ABUJA – Human rights group Amnesty International and authorities in Nigeria disagree on the number of people killed at a shooting Tuesday in Lagos. Amnesty International says at least 56 protesters have died in clashes with security forces during weeks-long demonstrations in Nigeria against police brutality, with at least 38 people killed Tuesday — 12 of them when security forces opened fire on unarmed protesters at the Lekki toll gate in Lagos. While authorities have acknowledged some casualties, they are downplaying the numbers, and the army has denied firing on protesters. Amnesty International released its latest figure in a statement Wednesday night, citing evidence from witnesses.
The group also says Nigerian authorities must be held responsible for killing their own people. “More than 50 people have been killed in different parts of the country since the protest started,” said Seun Bakare, a program manager at Amnesty International. “These shootings amount to extrajudicial killings. There must be an immediate investigation and suspected perpetrators must be held accountable through fair trials.” Lagos authorities have yet to release any new updates on casualties.
On Wednesday, state Governor Babajide Sanwo-Olu, who visited victims in various hospitals, said only one person had died from head trauma, contradicting Amnesty. No authority, including the army, has claimed responsibility for the shooting. But the governor, who had earlier stated it was beyond his power to command the military, said it has launched a further investigation. “No sitting governor controls the rules of engagement of the military,” he said. “I have nonetheless instructed an investigation into the ordered and adopted rules of engagement implored by the officers and men of the Nigerian army that were deployed to the Lekki toll gate, last night.”
Thousands of Nigerian youths marched through the streets recently, demanding that a notorious police unit called SARS, or Special Anti-Robbery Squad, be dissolved over allegations of torturing and killing of citizens. Despite President Muhammadu Buhari disbanding the group days after protests, the demonstrations continued. The protesters expanded their demands to include calls for police reforms and good governance. After the protests turned violent, Lagos authorities responded by imposing a 24-hour curfew. However, protesters defying state orders remained at the Lekki toll gate before the shooting started. Security expert Ebenezer Oyetakin said protesters who had no one to represent them frustrated the government’s negotiations, and were becoming too ambitious with their demands. “To the best of my knowledge, the sound has been very loud and clear and gains have been made by the protesters,” Oyetakin said. “They said, ‘end SARS’; the SARS has been ended. All other legitimate demands could be looked into through negotiations, but the protesters made a strategic error by not identifying a spokesperson or front that can engage government.”
The killing of protesters drew international criticism, including from United Nations Secretary-General Anthony Guterres. For the moment, the streets of major cities such as Lagos and Abuja, where protests initially started, were largely empty Thursday. Many other Nigerian states are adopting curfews and bans on protests to prevent any further breakdown of law and order.