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Nigeria: protests continue despite curfew and president's plea

Emmanuel Akinwotu in Lagos and Jason Burke
·5-min read
<span>Photograph: Sunday Alamba/AP</span>
Photograph: Sunday Alamba/AP

Protests against police brutality have continued in many Nigerian cities despite a call for calm from the president and curfews enforced by armed security forces.

In a statement, Muhammadu Buhari called on Nigerians to be patient as police reforms “gather pace” but failed to mention the attack by Nigerian security forces on hundreds of people gathered at a key protest site on Tuesday night.

The shooting may have killed at least seven, with dozens more injured. The speaker of Nigeria’s House of Representatives on Wednesday said there had been “a number of casualties as a result of gunfire”.

The centre of Lagos, a sprawling city that is home to 20 million people, was deserted and shops were closed on Wednesday, but smoke could be seen billowing from several areas and sporadic shooting heard.

A Nigerian TV station linked to one of the ruling party’s top politicians was an “inferno” after its director said it was attacked by unidentified men armed with molotov cocktails.

In another district a bus station was alight and there were sporadic clashes between bottle-throwing youths and police, who occasionally shot into the air.

Protesters in some neighbourhoods were seen constructing barricades, while police set up roadblocks, witnesses said.

Demonstrations and gunfire were also reported in several other Nigerian cities, including the capital Abuja.

The attack on the protesters has attracted widespread international condemnation.

The United Nations said it decried “the violent escalation on 20 October in Lagos which resulted in multiple deaths and caused many injuries”.

The UN secretary general, António Guterres, called for an “end to reported police brutality and abuses” and called on the authorities “to investigate these incidents and hold the perpetrators accountable”, a spokesman said.

There were demonstrations in solidarity with the protest movement in London, where a large crowd gathered outside the Nigerian embassy, and in other capitals around the world.

Babajide Sanwo-Olu, the governor of Lagos, said there had been no confirmed deaths caused by the shooting, but described the incident as among the “darkest hours from our history as a people”. The Nigerian army has said all reports of their involvement are “fake news” but offered little further information, beyond saying that no soldiers were at the scene.

However, Amnesty International said there was “credible but disturbing evidence” that security forces had fatally shot protesters.

Graphic scenes posted on social media showed protesters fleeing the camp at the Lekki tollgate as security forces, including soldiers, shot live rounds towards the crowds. Others were seen struggling to treat the injured, or pleading with security officials to allow medics to treat victims.

Ambulances were reported to have been turned back by soldiers, while witnesses said the gate’s lights were turned off before the shooting began.

Shortly before the shooting, observers described the atmosphere at the tollgate as “festive”. Thousands of protesters had set up tents, chanting and waving Nigerian flags under vast billboards and screens.

Henry Kufre, a television producer, said people were singing the national anthem before the site was plunged into darkness and the shooting began.

He said some people chose to kneel and wave flags while others ran. “I had to run for my life,” he said.

Emmanuel Edet, 28, said soldiers first shot in the air, then told protesters to sit down.

“That’s when we started to shout, sing … that’s when they started shooting at us. People started falling around us. People around me were just dropping,” Edet said.

“Now they are … saying they were not the ones [responsible for the shooting]. How does that make sense? It was soldiers. Do they think we don’t know what the army look like?”

An Amnesty spokesman, Isa Sanusi, corroborated the claims. “Several people were killed by security forces. We are working on verifying how many,” he said.

Protests against the notorious special anti-robbery squad (Sars) police unit began to gather momentum two weeks ago.

The federal Sars unit has long been accused of extra-judicial killings, torture and extortion, but is also a focus of broader grievances over inequality, corruption and poor services in Nigeria.

Nigeria is Africa’s biggest economy but development has been very uneven. About 60% of the population of 200 million are under 24, and many young people feel shut out of a political system that largely serves the interests of a narrow section of society.

In an effort to quell unrest, the government last week announced the unit would be disbanded, and promised a host of reforms. But many demonstrators are sceptical of government promises without clearly specified timeframes.

All over the continent, established rulers are facing challenges from a youthful, urban and educated population that is increasingly frustrated by misgovernment, authoritarianism and poor prospects for reform.

Youth icons such as 27-year-old David Adedeji Adeleke, known as Davido, have spoken out in support of the protest movement.

Authorities had signalled a tough line earlier in the week, with Sanwo-Olu saying that demonstrations had “degenerated into a monster threatening the wellbeing of our society”.

Rights groups and protesters have accused “thugs and sponsored hoodlums” of attacking the peaceful demonstrations and seeking to discredit the movement.

In recent days, people wielding machetes, knives and clubs have attacked protesters, leaving many injured, according to Amnesty International.

At least 15 people have died since protests began two weeks ago, Amnesty said, condemning widespread violence by police forces against peaceful demonstrations. Other estimates put the total between 18 and 35.