Tensions high in Nigeria as largely peaceful protests against police bring violent response

“Arise O Compatriots, Nigeria’s call obey …”

The Nigerian national anthem rang out loudly early on Tuesday evening, sung by protesters as they waved the country’s green and white flag at the Lekki toll gate plaza in Lagos — where largely peaceful protests against police brutality have been held for two weeks in the country’s largest city.

But before the night was out, an image of the bloodied tricolour would be shared worldwide across social media platforms at least a dozen people were reported killed.

Thousands of protesters have been demonstrating across Nigerian cities, calling for an end to the Special Anti-Robbery Squad, or SARS, a police unit set up in the 1980s to tackle criminality. It has become feared and loathed by Nigerians, accused of kidnapping, torture and killing. Tensions remained high on Wednesday.

“We said enough is enough, the killing is too much. SARS, they arrest us, they kill us. We are tired, we want a good Nigeria,” 30-year-old Timotope said earlier this week in Abuja, the country’s capital.

The protests started online, after an undated video showing what appeared to be SARS officers attacking a man was shared widely on social media.

Alister, a protester who says his brother, Emeka, died from a stray bullet from the army, reacts while speaking to The Associated Press near the Lekki toll gate in Lagos, Nigeria, on Tuesday. (Sunday Alamba/The Associated Press)

Backed by celebrities from the west African country’s music scene, such as American-born Nigerian singer Davido and Wizkid, and with online support from further afield, including Kanye West and Twitter founder Jack Dorsey, the online protests emerged onto the streets — with thousands calling for #endsars in Lagos, Abuja and elsewhere.

“Where are we going in Nigeria? Sixty years. I am disappointed, we cannot continue like this,” one protester said, referring to when the country won independence from Britain.

“We are not here for trouble, we are just here to protest.”

President Muhammadu Buhari disbanded SARS last week, but the protests have continued, with Nigerians wary of previous promises to do so and using the opportunity to campaign for wider social change.

Corruption and poverty endemic

Despite previous government promises, corruption is still endemic, the majority of the country remains poor and infrastructure — from electricity to roads and clean water — is lacking, despite the billions of dollars generated in oil revenue.

Protesting can be dangerous in a country with a history of draconian military rule and violent crackdowns, yet there was a hope that was in the past and that freedom of expression and free speech could win through.

At Lekki toll gate — a place with multiple lanes where traffic is usually bumper to bumper, as vehicles nudge in and out of the area all day and night — Muslims held prayers now that the cars are gone because of the protests.

On Sunday, a makeshift altar was installed for Catholic priests to say mass.

Music played to the crowds, and there was dancing and hope that their plea for a change to policing would heed a positive response.

But on Tuesday, Day 12 of demonstrations in Lagos, the situation changed as night fell.

Babajide Sanwo-Olu, the Lagos State governor, announced a 24-hour statewide curfew starting at 4 p.m.

Protesters, though, stayed put. Late into the afternoon, with people struggling to get home in the usual Lagos traffic chaos, the curfew was extended to a 9 p.m. start.

As dusk fell on the toll plaza, the lights and security cameras were cut. Armed men in military uniforms then opened fire on the crowd, reportedly barricading them in.

“Sit down, sit down,” shouted one protester after the first few shots were fired.

There was panic and chaos. Some took to live streaming on Instagram, with 150,000 people watching as they grabbed local gin and pliers to pull bullets out of the thigh of a wounded protester, all in a haze of tear gas.

Armed men are seen near burning tires on the street, in Lagos, Nigeria’s largest city, on Wednesday in this image obtained from social media. (UnEarthical via Reuters)

Umo, who’s in her 30s and lives in Calabar, in Nigeria’s southwest, came to live in Lagos after studying political science in France and Canada.

“I am proud of the people who stayed on the front line,” she said, crying. “I feel bad because a lot of rich kids like me left at the time of the curfew, I left two hours before the shooting.”

Protesters sat on the ground to demonstrate non-violence.

“Those that stayed, most of them are middle-class and working-class kids. They shot at kids,” Umo said.

