Representations in Nigeria’s End SARS Protest: A Critical Discourse Study

 This article is published by the Zamfara International Journal of Humanities.

Oamen Felicia (PhD)

Department of Languages, Faculty of Arts

National Open University of Nigeria, Abuja

foamen51@gmail.com 08024552601

Abstract: This study examined the discursive strategies deployed in the representation of the actors in the EndSARS protest movement in Nigeria. The study shows how online posts and feedback comments were used to (de)legitimize the movement through positive/ negative representation of the protesters and other political actors. The paper drew insights from the socio-cognitive approach to Critical Discourse Analysis (CDA) and Computer Mediated Discourse Analysis (CMD) in its investigation of 500 purposively selected posts and comments circulated on Twitter between October and November, 2020. The analysis of the data revealed that labelling, polarization, code mixing/switching and recurrent themes of emotional appeal/ blackmail, criminalisation, justification and blame avoidance/allocation, were employed by actors to project positive/ negative image of selves and others respectively. The paper concluded by noting that the posts and comments on the EndSARS protests demonstrated the role of social media discourse in identity formation in crisis situations in Nigeria. The paper therefore recommended an open door policy to protest activism in the country. This is expected to ultimately enhance free flow of communication, national integration, cohesion and advancement.


KeywordsEndSARS, critical discourse analysis, protest, Nigeria


 Research on media reflects a significant preoccupation with its potential  to inform as  well as influence audience’s perception on issues. One of the areas in which studies have been carried out in this regard is in the role of the media in news coverage of protests in different parts of the world in contemporary times. The social media in particular, perhaps due to its phenomenal potential for daily increase of users (currently put at 3.6 billion globally) (Statista, 2021), and viral news dissemination nature, has become an area that is attracting growing discourse on its use in protest activism. Indeed, since 2010 through 2011, when the social media was employed to mobilise and coordinate the Arab spring protests, (sometimes described as ‘Twitter revolutions’ (Beaumont, 2011)), its use as a platform for the dissemination of activism discourse has continued to expand. Arafat and Armstrong (2016) identified the  spontaneity  of  social  media  in  communicating  self-broadcast ideas, speed that aids its viral spread of information and appeal to the Internet-friendly young generation, among other factors that have increased its use for protest activism. Since Nigeria’s return to democratic system in 1999, the influence of social media has been demonstrated in its use in citizens’ online political engagements during campaigns and protests. Worthy of note in particular, is its use in the EndSARS protests which took place between October and November, 2020. Indeed, the EndSARS movement is reported to have started on Twitter in 2016 as a protest against police brutality in the country. The movement later grew into a protest of global magnitude in 2020 after a video was shared on Twitter allegedly showing some Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS) officials killing a man and running away with his car (Obia, 2020). The Twitter platform was used to do three things during the protest: coordinate the protest, amplify the voice of the campaign globally and construct identities for the protesters and political actors. Indeed, the Twitter space helped to create wide coverage for the movement so much that on October 9, 2020, EndSARS was the top trending hashtag in the world with over two million tweets. This figure implicates Twitter as a significant social media space for information transmission and citizens’ interactions during the protest.


In light of this foregoing discussion, it is expected that the discourse generated on Twitter should provide useful insights on the ways in which actors discursively represent Self and Others during protests in Nigeria. Therefore, the paper critically investigates positive and negative representation of protesters and other political actors in Nigeria’s online discourse produced during the EndSARS protest in its effort to contribute to ways of making opaque ideological use of language in politics more transparent.


Statement of the Study


Within Nigeria’s socio-political milieu, protest has been one of the means through which the citizens have pressed home their demands for change at different times in the history of the country. Varied reasons ranging from poverty, unemployment, marginalization and other forms of deprivation have at one point or the other pushed the Nigerian masses to take up the option of protest as a way of getting the government to address issues bordering on the wellbeing of the citizenry. It is against this backdrop that the paper seeks to investigate the representation of protesters via the online discourse produced during the EndSARS protest in Nigeria.


Research Questions


i.                    The posts and comments produced during the EndSARS protest in Nigeria demonstrate ideological representation of actors?


ii.                 How  do  we  identify  the  discursive  forms  of

#EndSARS protest’s discourse?


iii.               How do we critically discuss the strategic representation of actors in the discourse?


