LAGOS, Nigeria —
Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari warned protesters Thursday to stop the unrest that has gripped the country in recent days but made no mention of the shootings of peaceful protesters that killed at least 12 people and prompted international outrage.
The military opened fire without warning on thousands of peaceful protesters singing the national anthem Tuesday night at a toll plaza in Lagos, according to Amnesty International.
The shootings have been widely condemned, but Buhari did not speak of them at all during national address Thursday, and instead urged protesters to stop their demonstrations.
“This government will not allow anybody or [any] groups to disrupt the peace of the nation,” he warned in his televised speech, urging protesters to “resist the temptation of being used by some subversive elements to cause chaos with the aim of truncating our nascent democracy.”
He added: “For you to do otherwise will amount to undermining national security and law and order. Under no circumstances would this be tolerated.”
He called on Nigeria’s youths “to discontinue the street protests and constructively engage the government in finding solutions. Your voice has been heard loud and clear and we are responding.”
Buhari responded to the criticism he has received from fellow African heads of state and other world leaders by calling on them “to seek to know all the facts available before taking a position, or rushing to judgment and making hasty pronouncements.”
Even as Buhari was speaking, irate Nigerians flooded social media with denunciations.
“President Buhari during his speech refused to acknowledge those dead as a result of military attacked on Lekki protesters #EndSARS,” tweeted Usman Okai Austin, using a hashtag referring to Nigeria’s notorious Special Anti-Robbery Squad, which is accused of carrying out torture and killings.
“With this speech, it is confirmed we are on our own. May the souls of our brothers and sisters who died at #LekkiMassacre2020 and other places on #EndSARS protest rest in peace. Sad,” posted Henry Okechukwu.
The street demonstrations began early this month with calls for Nigeria’s government to shut down the SARS police unit. The squad was originally launched to fight crime.
The #EndSARS campaign spread across the country, and Buhari’s government announced that it would disband the unit. But the protests have persisted with demonstrators calling for more widespread reforms of the police and an end to corruption.
On Tuesday night, security forces fired without warning into crowds of thousands of protesters, killing 12, Amnesty said, citing witnesses and camera images. Nigeria’s military has denied shooting at the protesters.
Violent unrest erupted Wednesday in Lagos as mobs vandalized and burned police stations, courthouses, TV stations and a hotel. Smoke billowed from several locations in the city as police battled angry crowds with tear gas and gunfire.
Looting and gunfire continued in Nigeria’s second-largest city Thursday. Gangs stormed through parts of Nigeria’s largest city, Lagos.
Plumes of smoke rose from a prison where gunfire could be heard Thursday. Tunde Oguntola, a resident of the neighborhood where the Ikoyi Correctional Center is located, said he heard gunshots as soldiers and police officers put down what appeared to be an attempted jailbreak.
Police spokesman Olamuyiwa Adejobi told the Associated Press later Thursday that an incident inside the prison “has been put under control as our men have moved in there to assist prison security.” He did not describe the nature of the disturbance or say if anyone had been killed.
Scores of rioters broke into a warehouse and stole food. Gunfire was heard in several parts of Lagos. By Thursday afternoon, eight people with bullet wounds had been taken to Ikeja General Hospital, said a medic who spoke on condition of anonymity for lack of authorization to speak to journalists.
In other parts of Lagos, a sprawling city of 14 million people, streets were empty and shops were shuttered, as residents largely obeyed a government curfew meant to curb the chaos. Protesters active on social media disavowed the violence, saying that their demonstrations had been hijacked by criminals.
Nigeria has massive oil wealth and one of Africa’s largest economies, but many of its more than 200 million people live in deep poverty, without basic services, because of rampant graft, according to rights groups.
Black Lives Matter activists in the U.S. issued a statement Thursday in support of Nigeria’s anti-police brutality protesters.
“We join others around the world in demanding the Nigerian government end the attack on protesters and we call for justice for those who have been injured and killed by all Nigerian forces,” the statement said.
Also Thursday, the U.S. State Department issued a statement strongly condemning “the use of excessive force by military forces who fired on unarmed demonstrators in Lagos, causing death and injury.”