Nigeria president warns protesters as unrest flares

Nigeria Police said assailants attacked the prison on the second day of violence in the city of 20 million people after a brutal crackdown on demonstrations.  By Sophie BOUILLON AFP
OCT 22, 2020 LISTEN
Police said assailants attacked the prison on the second day of violence in the city of 20 million people after a brutal crackdown on demonstrations. By Sophie BOUILLON (AFP)

Nigeria's President Muhammadu Buhari on Thursday warned protesters not to "undermine national security" as he avoided addressing the shooting of demonstrators after days of unrest.

The broadcast was Buhari's first public statement to the nation since security forces were accused of gunning down peaceful protesters in Lagos on Tuesday.

But he failed to make any direct mention to the incident that has helped unleash chaos in Africa's biggest city and drawn international outrage.

Instead he blamed those who had "hijacked and misdirected" weeks of protests against police brutality for bloodshed and warned against "undermining national security".

"Under no circumstances will this be tolerated," he said

The 77-year-old called on the youth to "discontinue the street protests and constructively engage government in finding solutions".

"Your voice has been heard loud and clear and we are responding," he said.

The president shrugged off condemnation from the US, African Union, European Union and Britain over the excessive use of force by the authorities.

"We thank you and urge you all to seek to know all the facts available before taking a position or rushing to judgement and making hasty pronouncements," he said.

Amnesty International has said Nigerian soldiers and police shot dead 12 unarmed demonstrators on Tuesday, while 56 people have died overall across the country since protests began on October 8.

Map of Lagos.  By Gillian HANDYSIDE AFP Map of Lagos. By Gillian HANDYSIDE (AFP)

Shops were looted, buildings torched and sporadic gunfire reported for the second day in Lagos on Thursday despite a round-the-clock curfew.

Buhari's uncompromising line stirred immediately anger online and looked unlikely to quell widespread ire in the face of one of the biggest crises of his tenure.

'Sign of weakness'

Protests erupted in Nigeria two weeks ago over brutality by the police's loathed Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS).

Buhari scrapped the unit and pledged reforms but the demands from the young protesters broadened to call for more sweeping change.

Authorities said the demonstrations were increasingly being taken over by criminals as violence flared and sought to shut them down.

"Sadly, the promptness with which we have acted seemed to have been misconstrued as a sign of weakness," Buhari said in his speech.

Nigeria's army has denied that its soldiers opened fire on demonstrators on Tuesday.

But rights groups, the UN and the US have decried the shooting that was captured in video and images shared globally online.

UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet said there were signs the attack was "premeditated, planned and coordinated".

The International Criminal Court said it was "closely following the events around the current protests in Nigeria."

'We are tired'

The incident has unleashed a wave of major unrest on the streets of Lagos that has seen supermarkets emptied and prisons attacked.

The authorities insist the violence is being carried out by "hoodlums" and have sent the army out into the city to restore order.

In the middle-class neighbourhood of Lekki, soldiers had taken taken control of the streets by Thursday afternoon.

But the burnt out husks of official buildings, smouldering wreckage of cars and smashed shopfronts testified to the ferocity of the mayhem.

"Now they have seen what we are capable of," one angry youth said, "We are just hungry, we are tired."

In another district a warehouse holding food that was meant to be distributed to poor residents impacted by coronavirus restrictions was looted.

Elsewhere in the country the governor of oil-rich Delta state ordered a 48-hour curfew after incidents of arson, robberies and attacks on a prison and other public buildings.

The Delta state police public relations officer, Onome Onowakpoyeya, told AFP that perpetrators were "hoodlums" protesting under the guise of demonstrators.

Nigeria -- which has a median age of 18 and the highest number of people in extreme poverty in the world -- is a tinderbox of deep grievances.

Africa's biggest oil producer and largest economy is facing a profound recession as a fall in crude prices caused by the coronavirus pandemic has robbed the state of revenues.

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