As protests surge through Nigeria in response to police brutality, one enclave of protestors has turned to bitcoin as a financial lifeline during turbulent times.
The Feminist Coalition’s bank account was shuttered this month after its involvement in the End SARS protests came to light, according to a person familiar but unaffiliated with the group who asked to be identified as Emma (a pseudonym). End SARS is a movement in Nigeria to abolish the Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS), a subdivision of the police force with a track record of abusing and harassing citizens.
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Cast out of the traditional system, the Feminist Coalition is now raising donations in bitcoin.
The #EndSARS protests
The Feminist Coalition was founded in July with a mission to “champion equality for women in Nigerian society with core focuses of education, financial freedom, and representation in public office.”
With the outbreak of protests against police brutality this month, the group has concentrated on providing medical care, legal aid and even funeral funding for those participating in the peaceful demonstrations.
Since the protests surfaced in the beginning of October, 10 Nigerians have died at the hands of police, according to CNN.
As of Oct. 16, the Feminist Coalition has collected a total of 69,891,637.15 naira (a couple bucks shy of $185,000), 15,443,280.00 of which ($40,000) has been deployed to aid 128 protests across the country, according to the coalition’s website.
Bitcoin and censorship-resistant fundraising
All of this fundraising attracted the attention of authorities, though, and they were shut out of Flutterwave, the payments platform and something of a virtual bank they used to process donations. (At press time, Flutterwave had not returned CoinDesk’s request for comment).
That’s when they turned to alternatives.
“Quite a few members of the group work in tech,” so they made the decision to use Bitcoin (BTC) as another payment option, said Emma.
They started by using Sendcash, a platform which converts bitcoin payments into naira and then deposits these funds into a recipient’s Nigerian bank account. The service is intuitive and highly useful, but it carries the risk that banks will almost certainly sniff out the source of the Feminist Coalition’s funds and shut down its accounts again.
The coalition no longer uses Sendcash because of this likely outcome. But they still accept bitcoin: Alex Gladstein, the Chief Strategy Officer of the Human Rights Organization, set them up with a BTCPay Server. Emma called the self-hosted payment process “a safer wallet” compared to other options.
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Because it operates obliquely to the banking system, the censorship-resistant payment portal is an essential tool for the Feminist Coalition’s fundraising, Gladstein told CoinDesk.
“I would say BTCPay is important because it protects the privacy of donors and prevents the government from easily figuring out what service the protestors are using to cash out their bitcoin into naira,” he said.
Since adding the BTCPay bitcoin donation option on Oct. 14, the coalition has amassed roughly 3.14 BTC (~$36,000).
Bigger than Bitcoin
As CoinDesk has reported previously, Nigerians are no strangers to how Bitcoin lets them move money in the shadows of the legacy financial system.
Some Nigerian expats, for instance, use the Paxful exchange to send remittance funds back home, while others use bitcoin to trade directly with China.
More germane to the recent protests against police brutality, others have even used Bitcoin as an unconfiscatible bank account to avoid police shakedowns for cash. The Nigerian government is also spinning up a digital version of the naira.
Still, Emma said that bitcoin is “not popular among the masses yet at all. There are large barriers mostly in terms of education. However a lot of young Nigerians are now starting to adopt cryptocurrency and it’s growing across the population.”
Further, the Feminist Coalition’s successful fundraising using bitcoin sheds “some positive light on cryptocurrency,” she says, and promotional efforts by Binance in Nigeria are also softening Bitcoin stigma in the country.
Of course, Bitcoin is only one tool in Nigeria’s fight for civil rights – it is not a cure-all for its citizens.
Read more: Nigerians Are Using Bitcoin to Bypass Trade Hurdles With China
Nigerians have been protesting as far back as 2016, Emma said, for SARS’ abolition and for police reform. It wasn’t until the most recent bout of unrest beginning in October that the government acquiesced to the protestors’ demands and formally disbanded SARS.
To many Nigerians, though, this is merely political theatre, and they expect SARS abuses to migrate to one of the new task forces that the government is forming to take its place. That’s why the protests haven’t stopped, Emma said, “because [Nigerians] want to see actual change in terms of police reform.”
With SARS now abolished, though, the protesters’ something-of-a-victory has left Emma hopeful. Not necessarily that things will immediately change, but that the Nigerian people, collectively, are beginning to “wake up” to the government’s abuses.
There’s more activity now than ever pressing for change, she said, and that’s something to be thankful for.
“We’re very tired of the lies and deceit, and there’s a widespread consciousness and awakening among young Nigerians right now that many are saying they’ve never seen before. I know I’ve never seen it before and I’m so relieved that it’s finally here.”