At least 51 civilians have been killed during unrest in Nigeria following days of protests over police abuses, the country’s president said.
President Muhammadu Buhari blamed the violence on “hooliganism”. And he asserted that security forces have used “extreme restraint”.
On Thursday 22 October, he said the government “will not fold its arms and allow miscreants and criminals continue to perpetrate acts of hooliganism”.
“Devoid of sympathy”
But many Nigerians are upset by what the president has not said. In a national address on 22 October, Buhari didn’t mention the shootings. Instead, he warned protesters against “undermining national security and law and order”.
Okechukwu Nwanguma, of the Rule of Law and Accountability Advocacy Centre, said the president’s comments were worrying and “devoid of sympathy”.
He said that shielding those behind the shootings will only lead to abuses by the police and military. He added:
If those who carried out the killings did so and nothing happens, it will encourage them and others to do the same thing next time.
Citing the president’s comments, one influential group behind the protests, the Feminist Coalition, urged people to stay at home. It said that “we need to stay alive to pursue our dreams to build the future”.
Meanwhile, Seriki Muritala, of the National Youth Parliament, said that if the protests have been hijacked, Nigerian youths shouldn’t give up the struggle. Muritala said that instead they should “go back and re-strategise”.
Buhari also claimed 11 policemen and seven soldiers had been killed by “rioters” as of 22 October. The president said another 37 civilians were injured. He said the well-intentioned protests had been hijacked by thugs.
The Nigerian leader’s comments are expected to further inflame tensions in Africa’s most populous country. They come after Amnesty International reported that soldiers shot and killed at least 12 demonstrators on Tuesday 20 October. The incident occurred as a large crowd sang the national anthem.
The killings, during some of Nigeria’s worst turmoil in years, have sparked international condemnation.
This week’s scenes have touched a chord with Black Lives Matter supporters in the United States. Meanwhile, the US government has strongly condemned the “use of excessive force by military forces who fired on unarmed demonstrators in Lagos, causing death and injury”.
The protests turned violent on Wednesday 21 October after the military’s shooting. Police battled angry crowds with tear gas and gunfire. The unrest continued on 22 October.
A bullet shell is seen at the site of Lekki toll gate in Lagos (AP)
The demonstrations began early in October. Protesters have been calling for Nigeria’s government to shut down the Special Anti-Robbery Squad, a police unit known as SARS. The squad was launched to fight crime but carried out torture and killings, according to Amnesty International.
The #EndSARS campaign spread across the country. Buhari’s government then announced that it would disband the unit. But protests have persisted, with demonstrators calling for more widespread reforms of the police and an end to corruption.
In one attempt at calming tensions on Friday 23 October, the Lagos state government shared a list of ongoing prosecutions against police officers accused of human rights abuses.
Soldiers remain in parts of Lagos, Nigeria’s largest city, as a 24-hour curfew continues.
Governor Babajide Sanwo-Olu said:
Today seems like a good day to get on to the work of rebuilding Lagos and ending police brutality.
But an angry crowd shouted at him over the unrest. The leader, or oba, is not popular with some Nigerians. They see him as a product of the country’s often corrupt politics.
Opulence and grinding poverty are in close contact in Lagos, a city of some 20 million. And the inequality sharpens Nigerians’ grievances.
After touring the battered city, the governor told reporters he was “very traumatised”. He said that “we lost people in several parts of the city”.
Sanwo-Olu said the curfew would begin easing on the morning of Saturday 24 October. And a panel looking into the unrest would begin receiving petitions on 26 October.