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Feeding a New Nigeria

Food in Nigeria has long been weaponized, withheld, and used as a means of corruption and coercion by those in power. The #EndSARS movement was, in part, about reclaiming that power for the people 

At the height of the #EndSARS protests in Lagos, Jahmal Usen would start his work day as early as 6 a.m. With his online food store closed temporarily due to the turbulence, Usen’s time was now fully dedicated to preparing food for the thousands of young protestors taking to the streets to fight for a better Nigeria. Getting up early to cook, he figured, was the least he could do.

For more than three weeks last October, thousands of young Nigerians gathered in cities across the country to protest a notorious police unit known as the Special Anti-Robbery Squad, or SARS. The unit was formed in 1992 to help tackle violent crimes on the domestic front, but in recent years reports circulated of SARS officers repeatedly targeting innocent young Nigerians, falsely accusing them of crimes and demanding money in exchange for release. Repeated stories of illegal arrests, kidnappings, assaults, and even murder ignited furor on social media.

But it wasn’t until October 3, when a video surfaced of SARS officers shooting a young man to death and stealing his car, that Nigerians took the online outrage to the streets. The #EndSARS movement — which culminated in the October 20 Lekki massacre, during which military officers shot at demonstrators near the Lekki Toll Gate — shook the world’s most populous Black nation to its core, and ultimately led to the disbanding of SARS (though a new unit was formed shortly after). The protests became about more than one branch of the police, serving as a broad public admonishment of the current administration as a whole, and inspiring a whole new wave of Nigerian political activism. Jahmal Usen, and his home-cooked meals of red-tinged jollof rice and comforting spaghetti stir-fry, are an important part of it.

Nigerian politics have always been wrapped up in food. Over the years, food here has been weaponized, withheld, and used as a means of corruption and coercion by those in power. During the Nigerian Civil War of the late 1960s, the Nigerian government famously cut off food supplies from the citizens of Biafra, leaving many Biafrans hungry while significantly crippling its military base. Still today, food remains suspiciously scarce for many Nigerians, despite the country’s bountiful natural resources. In late October, Nigerian citizens discovered warehouses overflowing with food supplies that ought to have been distributed to low-income Nigerians at the height of the pandemic.

So when it came time for Nigerians to take power into their own hands during #EndSARS, it made sense that food should be a part of the fight. For Usen, that meant waking before dawn to feed the protesters — many of whom were camped out near city landmarks for days or even weeks — himself. “I knew I had to contribute in some way,” he says, “so after my first protest I promised to make between 50 and 100 packs of food and bring them the next day.” That was the start of several weeks worth of intense cooking for Usen, who eventually teamed with a delivery company to distribute the hundreds of plastic containers full of food to protest locations across Lagos. “People were asking if I could come with more,” said Usen, “so I sent a tweet asking for donations, and people started helping out with money. That’s how I was able to continue to make food for protesters for as long as I did.”

Usen was not alone. On the second day of the protests in October, Feyikemi Abudu — a local entrepreneur and a leading voice in the #EndSARS movement — put out a tweet calling for a donation of 50,000 naira ($130) to fund breakfast for the protesters who had congregated at the governor’s residence in Alausa, Ikeja Lagos. That tweet would go on to raise more than 1.3 million naira ($3,404.09), and in turn inspire a whole chain of chefs, restaurants, bars, bakeries, and even small roadside snack stands to chip in.

“I was contributing the little I could to making a difference,” says Seyi O. Seyi, who normally spends her days selling small chops — a Nigerian snack platter made up of samosas, spring rolls, puff-puff (fried dough balls), chicken kebabs, fried gizzard and snail, and other small pastries. “I couldn’t hit the streets, but I could at least feed the people that were, and we even sent small chops to online protesters, too.”

Bars came together to donate water, ice, and mobile cooling units to locations in need. “We noticed the heat was taking a toll on protesters the first day we joined,” says Mosunmola Olundegun of the Lagos cocktail bar Quacktails. “The next day, we decided to bring out our big coolers packed with ice and walked around the grounds offering cold water to to serve as a cooling point for protesters with drinks.” Olundegun and her team also rented a bus to help pick up food from donors around Lagos and deliver it to protest sites.

Eventually, more formalized aid groups began to spring up, groups like the Food Coven, which has provided meals of jollof rice, buttermilk chicken sliders, yam porridge, and amala (a traditional dish made from cassava or plantain flour) to more than 15,000 Nigerians on the front lines — an impressive feat for an organization run primarily through a six-person WhatsApp group chat. “We had a system,” says Food Coven’s Amara Eche. “We placed a flag in front of all the locations where food was needed. A red flag meant that there had been no food at the protest center. A black flag meant that some food had been sent but not enough. A white flag meant that enough food had been sent out and two white flags meant that enough food had been distributed to those locations and more shouldn’t be delivered.”

Food Coven even managed to drum up donations from Nigerian expat communities around the world, including Houston, Texas, where Tobi Smith — the young founder of All I Do Is Cook, which ships Nigerian dishes across the U.S. — raised enough to feed more than 200 protestors in Lagos, and handed out his own jollof and coconut rice to those marching locally. “It could be any one of us,” says Smith, of his fellow Nigerian Texans. “Most of us want to travel back home to Nigeria, and we have iPhones, we have dreads. Any one of us could be a victim of indiscriminate profiling.”

The official #EndSARS protests ended on October 20 on the night of the Lekki shooting, but the renewed spirit of activism has now triggered larger conversations around food in Nigeria — namely who has access to it, and why. Widespread corruption and mismanagement of funds among elected officials is part of the problem, but there’s also the looming presence of the Boko Haram terrorist group in Northern Nigeria, where most of Nigeria’s food is grown, as well as the country’s ongoing struggles with civil conflict, poverty, population growth, climate change, and natural resource degradation.

Trying to make a dent in it all is FEED (Feed, Empower, Educate, and Develop) Lagos, a new group of decentralized soup kitchens working to tackle the problem of hunger in the country from all angles. In November, FEED organized a food drive for the low-income communities in the neighborhood of Itedo Lekki, and there are plans to expand the program to other communities this year. “FEED was born out of the #EndSARS protests,” says co-founder Tomi Aladekomo. “During the protests, volunteers and donors were feeding up to 3,000 people daily at the Lekki toll gate alone. But the people receiving the food weren’t just protesters. They were locals, lower-income people passing by on their way to their jobs, bike riders, and people from the surrounding shanties.”

The allure of free food might have been part of what drew many hungry Nigerians to the #EndSARS protests in the first place, but what they left with was far more important than a full stomach. In a country known for its divisions across class, religion, and ethnicity, food has become a common ground within a common fight against systemic abuses. “In the past, Nigerian politicians have been known to buy votes by giving out food,” says Houston’s Smith. “Now food is playing a more positive role. It has always been a good way to bring people together, but in these protests, food encouraged people to come out to stand up for their rights.”

Nelson C.J. is a Nigerian culture journalist with works in the New York Times, the Independent, I-D, Vice, Teen Vogue, Dazed, Xtra Magazine, Digital Spy, OkayAfrica, and more. Marylu Herrera is a Chicago-based artist with a focus on print media and collage.

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