Nigeria’s biggest city Lagos and several states were under curfews on Wednesday as unrest rooted in anti-police protests broke out again following a day of violence, including the shooting of civilians by security forces.
Fires burned across Lagos and residents reported hearing gunfire despite President Muhammadu Buhari’s appeal for “understanding and calm”.
Armed police tried to enforce a round-the-clock curfew in the commercial capital, setting up checkpoints. But groups of young men blocked a number of major roads with overturned traffic signs, tree branches and rocks. Smoke billowed from buildings that were ablaze.
Video showed armed police in the Yaba area of Lagos kicking a man as he lay on the ground. One officer fired into his back and dragged his limp body down the street.
Images taken after the incident showed crowds gathering and burning tyres with thick black smoke, and more police gathering with guns drawn and pointed.
Rights group Amnesty International said the Nigerian army and police killed at least 12 peaceful protesters at two locations in Lagos – Lekki and Alausa – on Tuesday.
At least 56 people have died across Nigeria since nationwide protests began on October 8, with about 38 killed on Tuesday alone, it said.
Thousands of Nigerians, many driven closer to poverty by the economic fallout from the coronavirus pandemic, have joined the protests that initially focused on a police unit, the Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS).
The unit – which rights groups have long accused of extortion, harassment, torture and murder – was disbanded on Oct. 11 but the protests have persisted with calls for more law enforcement reforms.
Governor Babajide Sanwo-Olu imposed the curfew on Lagos on Tuesday.
But a shooting incident that night at a toll gate in the Lagos district of Lekki, where people had gathered in defiance of the curfew, appeared to mark the worst violence since the protests began and drew international concern over the situation in Africa’s most populous country, a major OPEC producer.
The United Nations secretary-general said there had been “multiple deaths” and urged authorities to de-escalate the situation.
The Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) urged Nigerian security forces to exercise restraint in handling protests and to act professionally.
Governor Sanwo-Olu said 30 people were hurt in the shooting. Four witnesses said soldiers had fired bullets and at least two people had been shot. Three witnesses said the gate’s lights were turned off before the shooting began. One said he saw soldiers remove bodies.
The Nigerian Army said no soldiers were at the scene.
Inyene Akpan, 26, a photographer, said more than 20 soldiers arrived and opened fire as they approached the protesters.
Witness Akinbosola Ogunsanya said the lights suddenly went out around 6:45 P.M. (1745 GMT) and men came to take down CCTV cameras before. Minutes later, soldiers in uniform walked towards the crowd, shooting as they walked, he said. He saw about 10 people being shot and soldiers removing bodies, he said.
Another witness, Chika Dibia, said soldiers hemmed in people as they shot at them.
Henry Kufre, a television producer, said the atmosphere had been peaceful and people were singing the national anthem before the site was plunged into darkness and the shooting began.
President Buhari said on Wednesday he was committed to providing justice for victims of brutality, and that the police reforms demanded by the demonstrators were gathering pace. He did not refer to the shooting at the toll gate.
Sanwo-Olu visited hospitalised victims of what he referred to as the “unfortunate shooting incident” in Lekki. He said 25 people were being treated for injuries and two were in intensive care.
“I recognise the buck stops at my table and I will work with the FG (federal government) to get to the root of this unfortunate incident and stabilise all security operations to protect the lives of our residents,” Sanwo-Olu said.
Unrest also gripped other parts of southern Nigeria. Among states imposing restrictions was the oil production hub of Rivers State, including a curfew in parts of oil city Port Harcourt.
Rivers Governor Nyesom Wike said criminals attacked and destroyed police stations and court buildings in parts of the state.
In South Africa, hundreds of Nigerians carrying placards demanding “a new and better Nigeria” marched to the Nigerian High Commission (embassy) in Pretoria. Protesters also rallied outside the Nigerian embassy in London.
Nigeria sovereign Eurobonds fell more than 2 cents on the dollar on Wednesday. One analyst said the protests might trigger a resumption of attacks on the country’s oil facilities, potentially hitting its main source of foreign earnings.
“The Niger Delta militants…have reportedly shown support for the (protest) movement. Should the protests escalate, we could see attacks resume on the oil and gas facilities,” said Janet Ogunkoya, senior research analyst at Tellimer Research.