Objectives of the Study


i.                    To determine people’s views on the post and comments produced during the EndSARS protest in Nigeria.


ii.                 To identify the discursive forms of #EndSARS protest’s discourse.


iii.               To critically discuss the strategic representation of actors in the discourse.


Literature Review and Conceptual Clarifications


Protest as Political Discourse: this study views the discourses of protest as political discourse of resistance. Political discourse has been described as the text and talk of professional politicians or political institutions which are usually produced when participating in political actions (van Dijk, 1997). However, as van Dijk further notes, politicians cannot be considered as the only producers of political discourse particularly, when politics and its language are socially contextualised. Thus, when language use in politics is viewed in its social context, it would be seen that the citizens, the masses and the public are also significant participants and thus considered as political actors. Political discourse could be produced when people engage in social actions such as government deliberations, parliamentary debates, party programs, political speech, propaganda, political advertising, media interviews, political talk shows on TV and party programmes. In addition, discourses produced when people engage in political activities such as voting, protesting, dissenting, etc. are also instances of political discourse. These different forms of political actions are discursive practices because the text and talk produced during these activities have functions and implications in politics.


The study views the posts and comments produced during the EndSARS protest in Nigeria as political discourse. In addition, by examining these discourses produced by Nigerian politicians, protesters and other citizens, the study is able to adopt a dual perspective to the critical study of dominance and its resistance in Nigeria’s democratic space. The dual perspective adopted in the study of posts and feedback comments of Nigerian youth protesters, government officials, military, etc., is expected to help to unveil unequal power relations in the representation of the in-group and others in Nigeria’s political space. This is because the main actors in the EndSARS protest were youth protesters who fell largely between the ages of 18 – 35 years and do not belong to the political class or authorities/government. In addition, the study of the representation of the different actors is expected to give comparable results and help us to draw more reliable conclusions from differences and/or resemblances in the representation of protesters and politicians in discourses produced during agitations in the country.


Studies on Nigeria’s Protest Discourse: Nigeria’s socio-political milieu has been characterized by protests and other forms of demonstrations by the Nigerians populace, especially, the youth. Indeed, protest is one of the means through which the citizens have pressed home their demands for change at different times in the history of the country. Varied reasons ranging from poverty, unemployment, marginalisation and other forms of deprivation have at one point or the other pushed the Nigerian masses to take up the option of protest as a way of getting the government to address issues bordering on the wellbeing and survival of the citizens (Hari, 2014). Cases of protests in form of boycotts, strikes, picketing and demonstrations among others feature now and then in the annals of Nigeria’s existence as a country. Ranging from the Aba riots in 1929 in which Eastern Nigerian women arose to resist the colonial government’s taxation regime to the Egba Women’s revolt in 1947, ‘Ali Must Go’ crisis in 1978, the Structural Adjustment Programme (SAP) riots in 1989, June 12 protests in 1993, Occupy Nigeria in 2012, etc., it does appear that the nation has had to grapple with major agitations in each decade of its existence (Adebowale, 2020). These events have generated studies on social actors’ use of language in the production of different perspectives on agitations in Nigeria.


For instance, van Allen as far back as 1975 noted the significance of the British government’s ideological framing of the women’s riots of 1929 which they tagged as ‘Aba Riots’. The author noted that the omission of ‘women’ in the naming of the riots (which incidentally was tagged: Ogu iirrrunijjanyi meaning: ‘Women’s War’ in Igbo language), obliterated the role of Eastern Nigerian women from the political history of the country as far as that event is concerned. Egbunike (2015), studied media framing of #Occupy Nigeria Protests which took place in 2012 in reaction to government’s removal of subsidy on premium motor spirits. His qualitative content analysis of the frames employed by newspapers and social media showed that newspapers framed the motivation, diagnosis and prognosis of the protests better than the social media. The author noted that though the two media validated the protest, the social media promoted the protesters’ deviant behavior.


