Nigeria’s president announced 51 civilians were killed in unrest following days of peaceful protests over police abuses and blamed “hooliganism” for the violence while asserting security forces used “extreme restraint”.
President Muhammadu Buhari’s comments in a statement released late Friday are expected to further inflame tensions after Amnesty International reported soldiers shot and killed at least 12 demonstrators Tuesday night as a large crowd sang the national anthem.
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. He was speaking to a special meeting with former heads of state and other officials on the way forward after some of Nigeria’s worst turmoil in years.
“Many lives have been lost” in Nigeria’s unrest, the president’s office announced Friday, as the government said days of peaceful protests over police abuses had been hijacked by thugs.
In a national address Thursday, Buhari did not mention the shootings that sparked international outrage. The president instead warned protesters against being used by “subversive elements” and “undermining national security and law and order”.
He reiterated that Friday, saying the government “will not fold its arms and allow miscreants and criminals continue to perpetrate acts of hooliganism”.
Soldiers remained in parts of Lagos, Nigeria’s largest city, as a 24-hour curfew remained in place.
A witness of Tuesday night’s deadly shooting, 33-year-old Isaiah Abor, ventured out anyway to visit the scene where soldiers opened fire. He managed to escape the bloodshed.
“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.
“We are not cowards. We will always come to this ground, and we will always feel for those that are gone,” Abor said.
Another protester, Olatunde Joshua Oluwanifemi, said: “The speech killed our spirit.”
Okechukwu Nwanguma, with the Rule of Law and Accountability Advocacy Center, said the president’s comments, “devoid of sympathy”, were worrying.
Shielding those behind the deadly shootings will only lead to abuses by the police and military, Nwanguma 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: “We need to stay alive to pursue our dreams to build the future.”
Others disagreed. If the protests have been hijacked by hoodlums, then Nigerian youth should not give up the struggle and instead “go back and re-strategise”, said Seriki Muritala with the National Youth Parliament.
The protests turned violent Wednesday after the military’s shooting a day earlier, as mobs vandalised and burned police stations, courthouses, TV stations and a hotel.
Police battled angry crowds with tear gas and gunfire. The looting and shooting continued on Thursday.
The demonstrations began early this month with calls for Nigeria’s government to shut down the Special Anti-Robbery Squad, a notorious 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 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,” Governor Babajide Sanwo-Olu said.
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, is not 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 grievances in Nigeria, Africa’s most populous country.
After touring the battered city, the governor told reporters he was “very traumatised” and “we lost people in several parts of the city”.
“Enough is enough,” he said. “We need to heal ourselves.”
He said the curfew would begin easing on Saturday and a panel looking into the unrest would begin receiving petitions on Monday.