How crypto is empowering social justice

Schooled by Breach is a weekly newsletter where Breach writer, Adetomiwa talks to people with experience about pressing crypto questions, learns a lesson and shares the findings with you. Crypto can be easy, so let’s figure it out together. Out every Friday!

This edition is one of a five-part series on Schooled by Breach where we will explore how people in various countries are using or have used crypto in their quest for civil liberation. This week’s episode covers Nigeria, Bitcoin, and the #EndSARS movement.

When I first heard that two of the blockchain and crypto’s selling points are autonomy and anonymity, I wondered why anyone would care so much about being anon if they weren’t trying to be sketchy.

I get the value of having complete control over your assets, but it was still difficult for me to understand how or why crypto was different from traditional banks. Also, I was wary of the ambitious phrases used to describe crypto: What was it that made it the “future of finance“? How exactly is crypto “revolutionising financial freedom”?

My questions were answered in 2020.

In what I like to call an almost global civil rights movement, 2020 was the year people in various parts of the world took to the streets to demand social change.

A lot of these protests questioned what they believed to be social injustice and many of them shared similarities:

  • protester suppression
  • and supporters using crypto to fund their respective movements.

I’ve been doing a bit of reading about how people in oppressive situations have used crypto as a way out and how I might if I ever need to.

There are a few countries on my list, but I’ll be starting with Nigeria.

What happened?

The bug swept through Nigeria in September 2020, when people from around the country took to the streets to protest against police brutality. Many Nigerians, myself included, had experienced police extortion and brutality to some degree. In the words of House Of Representatives Speaker, Femi Gbagabiamila, “people are more afraid of encounters with the police than they are of criminals.”

The protests started online around 2016 when Nigerians started documenting and protesting police brutality under the hashtag #EndSARS. There had been a few physical protests in various cities — Osun in 2018, Lagos, Ibadan and Abuja in 2019 — but September 2020 was the first nationwide demonstration against police brutality.

The nationwide #EndSARS protests were financed by funding from donors both in and outside Nigeria, some of which were used to provide medical and legal aid for victims who were injured in what Amnesty International refers to as chaos instigated by “pro-government” attackers.

Amnesty International alleged that these attacks on peaceful protesters were “providing cover for the police to use lethal force against peaceful protesters”. The organization also found that detained protesters were tortured and refused or denied immediate access to lawyers.

Less than a week after donation channels opened (and organisations had raised a combined total of over $9000), one of the frontline organisations — Feminist Coalition — reported that their bank accounts had been deactivated and their donation links blocked.

“For demanding an end to police brutality, we are now under attack! Our bank account has been deactivated and so has the Flutterwave donation link. Our members’ lives are also being threatened! #SARSMustEnd” they wrote via their official Twitter account.

Crazy, how did crypto help?

Days after their accounts were blocked, the Feminist Coalition (FemCo) announced that they had acquired crypto accounts to keep accepting donations.

They started with SendCash, a service that makes it easy to convert Bitcoin to Naira and vice versa, but moved to BTCPay shortly after. Their reason, according to their Twitter account, was that a self-hosted cryptocurrency payment processor would be their “safest option, given the past few days.” (Past few days being their blocked accounts and threat to their lives).

Unlike Sendcash which could be traced to anyone, BTCPay offers complete anonymity. As such, the chances of blockage or user identification are close to none.

Alex Gladstein, the Chief Strategy Officer of the Human Rights Foundation, explained that platforms like BTCPay “protect the privacy of donors and prevent the government from easily figuring out what service the protestors are using to cash out their bitcoin into Naira”.

The self-hosted platform meant that all they needed to do was share a Bitcoin wallet link and donations could be discreetly moved from crypto wallet to bank accounts via peer-to-peer and other discrete transfer strategies. Essentially, BTCPay allowed FemCo to collect, withdraw and distribute protest donations with complete anonymity and autonomy.

With support from Nigeria-based crypto exchanges — who shared steps on how to open accounts on their platforms and donate Bitcoin to FemCo — their donation flow was restored.

Bitcoin and the ability to send crypto didn’t alleviate the problem (Nigerians are still reporting cases of police extortion and violence), but it did demonstrate the controlled nature of traditional financial systems and the role crypto plays in dismantling them.

It’s still early days for crypto and blockchain technology adoption, but the signs seem promising. As the kids say, “it’s just day one.”

The next time someone tells you that they don’t understand the value of crypto, share this article with them. It’ll save you plenty of time and explanation, and you also get cool points for educating them too.

Next week’s episode will discuss how Afghan women are using Bitcoin as a tool of civil disobedience against the Taliban’s coup. Stay tuned!



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