LAGOS – At least 51 civilians have been killed in Nigeria's unrest following days of peaceful protests over police abuses, the president said Friday, blaming “hooliganism” for the violence while asserting that security forces have used “extreme restraint.”
President Muhammadu Buhari's comments are expected to further inflame tensions in Africa's most populous country after Amnesty International reported that soldiers shot and killed at least 12 demonstrators 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 “rioters” as of Thursday, and “the mayhem has not stopped.” He said another 37 civilians were injured in some of Nigeria's worst turmoil in years.
The president said the well-intentioned protests were hijacked by thugs.
But many Nigerians are upset by what the president hasn't said. Buhari in a national address Thursday night didn't mention the shootings, instead warning protesters against “undermining national security and law and order.” On Friday he said the government “will not fold its arms and allow miscreants and criminals continue to perpetrate acts of hooliganism."
Resentment lingered with the smell of charred tires Friday in Nigeria's relatively calm streets. Soldiers remained in parts of Lagos, Nigeria's largest city, as a 24-hour curfew remained in place.
A witness of Tuesday night's shooting, 33-year-old Isaiah Abor, ventured out anyway to visit the scene where solders had opened fire. He managed to escape the chaos.
“When (the soldiers) were making comments that the flag is not bulletproof, that’s when I knew this was going to go out of hand,” Abor said. Empty ammunition shells still littered the ground.
The president's speech annoyed him. “The blood that stained a whole Nigerian flag, those youths were not even mentioned,” Abor said. He added: “We are not cowards. We will always come to this ground, and we will always feel for those that are gone.”
Another protester, Olatunde Joshua Oluwanifemi, said simply: “The speech killed our spirit.”
The president's comments, “devoid of sympathy,” were worrying, said Okechukwu Nwanguma with the Rule of Law and Accountability Advocacy Center. Shielding those behind the shootings will only lead to abuses 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 thing next time.”
But citing the president’s comments, one influential group behind the protests, the Feminist Coalition, urged youth to stay at home, saying that “we need to stay alive to pursue our dreams to build the future.”
Others disagreed. If the protests have been hijacked, then Nigerian youth should not give up the struggle and instead should “go back and re-strategize,” said Seriki Muritala with the National Youth Parliament.
This week’s scenes have touched a chord with Black Lives Matter supporters in the United States, while the U.S. government has strongly condemned the “use of excessive force by military forces who fired on unarmed demonstrators in Lagos, causing death and injury.”
The protests turned violent Wednesday after the military's shooting as mobs vandalized and burned police stations, courthouses, TV stations and a hotel. Police battled angry crowds with tear gas and gunfire. The looting and gunfire continued Thursday.
The demonstrations began early this month with calls for Nigeria’s government to shut down the Special Anti-Robbery Squad, a police unit known as SARS. The squad was launched to fight crime, but it carried out torture and killings, according to Amnesty International.
The #EndSARS campaign spread across the country and Buhari’s government announced that it would disband the SARS unit. The protest persisted with demonstrators calling for more widespread reforms of the police and an end to corruption.
In one attempt at calming tensions, the Lagos state government on Friday shared a list of ongoing prosecution against police officers accused of human rights abuses.
“Today seems like a good day to get on to the work of rebuilding Lagos and ending police brutality,” Gov. Babajide Sanwo-Olu said.
But an angry crowd shouted at him over the unrest as officials toured burned-out vehicles and the sacked palace of a Lagos ceremonial leader. The leader, or oba, isn’t popular with some Nigerians who see him as a product of the country’s often corrupt politics.
Opulence and grinding poverty are in close contact in Lagos, a city of some 20 million, and the inequality sharpens Nigerians' grievances.
After touring the battered city, the governor told reporters he was “very traumatized” and that “we lost people in several parts of the city.” He didn't give details.
“Enough is enough,” he said. “We need to heal ourselves.” He said the curfew would begin easing Saturday morning and a panel looking into the unrest would begin receiving petitions on Monday.
And yet nerves were frayed. Near the scene of Tuesday's shooting, police shouted, 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, to go on and bury the dead.
Bashir Adigun in Abuja, Nigeria contributed.