we put a group together, put a twitter handle together and the whole thing just kinda took off.”

Social media has already proven to be a powerful tool against oppression as it was employed for the Black Lives Matter movements. In Nigeria, the hashtag #EndSARS is currently being used over a thousand times every hour on twitter. International celebrities like Rihanna, Kanye West and Beyonce have also shared it with their large audiences on twitter; with Jack endorsing the movement with a designated emoji, twitter has become synonymous with the youths’ fight against the oppressive government in Nigeria. Though some argue that a large majority of young Nigerians aren’t on Twitter, there’s no denying that it has been a useful tool for introducing social change within our communities – EndSARS started on twitter. Similarly, Festival of Lights used the platform for spearheading its event.

“The word is Twitter,” was Dara’s response when I asked how they were able to mobilise for a nationwide event in such short time. “It really was just social media. By the time people started posting on their Instagram, I started getting some DMs on Instagram. But twitter was the main tool used to mobilise and put this together.” Dr Zara admitted that she wasn’t expecting such quick response from people when she tweeted about the vigil, but she’s grateful that she did. “Once I tweeted it, literally immediately, a friend of mine messaged and said ‘Yes I’m going to help financially with this,’” she recounted.

It was the contributions from people who saw the tweets about the Festival of Lights that made the events possible. FK Abudu and the Feminist Coalition led by showing us the impact of using a recognisable slogan and highly visible social media presence to provide information and funds to support EndSARS protesters. While some people focused on organising strategic locations for protesters to converge, they took it a step further by setting up a network of volunteers who could provide for the needs of protesters while they demonstrated peacefully. Festival of Lights employed a similar community-based operation, which allowed people to contribute towards the success of the event.

“We wouldn’t have been able to put it together if not for the donations of very kind hearted people. At first it started independently of any brands or any movement that’s actively in the protests,” Dara explained as she talked me through the process of mobilising for the vigil. “It started from my personal funding and people putting their money down.” The bigger it got, the more funds they needed. However, generous contributors took care of all the necessary things like security, food, mics, candles and such. Dara mentioned a few brands that helped out but asked that the names be withheld to prevent government from escalating their assistance and accusing them of being “terrorists”.

Dr Zara also explained that in Abuja, there were lots of logistics involved and every single part of the process, preparation and planning was covered by donations. “Nothing came out of pocket for the organisers, except if they wanted to donate,” she said. “What came out from our pockets was basically time and preparation. Obviously going around town to get all the necessary things for [the vigil]. To a certain degree I’d say for the people that donated, it probably didn’t cost them a lot because they kept saying they wished they could have done more. It felt like if they had a chance to do more, they’d lay everything out. It was beautiful thing.”

When I asked if the Festival of Lights was a one-off act of solidarity, both Zara and Dara expressed that it depends on how the protests go. This was before the Lekki massacre happened on Tuesday, 20th of October. They had been optimistic that the peaceful protests would lead to a resolution and young Nigerians would no longer die at the hands of the police. Sadly, their hopes haven’t yet come to fruition as lots more people have since been killed by the police and the Nigerian military.

“By all means, I’m very much down to make this a regular occurring thing,” Dr Zara affirmed. “I don’t want it to be, because the whole point is to not have people that are dying. But if people continue to die then we’re a 100% ready to keep on doing this.”

While Nigerians continue the fight to bring down the pillars of oppression, those involved in organising the Festival of Lights vigil are playing their part to ensure that those whose lives are lost to SARS are given the heroes honour they deserve. The vigils aren’t just for the families of the victims but also for those who haven’t been affected as they bring awareness that help us stay focused on the fight to end police brutality in Nigeria.

Featured Image Credits: Twitter/visualsbyuche