Smoke rises from Lekki in Lagos, Nigeria, in this handout picture obtained by Reuters on October 21, 2020. Picture: Handout via REUTERS
Smoke rises from Lekki in Lagos, Nigeria, in this handout picture obtained by Reuters on October 21, 2020. Picture: Handout via REUTERS

Lagos/Abuja — Gunshots rang out in the affluent Ikoyi neighbourhood of Nigeria’s commercial capital Lagos on Thursday, one witness said.

Smoke was also seen rising from the direction of Ikoyi correctional facility, a prison, the witness told Reuters. Two trucks carrying police were seen heading towards the prison.

The city of 20-million is under a round-the-clock curfew imposed after nearly two weeks of protests against police brutality — the West African nation's biggest wave of unrest since the end of military rule in 1999.

Several states are also under curfew and the oil-producing Delta state said it would enter a 48-hour curfew from 6pm local time on Thursday.

Unrest escalated on Wednesday as groups of young men and armed police clashed in some neighbourhoods following a shooting on Tuesday night at a toll gate in the Lagos district of Lekki.

Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari met national security leaders on Thursday morning, an aide said on Twitter.

The Nigerian military has offered to deploy in Lagos state if needed to protect key business and government sites amid anti-police protests, the governor said on Thursday.

Governor Babjide Sanwo-Olu, in an interview on local station Arise TV, said the chief of defence staff and the chief of army staff had called at about midday on Wednesday “to say that if indeed I require for the military to come out, they will deploy them”.

He said the primary concern was the security of key business and government installations, such as Lagos's ports.

“It's really just a conversation around security support that we've got,” he said.

Sanwo-Olu did not say whether he would accept the offer, but called on leaders to keep young people including protesters off the streets.

Fires burnt across the commercial capital on Wednesday as roving groups of young men, some protesters still on the streets, and armed police clashed in some neighbourhoods.

The army has denied soldiers were at the site of the shooting at Lekki toll gate in Lagos, where people had gathered in defiance of the curfew. Four witnesses told Reuters soldiers had fired bullets there and at least two people had been shot. 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.

Sanwo-Olu said he did not send soldiers to the toll gate, and Buhari, while appealing for calm in a statement on Wednesday, has not directly addressed the incident. Buhari said that CCTV cameras on Lekki Bridge, which social media posts suggested had been removed prior to the incident, were there and working at the time of the shooting and would form part of the state's investigation into the incident.

He added that he would “absolutely” make the footage public.

Extrajudicial executions 

Sanwo-Olu said in an interview on Arise TV on Thursday that a 24-hour curfew may be eased as tensions abate following more than two weeks of upheaval.

“Once we see the streets are cleared up and all the agitation and high nerves have gone down,” the lockdown may be relaxed on Friday or Saturday.

Demonstrations that erupted on October 5 and have spread to about half of Nigeria’s 36 states pose the most serious challenge yet to Buhari’s authority and have dealt another blow to an economy that was already reeling from the coronavirus.

At least 56 people have died so far, according to human rights group Amnesty International. The government hasn’t provided a death toll.

Violence peaked on Tuesday when about 38 people died, including 12 who were killed after security forces opened fire on protesters who’d gathered at two sites in Lagos, in defiance of the curfew, Amnesty said, citing witnesses.

The security force’s actions “clearly amount to extrajudicial executions,” Osai Ojigho, Amnesty’s Nigeria director, said in a statement on Wednesday night.

While the Nigerian army’s Twitter page labelled reports that troops had fired on protesters as “fake news,” Sanwo-Olu said he had ordered a probe into the conduct of the military, which falls under the federal government’s control. He confirmed that one person had died of their injuries.

Buhari is yet to comment on the allegations against the army. He summoned his top security officials, including the defence minister, the chief of police and the head of the army, to a meeting on Thursday morning, Bashir Ahmad, the president’s personal assistant, said on Twitter.

Vice-president Yemi Osinbajo took to Twitter late on Wednesday to express condolences to “all the victims of the Lekki shootings, and also the policemen and all other men and women who lost their lives in the past few days in different parts of Lagos and other states.”

The streets of Lagos and Abuja, the capital, were largely devoid of protesters on Thursday morning, and demonstrations in the oil-producing Rivers and Delta states that erupted on Wednesday also appeared to have died down. At least 10 states have imposed curfews.

“These past days have been tough, people have lost their friends, people have been injured, so I am not sure about going back on the street,” said Lagos resident Precious Nwachkwu, who joined the protests. “We will keep using our social media and online pages” to raise concerns about police brutality, she said.

The largely peaceful demonstrations persisted even after Buhari promised to disband a police unit at the centre of the brutality allegations. The situation in Lagos deteriorated from Sunday, as “criminal elements” took advantage of directives given to the police not to use force, said Sanwo-Olu, who imposed the curfew after police stations were burnt down and financial institutions were looted.

The violence has drawn international condemnation, with UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres among those who’ve called on the authorities to exercise restraint. US secretary of state Michael Pompeo issued a statement condemning “the use of excessive force by military forces who fired on unarmed demonstrators in Lagos, causing death and injury”.

Jittery markets

The unrest and the authorities’ increasingly heavy-handed response has begun to unnerve financial markets, with the naira dropping as much as 1.2% against the dollar on Thursday, the most of any African currency.

Sterling Bank closed all its offices in Lagos after three bank branches were set alight this week, CEO Abubakar Suleiman said by phone.

“We will not open until we are 100% certain we are not putting the lives of workers at risk,” he said. “Until the streets are safe, there is no business for anyone.”

Most of the demonstrators are young adults, who don’t appear to have a clearly defined leadership structure and communicate using social media — which the government says has frustrated efforts to negotiate with them.

“The government has to start building trust through concrete steps,” said Nelson Olanipekun, the founder of Citizens Gavel, an organisation that provides legal support to victims of police brutality. “The first thing will be to investigate those responsible for the Lekki massacre.”

With Felix Onuah

Bloomberg and Reuters

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