World rebukes open-fire response to protesters in Nigeria

A shooting at the Lekki toll plaza in Lagos, following weeks of #EndSARS protests against police brutality and government corruption, has drawn international condemnation and put a spotlight on protesters' demands.

Sunday Alamba/AP
A protester, who says his brother died from a stray bullet from the Nigerian Army, joins others in Lagos, Nigeria, Oct. 20, 2020. The government has said it will disband the police's Special Anti-Robbery Squad, but protestors are calling for more change.

Nigerians protesting against police brutality stayed on the streets in Lagos on Wednesday, breaking the government curfew following a night of chaotic violence in which demonstrators were fired upon, sparking global outrage.

The nationwide #EndSARS protests against police brutality have rocked Nigeria for more than two weeks. They started after a video circulated of a man being beaten, apparently by officers of the police's Special Anti-Robbery Squad, known as SARS.

In response to the protests, the government announced it would disband the SARS unit, which Amnesty International says has been responsible for many cases of torture and killings.

The demonstrators’ demands have widened to include calls for accountable government, respect for human rights, and an end to corruption in Africa’s most populous nation of 196 million. Despite massive oil wealth and one of Africa’s largest economies, Nigeria’s people have high levels of poverty and lack of basic services, as a result of rampant corruption, charge rights groups. Nigerians have flooded Twitter in recent weeks with accounts of the everyday indignities and outright abuse they face, from being regularly shaken down by police for bribes to beatings and even killings.

Shots were fired Wednesday as young demonstrators set up barricades by the Lekki toll plaza in Lagos, where protesters had been fired upon Tuesday night, causing numerous injuries although officials said there were no deaths.

The Lekki shootings come after two chaotic weeks of social unrest. On Tuesday, authorities said nearly 2,000 inmates had broken out of jail after crowds attacked two correctional facilities a day earlier.

The Inspector-General of Police said it was deploying anti-riot police across Nigeria and ordered forces to strengthen security around correctional facilities.

A curfew in Lagos began Tuesday afternoon and most businesses and shops are closed across the city, but the demonstrators were erecting barricades in the streets on Wednesday. The curfew was announced after a police station was burned down in the city and two people were shot dead by police.

Lagos has been the center of the protests, with demonstrators at times blocking access to the airport and barricading roads leading to the country’s main ports.

Gunfire reverberated across Lagos on Wednesday, including at the toll plaza, where young demonstrators were rallying again despite the order for everyone to stay off the streets until further notice. At the sound of the shots, some protesters could be seen running away, though it wasn’t clear if the crowd was fired upon.

Police also fired tear gas at one point, and smoke could be seen billowing from several areas in the city’s center. Two private TV stations were forced off the air at least temporarily as their offices were burned.

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

Nigerians are reeling from several videos from Tuesday night at the Lekki toll plaza in which protesters could be heard singing the national anthem in the darkness. Protesters’ demands for better governance drew new attention both inside and outside the country after videos were posted on social media in which gunfire could be heard echoing over protesters as they sang. After the shots, people can be heard running away.

It’s not clear if any protesters were killed in Tuesday night’s shooting at the toll plaza. Lagos’ governor said many were injured but no one was killed, but Amnesty International had earlier said there were fatalities and that it had “credible but disturbing evidence” that security forces were responsible.

There have also been widespread reports of the youthful protesters being attacked by armed gangs, who the demonstrators say are sent by the police to break up the protests.

Gov. Obajide Sanwo-Olu confirmed more than 20 injuries from the Lekki shootings, and said he went to hospitals and mortuaries throughout the city.

Speaking in a televised address, Mr. Sanwo-Olu said he has ordered an investigation into the actions of the military at Lekki plaza, an indication that the army may be responsible.

“This is with a view to taking this up with a higher command of the military and to seek the intervention of Mr. President in his capacity as a commander in chief to unravel the sequence of events that happened yesterday night,” he said.

“This is the toughest night of our lives as forces beyond our direct control have moved to make dark notes in our history, but we will face it and come out stronger,” the governor tweeted earlier Wednesday.

He had also warned on Twitter that the protests against police brutality had “degenerated into a monster that is threatening the well-being of our society.”

Nigeria’s military, however, denied responsibility for the Lekki shootings, posting a tweet that labeled several reports as fake news.

President Muhammadu Buhari – who has said little about the protests engulfing his country – did not mention the Lekki shootings but in a statement Wednesday issued a call for calm and vowed police reforms.

Mr. Buhari’s statement said the dissolution of the SARS unit “is the first step in a set of reform policies that will deliver a police system accountable to the Nigerian people,” and said his government is committed to “the implementation of lasting police reforms in Nigeria.”

Nigeria’s spiraling crisis has drawn international attention, including from United States presidential candidate Joe Biden who denounced the shootings.

“I urge President Buhari and the Nigerian military to cease the violent crackdown on protesters in Nigeria, which has already resulted in several deaths,” wrote Mr. Biden. “My heart goes out to all those who have lost a loved one in the violence. The United States must stand with Nigerians who are peacefully demonstrating for police reform and seeking an end to corruption in their democracy.”

Beyoncé said she is “heartbroken to see the senseless brutality taking place in Nigeria,” on Instagram. Former U.S. presidential candidate Hillary Clinton also condemned the violence.

Before the shootings at Lekki, Nigeria’s police warned in a statement that security forces would now “exercise the full powers of the law to prevent any further attempt on lives and property of citizens.”

This story was reported by the Associated Press. AP journalist Bashir Adigun in Abuja, Nigeria, contributed.

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