Nigerian Forces Kill 12 as Anti-Police Brutality Protests Grow

Mass protests against police brutality continue in Nigeria after security forces shot and killed 12 peaceful protesters in Lagos this week. Video widely shared on social media shows security forces firing directly into a crowd of demonstrators in Lagos singing the country’s national anthem. Authorities have imposed a curfew to clamp down on the growing demonstrations, which started as a demand to disband the notorious police unit known as the Special Anti-Robbery Squad, or SARS, but which have since grown into a wider movement against police brutality and official impunity. “We are asking for justice. We are asking for our lives to be preserved, not to be killed arbitrarily,” says lawyer and human rights activist Aderonke Ige, who has taken part in the protests. We also speak with Omoyele Sowore, who says young people in the streets are also confronting other systemic issues. “They are fighting against police brutality, but they are also fighting against army brutality, they are fighting against unemployment, they are fighting against the incompetence and indifference of the regime that has been in power,” he says.

TRANSCRIPT

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: A warning to our listeners and viewers: We turn now to a story that includes graphic video and accounts of state violence. We begin today’s show in Nigeria, where there’s growing evidence to confirm security forces fired without warning on peaceful protesters Tuesday night, killing at least 12 people, as authorities imposed a curfew to clamp down on growing demonstrations against police brutality. Video shared widely on social media shows security forces in Lagos firing directly into a crowd of demonstrators who were singing Nigeria national anthem.

PROTESTERS: [singing] Arise, O compatriots,
Nigeria’s call obey
To serve our Fatherland
With love and strength and faith.
The labor of our heroes past
Shall never be in vain,
To serve with heart and might
One nation bound in freedom, peace and unity.

AMY GOODMAN: Amnesty International issued a report Wednesday that it was Nigeria’s security forces that fired on the protesters. U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet issued a statement that, quote, “There is little doubt that this was a case of excessive use of force, resulting in unlawful killings with live ammunition, by Nigerian armed forces,” she said. Amnesty International also said it received reports that shortly before the shootings, electricity was cut off for security cameras in the area where protesters had camped.

At least 56 people have died during two weeks of widespread demonstrations in Nigeria, including 38 on Tuesday. The killings come two weeks after protests began against a branch of the Nigerian police known as SARS, the Special Anti-Robbery Squad, which has long been accused of committing torture, murder and extortion.

The killings have sparked outrage from Nigerians across the globe. The soccer star Odion Ighalo, who plays for Manchester United, posted this video online.

ODION IGHALO: I’m sad, and I’m broken. I don’t know where to start from. I’m not the kind of guy that talks about politics, but I can’t keep quiet anymore for what is going on back home in Nigeria. I will say, Nigerian government, you guys are a shame to the world for killing your own citizens, sending military to the streets to kill unharmful protesters because they are protesting for their rights. It’s uncalled for. Today, 20th of October, 2020, you people will be remembered in the history as the first government that sent military to the city to start killing their own citizens.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, for more, we go to Nigeria, where we’re joined by two guests. In Abuja, the capital of Nigeria, we’re joined by Sowore Omoyele. He is a Nigerian journalist, a human rights activist, and founder and publisher of Sahara Reporters. He also ran for president in Nigeria and has been imprisoned there. In Lagos, the most populous city in Nigeria, which is the most populous country in the African continent, we’re joined by Aderonke Ige, a human rights activist and lawyer who works with the organization Corporate Accountability and Public Participation Africa. Ige has been participating in the #EndSARS protests.

We welcome you both to Democracy Now! We’re going to start in Lagos, where those fatal killings happened, the fatal shootings happened, on Tuesday night. Aderonke Ige, you’ve been out on the streets. Describe what’s happened, and talk about the level of peaceful protest that has been going on against this police unit and police brutality in general.

ADERONKE IGE: Thank you.

I cannot even begin to try to describe in words the kind of barbaric action of the Nigerian government that we saw play out on Tuesday here in Lagos.

Now, these protests have been sustained, have been peaceful, have been the most — you know, a lot of people would tend to say, “Oh, we don’t even know the leaders.” It’s not, you know, all of that, but it has been one of the most coordinated protests or demonstrations I have ever seen, without any face or any type of leadership. That’s how we have been conducting ourselves for the past two weeks.

And you could see that there was raw passion, there was energy, to just salvage the soul of our collective group, our country, Nigeria. And a lot of young people have been at the forefront, just everybody demanding, in unity and in oneness: What are we asking for? We’re asking for justice. We are asking for our lives to be preserved, not to be killed arbitrarily by these officers of state called SARS — that’s Special Anti-Robbery Squad — but then, even beyond SARS, by the Nigerian police, by the Nigerian military. It looks like everything about Nigeria is just forceful. And especially with this government, it’s been totally arbitrary, has been full of impunity, and just is set up against the people. So, that’s all we’ve been asking for. And it’s been totally organized. And that’s why we have demonstrated, in fact, to the applause of everyone who has seen it.

