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Credit: Courtesy of Chef Tobi Smith

Jollof Rice, Fried Chicken, and Meat Pie: How Food Has Sustained the #EndSARS Protests

published Nov 11, 2020
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It started with a call for ₦50,000 ($130). Entrepreneur Feyikemi Abudu had heard that a small group of protesters who had gathered at Alausa, Lagos, Nigeria had been harassed by the police. Before heading out to lend her support, she decided that the protesters — who were now going into their 72nd hour at the Governor’s residence — needed sustenance. Abudu’s request for money to feed the protesters would galvanize one of the biggest protests Nigeria had ever seen — a call to #EndSARS. 

Special Anti-Robbery Unit (SARS), a policing group established to fight robbery and crime, has become notorious for their extrajudicial murders, extortion, and harassment. Although Nigerians have called for the squad’s end for years with no success, the protests were reignited in October when news spread across social media about the murder of another young man by SARS. Citizens reached out to their representatives once again asking for the policing unit to be disbanded and the government responded with further harassment, motivating people like Abudu to join in the protest at Alausa. By October 9, thousands more had gathered in Lagos to demand an end to SARS — vowing to remain in the streets until President Buhari took concrete steps to end police brutality in the nation. 

“We had originally planned to give out just breakfast, but after listening to the House of Assembly’s address, we knew we couldn’t not go back so we had to organize,” Abudu told Kitchn. Abudu and a group of other concerned protesters wanted people to feel nourished as they chanted and marched, so they made plans to buy, cook, and distribute food during the protests. The menu included meals like jollof rice, fried chicken, and meat pie, which are all Nigerian party staples and symbolic as celebratory. This is especially true for people of African descent for whom food has always served as a way to commune and gather in likeness. A protester even comically tweeted that protest jollof rice was greater than burial jollof rice, referring to the cherished jollof rice served at funerals which some have argued is the most flavorful type of jollof.  

What started in Ikeja, Lagos, Nigeria quickly became a nationwide and international movement. In states like Edo, protesters decided to use food as a tool of demonstration by cooking meals in the middle of the protest grounds. Across the ocean, Nigerian-American chef Tobi Smith who distributed “Protest Jollof and Fried Rice” during the Houston #EndSARS protests says, “The significance of food was to appreciate people for stepping out to peacefully protest. We felt the need to reemphasize the peacefulness of the protests by serving food and eating together which shows unity just the way it is when families do it together.”

Credit: Courtesy of OA

Organizers were committed to distributing food evenly and fairly. They devised strategies to ensure that no neighborhood was left out — recognizing the diverse needs of the protesters who were from different neighborhoods. Hot tea was served and vegan meals were provided for those who had special dietary needs. Speaking to Kitchn, one organizer O.A. says, “Reading on social media, I noticed that the protesters in Lekki had more food and drinks than protesters in Ikorodu, so I thought I’d create something special for mainlanders [where Ikorodu is located]”. O.A. and team fundraised to distribute asun (smoked goat meat), another Nigerian party favorite, to not only mainlanders in Lagos but also other protesters in the South Eastern parts of Nigeria.

Historically, many cultures around the world have harnessed food’s power as a political tool. In the United States, during the Black Lives Matter protests in June, restaurants supplied coffee, strawberry drinks, and apples to protesters. In Greece, communities have hurled yogurts at politicians. In Ukraine, citizens had thrown spaghetti at the Russian consulate. Yet, just as citizens have used food as a tool of resistance, governments have also used it. Food’s role in the sustaining the #EndSARS protests bore additional significance because of how the Nigerian government has weaponized food inequality for decades. Politicians are notoriously known for handing out bags of rice, onions, and other food staples before elections and preying on the poverty of constituents to sway voting. And so protesters sharing food amongst themselves was in a way taking power back. 

The government responded to the protests on October 20 by instituting curfews across the nation claiming it was for residents’ safety. Shortly after the announcement of curfew, reports of looting and chaos erupted. Many theorized that this was a move by the Nigerian government to discredit the peaceful protests. The looting led to people in nine states across Nigeria to discover warehouses filled with COVID palliatives like rice and instant noodles which government representatives had hoarded. The “hoodlums,” as the government is referring to these disgruntled citizens, proceeded to redistribute what they found. Whether machinated by the government or not, the discovery of warehouses of food was just another way the protests had sustained itself via food and continues to grow.  A Lagos state lawmaker, Sanai Agunbiade, who had previously stated he reserved palliatives to share on his birthday, is seen on video at the House’s meeting on October 29 stating, “You will see people who could not afford three square meals now eating comfortable meals on the road. It is a way to mobilize people to the road and keep them on the road.”

Right now, protests around the country have slowed due to the curfews and the Lekki Massacre — which took the lives of as many as 38 citizens and injured hundreds more. And the fight is far from over. Nigerians and allies all over the world are even further committed to seeing change and remained on the streets last week in Turkey, Chicago, Bali, and Switzerland. Odun Eweniyi of Feminist Coalition shares that, “We need the food network to become permanent too. If food inflation continues to rise, soup kitchens will become a necessity.”