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From #EndSARS to #LekkiTollGate: The rise of cryptocurrency in Nigeria

The EndSARS protests which erupted in October over police brutality was different from any other in Nigeria, largely because the movement had no central leadership, could fundraise bypassing even banks and could organise on social media with a savviness that eludes government officials.

The protesters had always relied on the local currency, naira to sustain the protest that was seeking to get the government’s attention to put an end to police brutality and extortion. Many young people had shared horrifying tales of their encounters with a unit of the police known as the Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS).

The funding was going very well until the Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN) wrote a letter to Flutterwave, a payment gateway company that has been Central to the funding movement. In the latter, the CBN threatened to apply sanctions if it continues to allow its platform to be used to distribute illicit funds. Flutterwave had also contributed N1 million to support the protest. The letter from the CBN tied its hands but not the hands of the leaders of the protest.

They quickly responded to the threat from the CBN and in less than an hour they had provided a cryptocurrency wallet. The protest was back on and people were asked to send their donations in bitcoin to the wallet.

It wasn’t the response the government was expecting. They had thought that by cutting off the source of funding from the protesters, the leaders will be handicapped and give up.

The Nigerian police were overwhelmed by the surging crowd now growing across the country. The reasons there aren’t many more protests are because citizens have learned to be demure due to decades of abusive military regimes. They settle for criticisms on the pages of the newspaper, at drinking houses, and in front of new stands. If it looks like it could get out of hand, the government clamps down on media houses, the police shoot in the air, or the army roll in tanks, and the rancorous din is silenced.

But over the years a pattern emerged on dismantling protests in Nigeria. The government isolates the leaders, pay or coerce them into submission, and send the police or army to disperse protesters on the streets using whatever means necessary – but mostly through means that are unnecessary.

By arresting the leaders and cutting off funding support for protests through the banks, previous agitations have been starved of oxygen and they soon run out of steam. People learn to live with their rage and disappointment about failed leadership.

But the EndSARS protests defied this norm. It is a protest by a generation of Nigerians who didn’t grow up under the most brutal military regimes like those of Muhammadu Buhari, Ibrahim Babangida, and Sanni Abacha, so they have been spared the psychological trauma of protesting over the roar of bayonets.

However, they remember the betrayal of watching fiery activists who led the 2012 fuel subsidy removal protests and formed the current government and have become even worse tyrants.

This generation of Nigerians, born around the return to civil rule in 1999 is also the biggest victims of misrule by the current and previous governments. They are the most unemployed and underemployed, have some of the worst educational facilities in public schools and lack adequate representation in government and when they try to innovate around a clueless government, rogue police officers turn them into robbery targets.

So they feel justified in their outrage

When the Central Bank ordered commercial banks to block the accounts of those facilitating the protest like the Feminist Coven, financing moved to cryptocurrencies, a decentralised digital currency out of the reach of the Nigerian government.

Analysts have made a connection between the ENDSARS protests and the ban on cryptocurrency.

“There’s a direct line that can be drawn from the EndSARS protests — which carried on partly with funding from cryptocurrency even though CBN restricted several accounts — to these latest regulations,” Joachim MacEbong, a senior analyst at SBM Intelligence in Lagos told Bloomberg.

“This latest instruction will end up making the case for cryptocurrency adoption better than any other argument. One promises freedom, while the status quo only reinforces restrictions.”

However, the CBN said the ban is due to the opacity of cryptocurrency which makes it susceptible to money laundering and terrorist financing.

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