But then, rather than the Nigerian government taking action heeding to these demands and just being responsible, what we saw was, you know, what a lot of us have been seeing over the years, which, good enough, is now coming to the full glare of the globe. Now we have seen where government, rather than heed to the voices of its citizens, would rather turn against them, oppress them and even further intimidate them for asking not to be intimidated.

So, what happened on Tuesday was the anticlimax of everything. So, in the last two weeks, we’ve been on the street, just chanting, just making our voices heard, demanding what we have been asking for as usual. But then, the government, like a thief in the night that it has always been, went out. Now, in the early evening, around 4 or 3 p.m., there had been messages. In fact, one of us captured some officers, wearing certain uniform, tampering with the closed-circuit camera TV, you know, and saying there’s something suspicious going on here. It was later we realized that they had actually gone to cut off the cameras. Eventually, as well, they cut off the lights. And who could have had access to the government’s source of light, if not government? So, lights were cut off.

And then, what came after was the most horrendous thing ever, most horrific. And then it was just the Nigerian military. We saw men in soldier’s uniform spraying bullets, just firing live rounds at peaceful protesters who held national flags, singing the national anthem.

And how did we know this eventually? We are grateful for technology. Some of us had their cameras on. Some went on — in fact, there was one of us — DJ Switch is her name, in Nigeria here — she went live on Instagram. And that was how most of us were able to also follow, because we have been protesting at different points, different grounds, running shifts and just showing solidarity for one another and with one another. But she went on live, and we were able to follow, to monitor, though it was dark because the government had cut off the lights, but we were still able to make out sounds. We saw the injured. We saw people dying right before our eyes.

But then it was a situation where citizens were helpless in the face of government officials who had been sent to fire live rounds on peaceful protesters who were just there singing the national anthem. So, what that told us is that — because, you know, there was also this message we passed across in recent — like four days ago, we started spreading it around, because in the course of this protest — this is all the same protest — we have also seen the aggression, brutality. Everything that we have been asking, demanding, campaigning against was also unleashed on us. We’ve seen the aggression of police we’ve seen just coming at us and so on. So, what we told our people was, try, when you go out, to go with the national flag. Ordinarily, when any military official sees the national flag or you’re singing the national anthem, they are supposed to just respect us. It’s a social contract. And that’s everything that symbolizes us, that gives us dignity as citizens.

But guess what. Everything that dignifies us was desecrated that night, from what we saw live. People were dying. They were helpless. They were shouting. They were screaming. And this went on and on. So, that’s what happened on Tuesday. But then, that was the anticlimax, that happened in Lagos.

So, the specific location where that happened in Lagos, the protest point, is at Lekki. We call it Lekki toll gate. So, there have been other points, like I personally have been protesting Alausa through Orile, you know, all of those places. And we have been doing this peacefully and sensibly and in the most applaudable manner. But then the government came, as usual, and applied force and massacred people and injured, maimed its own citizens, who were there for nothing else than to ask for their lives to be saved and not be brutalized as it has always been.

AMY GOODMAN: Aderonke Ige, we’re going to break and then come back. We will hear more from you. Aderonke Ige is a human rights activist and a lawyer. We also will go to Nigeria’s capital, Abuja, where Sowore Omoyele, the Nigerian journalist and human rights activist, who’s been imprisoned by the Nigerian state, has also been leading protests. Stay with us.

[break]

AMY GOODMAN: “Zombie” by the late, great, legendary Nigerian musician Fela Kuti. His son Femi Kuti recently marked what would have been Fela’s birthday by leading an End SARS protest in Nigeria.

This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The Quarantine Report. I’m Amy Goodman, with Nermeen Shaikh, as we continue to talk about what’s happening in Africa’s most populous country. A warning to listeners and viewers again: As we report on Nigeria, the coverage includes graphic video and accounts of state violence in Nigeria, where there’s growing evidence to confirm security forces fired without warning on peaceful protesters Tuesday night, killing at least 12 people, as authorities imposed a curfew to clamp down on growing demonstrations against police brutality. Some witnesses posted videos on social media where rapid gunfire could be heard. A warning: This is graphic video of state violence.