Chiluwa (2012), studied the use of Biafran Online Campaign Group as a form of Social Media Networks (SMNs) by Igbos in Nigeria and the diaspora, to agitate for self-determination


and political independence. The author employed a sociolinguistic-based approach to Critical Discourse Analysis (CDA) of the discourse structure of the online forums. He also examined the implications of the resistance for the Biafran agitators and the nation at large. He noted that though the resistance by agitators was mainly coordinated online, yet the deliberate and consistent negative representation of Nigeria’s roles in the civil war and the foregrounding of the theme of victimization were strong discursive strategies employed by the group which could eventually culminate in offline protests.


Similar to Chiluwa’s critical approach to the study of the discourse of resistance, this study also adopts the CDA perspective to the investigation of discourse representation of actors in the EndSARS protest. The point of divergence however is that while Chiluwa focused on Biafran’s agitators’ discursive expressions of resistance, this paper adopts a dual perspective to the investigation of representation of actors in the EndSARS protests. Thus, the study analyses the ways in which the protesters as well as Nigerian politicians are represented in the posts and feedback comments circulated on Twitter during the protest. This is intended to help elucidate the ways citizens are ideologically represented in unequal power relations within Nigeria’s political domain.


CDA and Discourse Representations: Berger and Luckman (1996) in their classical work on The Social Construction of Reality argued that social actions and social practices create and sustain all social phenomenon. They also attested to the potential of language to create, change and sustain social realities. The critical approach to the study of language adopts the social constructionist perspective to the role of language in society. Thus, proponents take a stance against the taken-for-granted assumptions on the functions of language in society which is often demonstrated in non-critical studies of language (Fairclough, 2003). Researchers who adopt CDA methods posit that language in society is not neutral or transparent but embedded in society and culture (Fairclough and Wodak, 1997). Indeed, critical analysts note that discourse does not merely reflect or represent social entities and relations but construct them in different ways. Therefore, CDA researchers study text and talk beyond mere description of the structures and closely examine the strategies which social actors adopt in text production to encode ideology and power relations.


CDA views the social and political relevance of text from the perspective that it is social practice. Thus, proponents are interested in the investigation of the ways in which power relations and ideologies are expressed through language, particularly in the areas of identity construction, dominance, discrimination and manipulation. This study adopts the CDA perspective to the study of the discourse on EndSARS protest which was produced and circulated on Twitter in 2020. The paper investigates the discursive strategies adopted in the representation of the EndSARS protest and the actors. This is done with the aim of making clear the underlying ideologies embedded in the texts through a systematic connection of the structures of the post and feedback comments and the structures of the ideologies prevalent within Nigeria’s socio-political context.


Twitter as Computer Mediated Communication (CMC) Advanced technology has brought with it new means of communication. An area in which advances in technology have influenced public discourse is in the use of Computer Mediated Communication (CMC). Systems such as email based discussions, computer conferencing, bulletin boards and interactions on different forms of Social Networking Sites (SNEs) have now emerged and are being exploited by online users for different communicative purposes (Romiszowski & Mason, 1996). No doubt, these systems have made message transmission seamless and faster. The synchronous and asynchronous nature of CMC also ensures that web-based conversations can be accessed real-time or at any time after they have been produced. The synchronous and asynchronous characteristic of CMC has also influenced traditional media which now exploits the web for news transmission and thus has gradually shifted from being a one-way communication mode to an interactive one (Oyero, 2007). However, CMC imposes its own unique constraints on language users due to the lack of contextual cues available in face-to-face mode of communication, and the efforts required in communicating via keyboarding rather than speech (Park, 2008). Nonetheless, there is no doubt that the sustained developments in CMC have provided more opportunities for people to participate in public discourse.


Herring (2001) has however noted that although CMC is sometimes perceived as a purely neutral medium for the transfer of data and information, the genre actually demonstrates the idea that it is socially conditioned based on the discourse topic and activity type. Thus, although activities on social media platforms such as Twitter and Facebook center mainly on social interactions and information dissemination, it has been observed that the discourse produced for political engagements on these platforms could manifest structuring and strategies that are not neutral but ideological and intimately linked with the beliefs of the producers (Jorgensen and Phillips, 2002). Perhaps, for this reason, the Nigerian government has indicated that the social media could pose some threats to the national cohesion of the country, particularly because of its unregulated nature (Nnanyelugo and Nwafor, 2013; Oyenuga, 2015). Twitter media discourse for instance, manifest features of online communication with threads that are usually presented in their unedited form.


