LAGOS, Nigeria - Nigerians protesting against police brutality stayed on the streets in Lagos on Wednesday, breaking the government curfew following a night of chaotic violence in which demonstrators were fired upon, sparking global outrage.
Shots were fired Wednesday as young demonstrators set up barricades by the Lekki toll plaza in Lagos, where protesters had been fired upon Tuesday night, causing numerous injuries although officials said no deaths.
Gunfire could be heard across Lagos, Nigeria’s largest city of 14 million, including on the highway to the airport, at a major bus station, outside the offices of a television station and at the Lekki tollgates. Smoke could be seen billowing from several points in central Lagos.
Demonstrations and gunfire were also reported in several other Nigerian cities, including the capital city, Abuja.
The nationwide #EndSARS protests against police brutality have rocked Nigeria for more than two weeks. They started after a video circulated of a man being beaten, apparently by officers of the police Special Anti-Robbery Squad, known as SARS.
In response to the protests, the government announced it would disband the SARS unit, which Amnesty International says has been responsible for many cases of torture and killings.
The demonstrators’ demands have widened to include calls for accountable government, respect for human rights and an end to corruption in Africa’s most populous nation of 196 million. Despite massive oil wealth and one of Africa’s largest economies, Nigeria’s people have high levels of poverty and lack of basic services, as a result of rampant corruption, charge rights groups.
Nigerians are reeling from several videos from Tuesday night at the Lekki toll plaza in which protesters could be heard singing the national anthem in the darkness. Shots are heard followed by sounds of people running away.
It’s not clear who was firing the shots heard in the videos, but Nigeria’s security forces have been blamed for at least 10 deaths during the protests by Amnesty International, which has accused the police and military of using excessive force against the demonstrators. There have also been widespread reports of the youthful protesters being attacked by armed gangs, who the demonstrators say sent by the police to break up the protests.
The Lagos governor Wednesday confirmed more than 20 injuries from the Lekki shootings, but said that no one had been killed. He said he went to hospitals and mortuaries throughout the city.
Speaking in a televised address, Lagos governor Obajide Sanwo-Olu said he has ordered an investigation into the actions of the military at Lekki plaza, an indication that the army may be responsible.
“For clarity, it is imperative to explain that no sitting governor controls the rules of engagement of the military. I have nonetheless instructed an investigation into the orders and the adopted rules of engagement employed by the officers and men of the Nigerian army that were deployed to the Lekki tollgate last night,” the governor said. “This is with a view to taking this up with a higher command of the military and to seek the intervention of Mr. President in his capacity as a commander in chief to unravel the sequence of events that happened yesterday night.”
“This is the toughest night of our lives as forces beyond our direct control have moved to make dark notes in our history, but we will face it and come out stronger. I’ve just concluded visits to hospitals with victims of this unfortunate shooting incident at Lekki,” the governor tweeted earlier Wednesday.
He had also warned on Twitter that the protests against police brutality had “degenerated into a monster that is threatening the well-being of our society.”
President Muhammadu Buhari has been largely silent on the protests and violence sweeping across the country.
Nigeria’s spiraling crisis has drawn international attention, including from U.S. presidential candidate Joe Biden who on denounced the shootings.
“I urge President Buhari and the Nigerian military to cease the violent crackdown on protesters in Nigeria, which has already resulted in several deaths,” wrote Biden. “My heart goes out to all those who have lost a loved one in the violence. The United States must stand with Nigerians who are peacefully demonstrating for police reform and seeking an end to corruption in their democracy. I encourage the government to engage in a good-faith dialogue with civil society to address these long-standing grievances and work together for a more just and inclusive Nigeria.”
Before the shootings at Lekki, Nigeria’s police statement warned that security forces would now “exercise the full powers of the law to prevent any further attempt on lives and property of citizens.”
The reports of fatal shootings in Lekki come after two chaotic weeks of mounting protests leading to more widespread social unrest. On Tuesday, authorities said nearly 2,000 inmates had broken out of jail after crowds attacked two correctional facilities a day earlier.
The Inspector-General of Police said it was deploying anti-riot police across Nigeria and ordered forces to strengthen security around correctional facilities.
The curfew in Lagos began Tuesday afternoon and most businesses and shops are closed across the city but the demonstrators are erecting barricades in the streets. The curfew was announced after a police station was burned down in the city and two people were shot dead by police.
Lagos has been the center of the protests, with demonstrators at times blocking access to the airport and barricading roads leading to the country’s main ports.
A curfew also went into effect in Benin City after a pair of attacks on correctional facilities that left 1,993 inmates missing. Interior Ministry spokesman Mohammed Manga said large, armed crowds had attacked the two prisons, subduing the guards on duty. It was unclear what the prisons’ exact populations had been before the attack.
“Most of the inmates held at the centers are convicted criminals serving terms for various criminal offenses, awaiting execution or standing trial for violent crimes,” he said in a statement.
The protests began two weeks ago after a video circulated showing a man being beaten, apparently by police officers of the Special Anti-Robbery Squad, known as SARS.
Young protesters marched in cities across Nigeria, under the banner #EndSARS. In response, the government announced it would ban the anti-robbery squad, which for several years human rights groups have blamed for widespread abuses, including torture and killings.
The demonstrators have not been satisfied with the disbandment of the SARS unit and are demanding an end to abuses and respect for human rights in all parts of the police force. The protests have stopped traffic in Lagos, the capital Abuja and many other large cities in Nigeria, a country of 196 million people.