At least 51 civilians have been killed in Nigeria’s unrest after days of peaceful protests over police abuses, the president said on Friday, accusing “hooliganism” of the violence, claiming that security forces have used “extreme restraint”.
President Muhammadu Buhari’s comments are expected to further stir tensions in Africa’s most populous country after Amnesty International reported that soldiers shot and killed at least 12 protesters on Tuesday night as a large crowd sang the national anthem. The deaths sparked international condemnation.
In a statement, Buhari also said 11 policemen and seven soldiers had been killed by “rebels” since Thursday, and “the chaos has not stopped.” He said another 37 civilians were injured in some of Nigeria’s worst unrest in years.
The president said the well-meaning protests were hijacked by thugs.
But many Nigerians are saddened by what the president has not said. Buhari in a national speech Thursday night did not mention the shooting, but instead warned protesters against “undermining national security and law and order.” On Friday, he said the government “will not fold its arms and allow criminals and criminals to continue committing hooliganism.”
Anger lingered with the smell of charred tires on Friday in Nigeria’s relatively quiet streets. Soldiers remained in parts of Lagos, Nigeria’s largest city, as a 24-hour curfew remained in place.
A witness to the shooting Tuesday night, 33-year-old Isaiah Abor, nonetheless ventured out to visit the scene where soldiers had opened fire. He managed to escape the chaos.
“When (the soldiers) made comments that the flag is not bulletproof, that was when I knew this would go out of hand,” Abor said. Empty ammunition shells still scattered the ground.
The president’s speech annoyed him. “The blood that spotted an entire Nigerian flag was not even mentioned to these young people,” Abor said. He added: “We are not cowards. We will always come to this ground and we will always feel for those who are gone. ”
Another protester, Olatunde Joshua Oluwanifemi, simply said, “Speech killed our spirit.”
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The president’s comments, “devoid of sympathy,” were troubling, Okechukwu Nwanguma told the Rule of Law and Accountability Advocacy Center. Protecting them behind the shooting will only lead to abuse by the police and military, he said: “If those who carried out the killings did so and nothing happens, it will encourage them and others to do the same next time.”
But referring to the president’s comments, an influential group behind the protests, the feminist coalition, urged young people to stay home, saying “we need to stay alive to pursue our dreams to build the future.”
Others disagreed. If the protests have been hijacked, Nigerian youth should not give up the fight but instead “go back and re-strategize”, Seriki Muritala told the National Youth Parliament.
Campaign to close police unit
This week’s scenes have touched a chord with supporters of Black Lives Matter in the US, while the US government has strongly condemned “the use of excessive force by military forces that fired on unarmed protesters in Lagos and caused death and injury.”
The protests turned violent Wednesday after the military opened fire as mobsters vandalized and burned police stations, courthouses, TV stations and a hotel. Police fought angry crowds with tear gas and gunfire. The looting and shooting continued Thursday.
Demonstrations began earlier this month with calls for the Nigerian government to close down the Special Anti-Robbery Squad, a police unit known as SARS. The group was launched to fight crime, but according to Amnesty International, it carried out torture and killing.
The #EndSARS campaign spread across the country, and the Buhari government announced it would dissolve the SARS unit. The protest continued with protesters calling for more comprehensive police reforms and an end to corruption.
In an attempt to calm tensions, Lagos’ state government on Friday shared a list of ongoing lawsuits against police officers accused of human rights abuses.
“Today seems like a good day to move forward with the work of rebuilding Lagos and ending police brutality,” said Babajide Sanwo-Olu government.
But an angry crowd shouted at him over the unrest as officials toured burnt-out vehicles and the dismissed palace of a ceremonial leader in Lagos. The leader or oba is not popular with some Nigerians who see him as a product of the country’s often corrupt policies.
‘We need to heal ourselves’
Abundance and severe poverty are in close contact in Lagos, a city of about 20 million, and inequality is exacerbating Nigerians’ complaints.
After visiting the battered city, the governor told reporters he was “very traumatized” and that “we lost people in several parts of the city.” He did not give details.
“Enough is enough,” he said. “We have to heal ourselves.” He said the curfew would begin easing Saturday morning and a panel investigating the riots would begin receiving petitions on Monday.
And yet nerves were frayed. Near the scene of Tuesday’s shooting, police shouted and then fired into the air to stop a convoy carrying the body of a Muslim who had died overnight; the cause of death was not clear.
After questioning by police, the mourners were allowed to continue and continue to bury the dead.