Plumes of smoke rose above the Nigerian capital yesterday as authorities struggled to contain a wave of anger at the alleged police shooting of dozens of peaceful protesters.
While most of Lagos’s 20 million citizens stayed in their homes in obedience of a 24-hour curfew, violence broke out in the city’s poorer areas and a police station and several buildings were reportedly set on fire.
In what local media has called ‘Bloody Tuesday’, security forces opened fire on hundreds of residents who had gathered at the Lekki Toll Gate to call for the disbandment of the Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS), a police unit accused of rampant brutality and corruption.
Videos from the scene showed hundreds of protesters waving Nigerian flags and singing the national anthem and pop songs at the toll gate, where an encampment had been the centre of a fortnight of demonstrations.
According to witnesses, about 20 uniformed members of the Nigerian security forces arrived about 7pm and started to spray bullets into the crowd.
“Immediately they came they started shooting,” said one protester who managed to flee. “They were more than 20. That sent me the message that these guys came to kill.”
According to the state’s governor, at least one citizen was killed, with 25 wounded. However, witnesses claimed the true death toll was far higher.
Yesterday, Amnesty International said police and soldiers had killed at least 12 people and wounded hundreds of others. It added that it was investigating “credible but disturbing evidence of excessive use of force occasioning deaths of protesters” at the toll gate.
“Opening fire on peaceful protesters is a blatant violation of people’s rights to life, dignity, freedom of expression and peaceful assembly. Soldiers clearly had one intention, to kill without consequences,” said Osai Ojigho, Amnesty International’s Nigeria director. “These shootings clearly amount to extrajudicial executions.”
There were reports that the police had planned the violence in advance, with some claiming CCTV cameras in the area had been removed. Others said police set up barricades moments before the shooting began.
The Nigerian army denied its troops were present at the Lekki Toll Gate.
After a lengthy delay, Nigeria’s president, Muhammadu Buhari, appealed for “understanding and calm” in a statement that did not specifically address the killings.
Facing the most significant political unrest of his five-year tenure, Mr Buhari, a former general, last week agreed to disband the SARS, but protests continued, drawing on anger at a wide range of social problems from state corruption to rising food prices and unemployment as a result of the pandemic.