In spite of these challenges of CMC, the fact remains that it has become a pervasive mode of communication. In addition, the number of users of different forms of CMC globally are on the increase. For instance, the number of monthly active users of Twitter has been put at 330 million (Statista Research Department, 2021). Although, there have been debates over the actual number of active users of Twitter in Nigeria, the figure has been put at not less than three million (Ayodele, 2021). Therefore, the discourse produced on Twitter for instance is expected to aid in the examination of ideological representation of social actors in protest discourse in Nigeria.


Scholars (Olabode, 2018; Oamen; 2015 to mention two) have observed that the ‘new social media’ have given citizens access to information and increased their socio-political autonomy to be involved in governance as individuals. Thus, these platforms have become spaces where citizens interact with political actors during campaigns and agitations. It could then be argued that social media platforms are viable platforms where perceptions on national issues could be produced and also investigated.

This paper critically studies the posts and feedback comments circulated on Twitter during the EndSARS protest in order to examine the representation of the events and actors. Indeed, the discourse circulated on Twitter during the protest is considered useful for a critical investigation of citizens’ explicit and implicit representation of self and others (Taiwo, 2015). In other words, it is expected that the discourse of EndSARS protest will help to understand the ways in which Nigerian citizens are ideologically represented in the media.




This paper as earlier stated is interested in the study of representation in Nigeria’s online protest discourse. Specifically, it studies the representation of actors in the EndSARS protest. A total of 500 posts and feedback comments posted on Twitter between October and November, 2020 (which is considered the peak period of the protest) were purposively selected for the study. The purposive sampling strategy adopted for data collection helped to select data which reflected the ways in which the protesters and other political actors were tactically represented during the crisis. Thus, samples were delimited to only those which constructed identities for protesters and other political actors. The analysis of data was carried out using van Dijk’s (2000) socio-cognitive approach to critical analysis of texts and insights from Herring (2001) on Computer Mediated Discourse (CMD). The procedure for analysis included description, interpretation and explanation of the discursive components of the samples. The data were labelled PD which means Protest Discourse. Subsets of extract were represented by figures 1, 2, 3.


Data Presentation, Analysis and Discussion


Analysis of data display what could be described as systems of beliefs and cognition that influence citizens’ construction of self and others during protest (van Dijk, 2000). The analysis involves the identification of linguistic choices and discourse features that represent the in-group and out group positively and negatively during the EndSARS protest. Elements of discursive features which are characteristic of ideological discourse of production and resistance of unequal power relations are identified and analysed against Nigeria’s socio-political context. Due to space constraints, only a few relevant extracts from the selected articles are analysed as follows.




This discourse form demonstrates van Dijk’s (2000) observation of the use of what he describes as the ‘ideological square’ of political discourse in which case actors tend to emphasize positive aspects of ‘US’ and de-emphasize negative things about “US’. Thus, labeling is used in PD1 and PD2 to strategically construct the negative aspects of Others in order to gain political advantage (Molek-Kozakowska, 2010). In PD1 for example, a commenter used adjectives such as ‘terrorists’, ‘wicked’ to describe Nigeria’s Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS) officials. The choice of these adjectives is best appreciated against the background of Nigeria’s contemporary socio-cultural environment which currently faces the challenge of terrorism particularly since 2009 when Boko Haram insurgents began to attack military base, the police and citizens at large. Thus, the word choice agrees with Ike-Nwafor, (2015) that political actors usually exploit citizens’ mental models to control their perception of the political actions which in our case is protest, in order to gain people’s to support.


Conversely, in the PD2 and PD3 extracts, the political actors (a member of the Nigerian Army and one of President Muhammadu Buhari’s aides) polarized the citizens and at the same time criminalised the protesters. This was achieved with the use of the positive adjective: ‘law abiding’ and negative adjectives: ‘subversive elements’, ‘trouble makers’, ‘DumbKids’, ‘angry’ and the noun: ‘childishness’. Indeed, the adjectives used in PD2 could be classified as face threatening while those used in PD3 could be categorized as invectives. In sum, it could be argued that PD2 and PD3 were tactically deployed to criminalise the protesters. In addition, in PD1 a commenter used the material process ‘killed’ to tactically construct protesters as victims of police brutality and criminalise the action of the SARS. However, the government official in PD4, euphemistically described the alleged illegal killings of innocent citizens by some members of SARS as executed by ‘bad eggs’ in the police force. In addition, she tried to mitigate the force of the event by projecting the positive face of Nigeria’s police officers with the use of adjectives such as: ‘good’ and ‘great’.