Violent response has shocked country

The violent response has shocked a country well used to unrest — from Boko Haram’s Islamist insurgency in the northeast, to banditry and kidnapping that has left Nigeria always seemingly teetering on the edge of some security crisis.

But Cheta Nwanze, lead partner of SBM Intelligence, a political consultancy firm, said: “This was not some far-flung corner of the country. It was in Nigeria’s commercial capital.”

His colleague, Tunde Ajileye, said, “The protests may simmer after this crackdown, but they are by no means over. Also, the structures that have driven them are now in place and will continue to confront the Nigerian political elite to demand better. It is what they fear the most and why their response has moved from ignoring it to violent crackdown.”

Overnight, the violence spread. Fires were lit, and videos shared on social media showed banks, toll gates and shops in flames. Plush hotels in the city’s centre had their entrances shattered.

WATCH | Nigerians protest police brutality on Oct. 20:

Nigerians are calling for police reform and an end to police brutality and corruption. 4:02

Sporadic gunfire sounded throughout the city in the darkness.

Reports received by CBC News said men dressed in black, whose identities and backgrounds are unclear, were setting up roadblocks and fires across the city.

To the surprise of protesters, the Lagos State governor, at a news conference on Wednesday, denied any deaths.

“Yesterday’s events were no doubt some of the darkest of our history as a state and as a people,” Sanwo-Olu said.

“As we pray for swift recovery of the injured, we are comforted that we have not recorded any fatality as against the widespread circulation on social media.”

He later said one death was being investigated, but human rights group Amnesty international said it has received information that at least 12 people were killed and more were wounded.

The Nigerian army has said it was not involved in the shooting and branded the claims as “fake news.”

But the country’s military has an uncomfortable history of denying attacks.

In December 2015, it said no one was killed in the city of Zaria, when protesters and supporters of the Islamic movement of Nigeria took to the streets.

But the reality was that more than 300 died as soldiers opened fire over two days.

The Kaduna State authorities admitted some four months later that they had secretly buried 347 bodies in a mass grave two days after the massacre. Five years later, the figures are still believed to be higher, with hundreds unaccounted for.

Lagos resident and businessman Andy Obuoforibo told CBC News, “The Nigerian Army finally did on camera what it has always done in remote places: murder Nigerians en masse.”

President Buharii has called for calm but did not mention the shootings in Lekki.

Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari, shown in April, disbanded SARS last week, but the protests have continued, with Nigerians wary of previous promises to do so and using the opportunity to campaign for wider social change. (Nigeria Presidency/Handout via Reuters)

Army patrols were seen on the streets of Lagos overnight, and police clashed with groups in some areas, as buildings were torched elsewhere.

Leena Koni Hoffmann, Africa program associate fellow at London’s Chatham House, an international affairs think-tank, told CBC News that there is concern about what happens in the coming days in Nigeria.

“There will be tensions on all sides,” she said, adding that the international community needs to keep a close watch — and it may come to a point of imposing travel and financial sanctions under the United Nations mandate for the responsibility to protect.

‘Troublemakers’ could have infilitrated groups

The #endsars protesters across the country have said they were demonstrating peacefully, but there is a suggestion that groups were infiltrated by “sponsored troublemakers.”

“Yesterday was a terrible signpost in Nigerian history,” Abuja-based lawyer Ilemona Onoja told CBC News.

He said he was deeply disheartened and that the mood in the country was now “one of desolation, despondency even.”

People protest against alleged police brutality, near the Lekki toll gate in Lagos, on Wednesday. Army patrols were seen on the streets of Lagos overnight Tuesday, and police clashed with groups in some areas, as buildings were torched elsewhere. (Sunday Alamba/The Associated Press)

As Lagos enters a second day under curfew, Onoja said, “It shows to my mind the extent of the rot that exists not only in Nigeria’s policing systems but also across Nigeria’s systems of social, political and administrative governance.”

Legendary Nigerian singer and activist Fela Kuti once famously attacked the government, singing: “Dem bring sorrow, tears and blood.”

Onoja said that song had stayed in his head all day. “That’s all they brought” he said.

Anna Cunningham was based in Lagos from 2014-19 and reported on Nigeria for CBC News during those years.

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