After initially existing mainly as a recurring hashtag on social media, #EndSARS—a campaign against police brutality in Nigeria—evolved into mass protests which drew thousands on Nigerians across in several locations across the country this month.
With the protests growing organically and quickly across cities all over the country, the need for funding—to cover food and water for protesters as well as medical supplies and hospital bills when necessary—soon became clear. And calls for funding through donation drives were answered quickly as Nigerians at home and abroad began sending cash through local banks and online payment methods in a bid to fund what had become the largest protests in about a decade.
But a hiccup soon emerged.
Feminist Coalition, a gender equality group that had been founded just weeks earlier and had become one of the key organizations accepting donations for protests, began to notice bank transactions were being slowed down while its online payment links to facilitate donations had stopped working. While the Nigerian government has maintained a lack of involvement, the widespread suspicion was that the disruption of donation accounts and methods was the result of pressure from “high up.”
While the move may have proven to be a death-knell for the donation drive a decade ago, it only proved a temporary setback: Feminist Coalition began accepting donations through bitcoin instead.
The move was in keeping with an overarching theme of the protests which had seen young, internet-savvy Nigerians leverage digital tools to drive and sustain their campaign against establishment institutions, from building online teams to respond to legal issues like arbitrary arrest and unlawful detention of protesters to using social media channels to debunk misinformation spread by government actors and traditional media.
As of Oct. 22, when Feminist Coalition stopped taking donations in light of a government curfew which had effectively ended physical protests in Lagos, its summary of accounts showed that a bitcoin balance that accounted for around 40% of the $387,000 raised in total.
That total is remarkable for a country where digital transactions still come a distant second place to cash in the day-to-day economy, which is still dominated by the informal sector.
Over the past decade, bitcoin has become the world’s most prominent cryptocurrency used both as a medium of exchange and storage of value. While bitcoin’s adoption has happened much faster in Europe and North America, it has also been gaining more traction across Africa as users across on the continent increasingly adopt it to get around the difficulties of international transactions including digital payments.
Given how it was used to keep funding for the protests alive, the protests inadvertently showcased a use-case for bitcoin in a market where it is increasingly being adopted but still remains quite synonymous with fraud. It showed Nigerians bitcoin wasn’t just something used by scammers,” says Ray Youssef, CEO of Paxful, a global peer to peer bitcoin marketplace which counts Nigeria as a leading market. “Now people are starting to see its real utility. It shows people the full spectrum of what bitcoin can do.”
The association with scams in Nigeria stems from when Mavrodi Mundial Moneybox, an infamous Russian Ponzi scheme which saw Nigerians lose around $50 million when it first crashed, attempted a comeback by using bitcoin as a payment method.
And it’s a link that remains despite the growing local use of bitcoin to facilitate cross-border trade and as a medium for remittances, not just in Nigeria but across the continent. In fact, fraudulent cryptocurrency platforms received just over $8 million from users in Africa in June alone, according to research by Chainalysis, a blockchain market intelligence firm.