‘Well done Nigerians, every single person who risked their lives to fight this wicked #sarsMy deepest sympathy to the family of those killed fighting these terrorists called #sars #passthemic cause our voices have become louder than ever”.


7:44 PM · Oct 11, 2020



HQ Nigerian Army

October 15 at 5:29 AM


The Nigerian Army (NA) wishes to reassure law abiding citizens that it is highly committed to the sustenance of peace, security and defence of democracy in Nigeria…. The NA hereby


warns all subversive elements and trouble makers to desist from such acts as it remains highly committed to defend the country and her democracy at all cost.





There’s a great difference between #EndPoliceBrutality and End SARS. One is by Nigerians, the other is by 1.#DumbKids


2.  Those who have no clear understanding of what the root issues are and


3. Those who are still angry that the NLC called off their strike. We must separate the endSARS childishness from #EndPoliceBrutality Campaign. October 13, 2020





We must continue to work to rid our police of bad eggs. Thats how to build trust between citizens & @PoliceNG Thankfully, there are more good police officers doing a great job in our communities We must celebrate them too to encourage them & to serve as role models for others.




PD5 and PD6 demonstrate the use of pronouns in ways which polarized political actors into ‘We’ group and ‘They’ group and linguistically helped to realise a positive self- and negative other-representation (Reyes, 2011). Through shared memory, it is possible to understand that the actors referred to as ‘they’ in PD5 are the police who are government agents. The material process, ‘killed’ and noun, ‘student’ are also deployed to demonise the government, trigger public emotion/ support and legitimise the sustained protest action. On the other hand, in PD6, pronominal ‘those’ and ‘our’ are deployed by President Muhammadu Buhari, to polarise the protesters and construct the idea of a criminal group on one hand and a harmless and innocent group on the other hand. In his discourse, Buhari therefore linguistically constructs the idea of ‘an enemy’ within in order to delegitmise the EndSARS protest and represent the protesters as deviants and a threat to the collective wellbeing of Nigerian citizens. In addition, he used the first person pronoun ‘I’ in a crisis situation discourse to draw attention to his power as the president of Nigeria. An incumbent sometimes uses the pronoun ‘I’ when discussing her/his capabilities (Beard, 2000). It is important that the pronoun ‘I’ is therefore followed by a face threatening discourse enacted through the use of the material process: ‘warn’.


On the other hand, the use of kinship terms: ‘brothers’ and ‘sisters’ in PD5 reflects the influence of traditional Nigerian cultural society’s worldview on meaning in English language. The commenter deployed these pronouns, whose referents are not members of her immediate family, to reduce social distance and achieve a sense of inclusivity with other protesters. An attempt to enact inclusive discourse is also reflected in PD5 where the commenter exploited the conversational nature of CMD and thus, code mixed English and Nigerian Pidgin English (NPE) to create a sense of identity and unity of purpose with other young protesters: ‘dey can't kill all of us’






Fuck this country! They just killed a student. Can't wait to get back to Lagos and join my brothers and sisters on the road! This #SARS must end. dey can't kill all of us.


12:50 PM · Oct 10, 2020




@Laurestar 22 OCT




I must warn those who have hijacked and misdirected the initial, genuine and well - intended protest of some of our youths in parts of the country, against the excesses of some members of the now disbanded Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS).

