People, crypto, and the fight for civil liberation

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!

Three weeks ago, Adetomiwa, kicked off a limited series exploring countries where crypto is playing or has played a role in civil liberation. If we go down memory lane, we’ll discover that — more often than not — during quests like this, citizens take on elements of their government head-on. This means that they need all the help they can get.

These days, crypto is tilting the odds in the people’s favour.

The plan was to send the fourth instalment of this series to you today, but we hit a snag. You see, Adetomiwa is out sick this week. We thought about it and decided to switch things up a bit. Maybe this is the perfect time to take a break and recap the first three episodes instead.

Why should you continue beyond this point? Well, if you missed the previous newsletters, this is your chance to catch up in less than five minutes. And if you’ve been following the series, you could use a quick refresher.

Let’s dig in.

First, there was Nigeria.

When I think about 2020, three things I navigated come to mind: the global COVID-19 pandemic, a temporary pay cut and moving back in with my parents for a few months (whew).

It was definitely a tough year for most of us.

But that’s not all: 2020 was also the year people from various parts of the world trooped out to the streets to hold their governments accountable. Adetomiwa described this wave of protests as “an almost global civil rights movement”, and I agree. You couldn’t miss the demonstrations over extradition laws, inequality, and corruption in Hong Kong, Chile and Lebanon respectively. And protests were also fueled by a spate of police brutality in countries like the United States and Nigeria.

What happened in Nigeria?

Nigerians have a fraught relationship with the police, especially the Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS). For many years, the unit has been accused of extortion and human rights crimes perpetrated against the country’s youth. By and large, their excesses have been unchecked.

Things reached a tipping point in October 2020 when the nationwide protests against the rogue police unit broke out. This wasn’t the first time Nigerians asked the government to do something, but this was the first time the protests happened concurrently across the country.

There was one thing though. As the protests went on, it became clear that arrangements had to be made to provide medical and legal aid for protesters who were either injured or arrested by the police.

To cover these pressing needs, funding channels opened and donations flowed from inside and outside the country. About a week later, the Feminist Coalition (FemCo) — one of the organisations at the forefront of providing aid — announced that their banks account had been frozen by the Nigerian government.

This was effectively going to cripple the protests. But that didn’t happen because there was an alternative in crypto.

After losing access to their bank accounts, FemCo got crypto accounts to keep the donation lines open. Thanks to crypto, their transactions were largely anonymous and the Nigerian government couldn’t touch them.

You can read more here.

Then, there was Afghanistan.

In August of 2021, Afghanis woke to a life they had been dreading: the collapse of their government by the Taliban group. If there was any uncertainty about the severity of the issue, the U.S. evacuating their citizens and the Afghani president fleeing the country cleared all doubts.

Since that time, the Afghanis have had to adjust to a country run by the Taliban and are now navigating two issues: a collapsing economy and suppression of movement.

However, crypto is helping these people figure out how to move money around and stay connected to the global economy in some ways.

A case in point is Roya Mahboob who owns a non-profit called Digital Citizen Fund. When she started the NGO more than ten years ago, she paid her employees in cash because they were either “not allowed to own a bank account” or they didn’t have the proper documents to open one.

But she quickly realised that the model was unsustainable. Luckily, she found out about Bitcoin and explored it. Over time, she taught her employees and contributors how to use it, and started paying them in crypto. The rest, as they say, is history.

Fast forward to 2021, and this decision has proven very useful. Some of her workers who managed to leave the country relied on the Stablecoins — cryptocurrencies backed by a reserve asset like the U.S. dollars — they had saved to navigate their new lives.

That said, crypto has also been helping other Afghanis who are still in the country adjust to the new reality. Many of them who have business dealings with people outside the country have resorted to collecting payments in crypto. When they get paid in cryptocurrency, they convert it to cash using local exchange services. In addition, people who receive donations from foreign donors use digital currencies to make the process more seamless.

Afghanis still have a lot to navigate about living in a Taliban-run country, but one could argue that crypto has given a lot of them one less thing to worry about — making payments and moving money around.

Read Adetomiwa’s wonderful coverage here.

What’s happening in Myanmar?

A wise person once said that democracy is the bedrock of civilization. The people of Myanmar, a Southeast Asian country, probably thought so too until the military ousted the democratically elected government in February 2021.

The wild part? This was almost immediately after an election.

The military’s reason for doing this was that the elections were allegedly marred by electoral malpractices. Additionally, they convicted the president and sentenced her to prison on multiple charges.

Chaotic, right?

Anti-military armed groups and civilians stood up and took to the streets to challenge the unconstitutional change in government. The protests started out peacefully before they gradually descended into chaos — no thanks to the military. Reports state that in retaliation, agents of the military have bombed people’s homes and burned citizens alive.

However, the voice of the Myanmar people would not be silenced, and the protests raged on for months.

Movements like this require the free flow of money, so how have the Myanmar people managed to keep the channels open?

Well, an anti-coup group mainly consisting of the ousted democratically elected group of leaders announced Tether as an alternative currency in December 2021.

For context, the military controls the Central Bank of Myanmar. But guess what? Stablecoins like Tether are out of government control.

Now, the anti-coup group has adopted Tether to make it easier to access donations and fund their fight to return the country to a democratic government. Beyond that, they’re also hoping that using Stablecoins in their everyday life will give them more control over their finances without necessarily relying on the rogue government.

As the people of Myanmar continue to fight for a return to democracy, they’ve found a useful tool in crypto.

Read more about their fight for freedom here.

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