Nigeria shooting fans long-simmering anger at the state
Witness describes carnage in Lagos as the authorities issue denials of responsibility
Daniel Walter, 25, was among the protesters gathered in the Lekki suburb of Lagos, Nigeria’s economic and financial capital, when armed and uniformed men pulled up at the site on Tuesday evening. What happened next has drawn international condemnation and focused the world’s attention on the violent suppression of anti-government protests sparked by police impunity that have swept the country since early this month.
Mr Walter, a businessman, said it was about 7pm, two hours after the start of a curfew declared by the Lagos governor, when the street lights suddenly went off around the Lekki toll gate, a regular site for the anti-police demonstrations. But he had no premonition of danger.
“The governor had already promised us safety and people were very confident that the military wasn’t going to shoot at us. So, when we saw their trucks arriving, everybody sat on the ground waving the Nigerian flag and singing the national anthem,” he told The National.
The protesters had barely finished the last line of the anthem – “to build a nation where peace and justice shall reign’ – when the men began advancing. “They arrived and started shooting into the sky. When they saw that we didn’t run, they began to shoot directly at us,” Mr Walter said.
“I saw people dropping dead on the ground and others with gunshot injuries ... it was such a horrific sight that it made me shed tears.”
The military has denied responsibility for the shooting, the worst of numerous attacks since protests began early this month against the Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS), a unit of the Nigerian police that has been accused of extrajudicial killings and brutalising citizens. At least 56 people across the country have died.
Nigeria's army has said reports that soldiers opened fire on demonstrators were "fake news", while Police Minister Muhammad Maigari Dingyadi has said it was “definitely not the police”.
Nigerians staged protests at embassies and consulates around the world in response to the shooting, while countries, multinational bodies and celebrities have condemned the incident.
President Muhammadu Buhari had not yet directly commented on the shooting as of Thursday.
Mr Buhari and the country’s police chief, Mohammed Abubakar Adamobsmu, vowed to crack down on the SARS after the protests began, and the unit was disbanded on October 11.
“The disbanding of SARS is only the first step in our commitment to extensive police reforms,” President Buhari announced in a televised statement. “We will also ensure that all those responsible for misconduct are brought to justice.”
However, the police within days established a new anti-robbery unit, the Special Weapons and Tactics (SWAT) squad, which sounded to many Nigerians like a simple rebranding. The protesters now say the abolition of SARS is not enough, and are calling for more far-reaching reforms and action to address police brutality, especially after the attacks on demonstrators.
The demonstrations were sparked by a recent surge of social media videos allegedly showing extrajudicial killings, extortion, unlawful arrests and detention by members of SARS, a unit was set up in late 1992 to curb cases of armed robbery, kidnapping and other armed crime. The hashtag #EndSARS began trending on Twitter, with users sharing stories of police abuse and calling for a dismissal of the unit and wide-scale reform of the entire police force. Amnesty International says it documented more than 82 cases of abuse and extrajudicial killings by SARS officers from January 2017 to May this year.
Groups of hoodlums are widely suspected of being paid by powerful interests in Nigeria to attack peaceful #EndSARS protests and try to discredit the movement.
Lagos Governor Babajide Sanwo-Olu blamed the attack in Lekki on "forces beyond our direct control” and ordered the formation of a fact-finding committee to be headed by a retired military officer.
Amnesty International said it had credible evidence that at least 12 people were killed and hundreds severely injured. "These shootings clearly amount to extrajudicial executions,” Osai Ojigho, Amnesty’s Nigeria director, said in a statement on Wednesday night. Closed-circuit television cameras at the toll gate were dismantled to cover up the killings, the rights group said.
A live social media broadcast by DJ Switch, a Lagos disc jockey who was at the scene, showed protesters using makeshift implements to remove bullets from their colleagues. Images posted on social media showed dead bodies and people fleeing as the forces shot live rounds towards the crowd.
One video showed an ambulance driving towards the scene but unable to advance further. The driver and two medical staff in the ambulance could be heard saying that the military refused to let them through. In other videos, protesters carrying bloodied Nigerian flags were seen running for help.
Mobs of youths started fires and vandalised public and private property across Lagos in response to the shooting. The crisis, however continued on Thursday, as people continued to burn down structures, targeting government properties. An attack was also launched on facilities at the Nigeria Correction Service in Ikoyi, Lagos where inmates are serving their jail term.
Ayo Sogunro, a human rights lawyer, said the protests had triggered a new culture of asserting rights in Nigeria. “When people lose trust in the capacity of the government, including policymaking, and they have a very high degree of consciousness on those issues, the combination will always result in protests to get the government to act on their demands.”
Kabiru Adamu, a defence and security analyst, said he saw the crisis coming from the first day of the protests because of the level of frustration and bottled-up anger, and government policies that do not resonate with the people.
“A lot of Nigerians who have experienced police brutality wanted to express their anger during the movement”, especially with coronavirus lockdowns, and increases in electricity tariff and fuel, Mr Adamu told The National.
A secessionist movement in the south-east and anger in the northern region, “could capitalise on any protest to express themselves”, he said.
Nigerians see all the tactical units of the police force as members of SARS, so many of those who had experienced “police brutality, high-handedness and extrajudicial killing saw the protests as a genuine avenue to air their grievances”.
Updated: October 22, 2020 10:11 PM