Waving flags, they sang Nigeria’s anthem. Then they were shot at
Abuja, Nigeria – Agboola Fabiyi was close to the front line when he saw armed soldiers approach a peaceful protest camp in Lekki, an upmarket area in Nigeria’s commercial capital, Lagos.
The 28-year-old protester said some of the soldiers reached the crowd and asked them to leave in compliance with a curfew imposed by the authorities earlier on Tuesday. When the protesters demanding an end to police brutality refused, Fabiyi said the soldiers began firing into the air, before turning their guns towards them.
“We never imagined they would start shooting at us because we were peaceful and not carrying weapons,” he said on Wednesday, still shaken. “The worst we expected was for the soldiers to throw tear gas to disperse us.”
Fabiyi said he quickly laid face down to the ground as protesters at the Lekki toll plaza began scampering to safety. Shortly after, he also crawled away.
Several witnesses have given similar accounts on social media and news reports, describing an unprovoked attack that caused outrage across Nigeria and abroad. Graphic footage posted online showed demonstrators fleeing as gunfire and sirens rang out, with some trying to remove shrapnel from wounded protesters.
Just hours before, videos widely shared online showed protesters waving Nigerian flags, singing the national anthem and solidarity songs and chanting the names of victims of police brutality.
In a statement on Wednesday, Amnesty International said it had confirmed that the Nigerian army and police killed at least 12 peaceful protesters in Lekki and Alausa, another protest ground in Lagos, after firing on thousands of peaceful demonstrators.
Following a hospital visit to victims of what he described as the “unfortunate shooting incident” in Lekki, Lagos State governor Babajide Sanwo-Olu said one person had died from a blow to the head – but it was not clear if the person was a demonstrator.
“It is imperative to explain that no governor controls the rules of engagement of the army,” said Sanwo-Olu, who cited what he described as the degeneration of protests “into a monster” when he announced the curfew. “I have nevertheless instructed an investigation into the ordered and the adopted rules of engagement employed by the men of the Nigerian army deployed to the Lekki Toll Gate,” he added.
The Nigerian army, however, denied the involvement of their men in the shooting. In a Twitter post, it said no soldiers were at the scene in Lekki and went on to label several reports as fake news.
“They came in military trucks. They were armed and wore military uniform,” retorted Fabiyi. “Are they denying what is so visible to everyone? There are videos of them shooting at us”.
Fabiyi, a graphic designer based in Lagos’s Osapa area, has been an active participant in the street demonstrations that began some two weeks ago with calls to disband the Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS), a controversial police unit which has long been accused of unlawful arrests, torture and extrajudicial killings.
Authorities on October 11 announced the dissolution of SARS but protesters remained unconvinced by the announcement, saying they would remain on the streets until their demands were met, including the release of imprisoned protesters and implementation of structural law enforcement reforms.
Tensions running high
Lagos remained on edge on Wednesday as protesters defied the round-the-clock curfew and gunfire was heard. Some public buildings and a private television station were also attacked by criminal elements, according to reports.
Demonstrators in Lagos have long expressed fears that provocateurs might be used to disrupt the peaceful character of their movement and create the conditions that would justify a security crackdown against them.
Early on Tuesday, police authorities announced that anti-riot forces would be immediately deployed across the country to maintain law and order, while soldiers have also been patrolling in major cities where violence has been reported.
Edo State in the country’s south was the first to introduce a 24-hour curfew on Monday after gangs attacked two main prisons, helping nearly 2,000 inmates to escape. A police manhunt has since been under way.
On Wednesday, protesters in Nigeria’s capital, Abuja, kept off the streets. But tensions are still running high in the city after thugs attacked demonstrators on Monday and Tuesday.
“We are restrategising on how to approach the next phase of our protests to avoid being infiltrated by hoodlums,” said Francis Okobi.
“The protests will surely continue in a few days from now. We have come under serious attack from hoodlums hired by politicians to disrupt our programme,” added the 32-year-old, a construction worker.
At a corner near the entrance of his one-bedroom apartment in Abuja’s Mpape area, there was still a placard reading: “We don’t need reform. #EndSars #EndPoliceBrutalitynow.”
“We are very determined to achieve results. We won’t give up,” he said.
Fabiyi shared the same conviction.
“We have remained peaceful during our protests. All we are asking for is that government should meet our demands to end police brutality,” Fabiyi said.
“What’s happening now is so unfortunate. We are not hoodlums. We don’t bear arms. We have only been marching through the streets and carrying placards,” he added.
“But we are not giving up. If we fail now our children won’t be happy with us. We have to continue to demand for a better Nigeria.”