Blame Avoidance


PD7 and PD8 demonstrate the ways political actors deployed discursive strategy of blame avoidance to reject responsibility (Hansson, 2015) for the prolonged nature of the protest on the one hand and its chaotic outcome and the harm wrecked on citizens in different parts of the country on the other hand. This was mainly enacted through argumentation and legitimisation strategies. In PD7, the commenter alluded to the reason for the protracted nature of the protest in the clause: ‘We don’t believe you are listening’. The shared social context aids in the identification of the referent ‘you’ as the Federal government. The commenter’s stance was meant to indirectly legitimise the protesters’ refusal to stop the action. In PD8, President Buhari demonises the protesters and invariably legitimises government’s use of force to contain the protest. This was done by attacking the character of the protesters via the strategy of argumentum ad hominem. He foregrounded the destructive nature of the protest through the following claims: ‘human lives have been lost’, ‘sexual violence has been reported’, ‘convicts freed’, etc. It should be noted, that the discourse form of his speech contains more of passivised clauses and thus invariably obscures agency in his claims.



Dj Switch Retweeted

Genevieve Nnaji MFR



We don’t believe you are listening when nobody has been dismissed, arrested and charged for the murder of innocent protesters and citizens. Accountability is the first step to change. #EndSars #EndSWAT”.


1:59 PM · Oct 14, 2020


@Laurestar 22 OCT



 “Sadly, the promptness with which we have acted seemed to have been misconstrued as a sign of weakness and twisted by some for their selfish unpatriotic interests. The result of this is clear to all observers: human lives have been lost; acts of sexual violence have been reported; two major correctional facilities were attacked and convicts freedpublic and private properties completely destroyed or vandalised; the sanctity of the Palace of a Peace Maker, the Oba of Lagos has been violated. So-called protesters have invaded an International Airport and in the process disrupted the travel plans of fellow Nigerians and our visitors”.


Emotional Appeal/ Blackmail


In mobilising the protesters, some of the commenters (PD9PD10 and PD11) attempted to appeal to the emotions of citizens, particularly their pride/ self-esteem through the use of argumentum ad passiones. This was enacted through the use of code mixing which is one of the affordances of CMD: ‘una too much’ (Nigerian Pidgin English meaning: You are great), them still dey o’ and family discourse: ‘I'm proud to call u my brothers & sisters’, ‘our youths’. In this way, the writers appealed to the protesters’ positive face in order to motivate them to continue to participate in the protest. On the other hand, in PD12, President Buhari attempted to invoke public wariness and mistrust of the intentions of the protesters through the use of emotive discourse strategy. Thus, he polarized the group by suggesting that ‘our youth’ were being controlled or manipulated by a fifth column whose plan was to: ‘cause chaos with the aim of truncating our nascent democracy’.




Tomorrow we move! Grateful for a safe trip and life to be able to add my voice. To all my brothers & sisters I met today Una too much and to those in other places & states, I'm proud to call u my brothers & sisters. #nigeriayouths #SarsMustGoNow



Dj Switch



Back in Lagos! I need to know if our youths are still protesting at the lekki toll so I join. Someone pls give me info on this Now! #SARSMUSTENDNOW #SarsMustend #sarsmustgo


12:52 PM · Oct 12, 2020



Ayor Jmine @ayor_jmine . Oct 12

Replying to @dj_switchaholic

Them still dey o



@Laurestar 22 OCT




I therefore call on our youths to discontinue the street protests and constructively engage government in finding solutions. Your voice has been heard loud and clear and we are responding. Resist the temptation of being used by some subversive elements to cause chaos with the aim of truncating our nascent democracy.



In this paper, a critical discourse analysis of representations was carried out with specific focus on the #EndSARS protest. Extracts from purposively selected Twitter posts and feedback comments circulated between October and November, 2020 were analysed using the CDA approach. The findings revealed that political actors demonstrated the strategic use of linguistic choices in form of labeling, polarisation and recurrent themes of blame avoidance and emotional appeal/ blackmail as means to represent the in-group positively and others negatively. Generally, the strategies of blame allocation/ avoidance/blame allocation deployed in the Twitter discourse showed that the government and protesters as political actors maintained uncompromising stance on the agitation.




Considering the fact that the Nigerian society is faced with economic and security challenges, it is recommended that the government adopts an alternative discourse to protest activism. The representation of protesters as ‘They’ whose action is inimical to ‘Us’ could be interpreted as repressive and likely to fuel more discontentment among the citizenry. In addition, there is a need for intensified online and offline government civic engagement with the citizens to forestall future agitations and enhance the nation’s goal of achieving national cohesion and integration by 2030.




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