Thousands of protesters have demonstrated in Nigerian towns, calling for an end to the Special Anti-Theft Squad, or SARS, a police unit set up in the 1980s to fight crime. He became feared and hated by Nigerians, accused of kidnapping, torture and murder. Tensions remained high on Wednesday.
“We said that enough is enough, the killings are too much. SARS, they arrest us, they kill us. We are tired, we want a good Nigeria, ”said Timotope, 30 years earlier this week in Abuja, the country’s capital.
The protests began online, after an undated video showing what appeared to be SARS operatives attacking a man was circulated widely on social media.
Supported by celebrities from the West African country’s music scene, such as Nigerian American singer Davido and Wizkid, and with online support from beyond, including Kanye West and Twitter founder Jack Dorsey, the protests in line have emerged on the streets – with thousands of calls for #endsars in Lagos, Abuja and elsewhere.
“Where are we going in Nigeria? Sixty years. I am disappointed, we cannot continue like this, ”said one protester, referring to the time when the country gained independence from Britain.
“We’re not here for trouble, we’re just here to protest. ”
President Muhammadu Buhari dissolved SARS last week, but the protests continued, with Nigerians wary of previous pledges to do so and taking the opportunity to campaign for broader social change.
Endemic corruption and poverty
Despite previous government promises, corruption is still rampant, the majority of the country remains poor, and infrastructure – from electricity to roads and clean water – is lacking, despite the billions of dollars generated from oil revenues.
Protests can be dangerous in a country with a history of draconian military rule and violent repression, but there was hope that was in the past that free speech and free speech might prevail.
At the Lekki tollbooth – a place with multiple lanes where traffic is usually bumper to bumper, as vehicles enter and exit the area all day and night – Muslims have now prayed that the cars are gone because of the protests.
Sunday, a makeshift altar was installed to allow Catholic priests to celebrate Mass.
Music played to the crowds, and there was dancing and hope that their plea for a change in the police would reflect a positive response.
But on Tuesday, day 12 of the protests in Lagos, the situation changed after dark.
Babajide Sanwo-Olu, the governor of Lagos State, announced a 24-hour statewide curfew from 4 p.m.
The protesters, however, remained behind. Late in the afternoon, as people struggled to get home in the usual traffic chaos in Lagos, the curfew was extended until 9 p.m.
As dusk fell on the toll plaza, lights and security cameras were cut. Gunmen in military uniform then opened fire on the crowd, apparently barricading them.
“Sit down, sit down,” one protester shouted after the first shots.
There was panic and chaos. Some began broadcasting live on Instagram, with 150,000 people watching them as they grabbed local gin and tongs to remove bullets from the thigh of an injured protester, all in a haze of tear gas.
Umo, in his thirties and living in Calabar, in southwestern Nigeria, came to live in Lagos after studying political science in France and Canada.
“I am proud of the people who stayed on the front lines,” she said, crying. “I feel bad because a lot of rich kids like me left around curfew, I left two hours before the shoot. ”
Protesters sat on the ground to demonstrate non-violence.
“Those who stayed, most of them are middle class and working class children. They shot children, ”Umo said.
A violent reaction shocked the country
The violent response shocked a country well accustomed to unrest – from the Islamist Boko Haram insurgency in the northeast to banditry and kidnappings that have left Nigeria apparently still on the brink of a security crisis.
But Cheta Nwanze, senior partner of SBM Intelligence, a political consulting firm, said: “It was not a far corner of the country. It was in the commercial capital of Nigeria. ”
His colleague, Tunde Ajileye, said: “Protests may simmer after this crackdown, but they are by no means over. Moreover, the structures that pushed them are now in place and will continue to confront the Nigerian political elite to demand better. This is what they fear most and why their response has turned from ignorance to violent repression. ”
Overnight, violence spread. Fires were started and videos shared on social media showed banks, tolls and shops ablaze. Luxurious downtown hotels have had their entrances smashed.
WATCH | Nigerians protest against police brutality on October 20:
Sporadic gunshots rang out throughout the city in the dark.
According to reports received by CBC News, men dressed in black, whose identities and backgrounds are unclear, were setting up roadblocks and fires throughout the city.
To the surprise of the protesters, the governor of Lagos State, at a press conference on Wednesday, denied any death.
“Yesterday’s events were undoubtedly among the darkest in our history as a state and as a people,” said Sanwo-Olu.
“As we pray for a speedy recovery of the injured, we are heartened to have recorded no deaths compared to the widespread social media broadcast. ”
He later said a death was under investigation, but human rights group Amnesty International said it had received reports that at least 12 people had been killed and others injured.
The Nigerian military said it was not involved in the shooting and called the allegations “fake news”.
But the country’s military has an uncomfortable history of denying the attacks.
In December 2015, he said that no one had been killed in the town of Zaria, when protesters and supporters of the Islamic movement in Nigeria took to the streets.
But the reality is that more than 300 died as soldiers opened fire for two days.
Authorities in Kaduna state admitted four months later that they secretly buried 347 bodies in a mass grave two days after the massacre. Five years later, the numbers would still be higher, with hundreds missing.
Lagos resident and businessman Andy Obuoforibo told CBC News: “The Nigerian military has finally done on camera what it has always done in remote places: mass murdering Nigerians.”
President Buhari called for calm but did not mention the shootings in Lekki.
Army patrols were seen in the streets of Lagos overnight, and police clashed with groups in some areas, as buildings were set on fire elsewhere.
Leena Koni Hoffmann, associate researcher in the Africa program at Chatham House in London, a think tank on international affairs, told CBC News that what will happen in the coming days in Nigeria is concerning.
“There will be tensions on all sides,” she said, adding that the international community needs to watch closely – and it could come to impose financial and travel sanctions as part of the United Nations mandate for peace. responsibility to protect.
The “troublemakers” could have had infiltrated groups
#Endsars protesters across the country said they were protesting peacefully, but groups appear to have been infiltrated by “sponsored troublemakers”.
“Yesterday was a terrible billboard in the history of Nigeria,” Abuja-based lawyer Ilemona Onoja told CBC News.
He said he was deeply disheartened and the mood in the country was now “desolate, even despondent”.
As Lagos enters a second day of curfew, Onoja said: “This in my opinion shows the extent of the decay that exists not only in the police systems of Nigeria but also in the systems of social governance, policy and administration of Nigeria. ”
Legendary Nigerian singer and activist Fela Kuti once attacked the government chanting, “Dem brings sorrow, tears and blood”.
Onoja said that song stuck in her head all day. “That’s all they brought,” he says.
Anna Cunningham was based in Lagos from 2014-19 and reported on Nigeria for CBC News during those years.