WITNESS: Please tell people. Please tell people. People are having to run. They’re shooting at them at the Lekki toll gate. Please tell social media.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, for more, we continue in Nigeria with our two guests. In Lagos, the human rights attorney and activist Aderonke Ige, who was out in the streets, she works with the organization Corporate Accountability and Public Participation Africa. She participated in the End SARS protests. And we now go to Abuja, Nigeria’s capital, where Sowore Omoyele is a Nigerian journalist, human rights activist, founder and publisher of Sahara Reporters.

Sowore, it is great to see you. You’ve been imprisoned by the Nigerian state. Now, once again, you’re out on the streets. Talk about who the SARS police are, why you were protesting, and what this continued violence against the people of Nigeria means.

OMOYELE SOWORE: Thank you so much, Amy. And I’m glad to be on your show.

SARS is the Special Anti-Robbery Squad. It was formed in 1992 apparently to fight armed robbery. But it was formed after the demise — not the demise, but after a unit of the Nigerian police known as the “Kill-and-Go” was kind of rested because they were committing the same type of atrocities in those days. They were being used by oil companies to suppress villagers and protesters in the Niger Delta region. So, SARS is the nephew or cousin or brother, as you can imagine, in the police force, a tactical unit that’s been unleashed on the young people, in particular. And they have license to do the same thing the Kill-and-Go do: to kill, destroy, decimate, extort, invade.

But it started having problems recently when they started to stop young people on the street who have dreadlocks, who have their hairs colored. And they extort them, and they arrest people with phones and ask them to unlock their phones. They take them to ATMs to collect bribes and extortion fees. It was crazy. And this has been going on. And they’ve been killing people, young people, without warrants, without any reason. And it got to a head.

Well, let me be very clear: SARS is just the alias name for the pent-up anger within the Nigerian society, where young people are fighting over unemployment, over lack of justice, lack of access to the national wealth, I mean, in terms of oil resources and other resources, and the fact that the democratic system in Nigeria has started to break down and yield no dividend for the people of Nigeria.

So, all these young people you see on the street here, they are fighting against police brutality, but they are also fighting against Army brutality, they are fighting against unemployment, they are fighting against the incompetence and indifference of the regime that has been in power, who, by the way, sent me to prison last year for five months simply because I organized a protest, that was supposed to take place August 5, 2019, in Lagos. And they flew me to Abuja, detained me without trial for a long time. A lot of young people are going through the same thing. You know, people are getting detained, jailed for making social media posts on Facebook, on Twitter. It’s unbelievable. Nigeria has become a police state, practically. And what you’re seeing is a response to all of these abuses that have been taking place.

And, of course, on top of that is corruption. You know, when Nigeria was under lockdown from COVID-19 between February and now, officials were making away with billions of local currency, naira, which is, you know, millions in dollars, from — [inaudible] are saying that they are failing schoolchildren who are not going to school. So, people are hearing all of this, and social media has happened to amplify all of these abuses. Images are coming out, as you know, live and instantaneously. And this makes people to rise up at once.

And I tell you, I was happy to be back on the streets fighting on the side of all these young people in their call to revolution. And this is what I’ve always asked for, that Nigerians need to rise up against oppression and fight for their rights and have the revolution that will give them a new order and a new direction, that can restore faith once again in what they call democracy here, which has just completely been managed by morons. So, this is where we are, Amy.

And in Abuja, where I participated, the dimension was different. They introduced what I will call an informal repression. In their own case in Abuja, they are not sending soldiers to kill protesters directly, but they’re moving urchins, you know, and hoodlums in government vehicles to attack protesters. And they’ve injured — killed one protester in Abuja that we know of, and they’ve injured a lot of people. As of last night, these urchins, being directed by the police and the secret service — I mean, the secret police in Nigeria — I don’t know how to say, the DSS — are going from — you know, they are doing house-to-house searches for people they say are the leaders of this uprising that’s happening in Nigeria.

In my own case, yesterday, they went to court to try and revoke my bail so that I could get rearrested. But luckily for me, lawyers did a fantastic job to ward that off.

So, they are at war against the youth. They are at war against human rights. They are at war against the people of Nigeria. And that’s what you’re seeing, is the very, very principled response to these abuses by Nigerians. And this has never happened before. Even during when we were fighting against the military, I’ve never seen such a coordinated, very disciplined set of young people who have acted peacefully.

And what they did in Lagos was to go after these young people, most of them middle-class young people who, as they were peacefully protesting, they were shooting them at close range. They’re using war-caliber kinds of bullets, that are meant for fighting terrorists and fighting the wars, against peaceful protesters at this Lekki toll gate at close range. There’s never been anything like that.

What made a difference this time around was social media, that this thing was captured instantaneously and broadcast to the world. Otherwise, they would have denied it. As we speak, they are still denying it. They are claiming that the casualties were false and the wounded are recovering. And they’re doing all kinds of things to change the narrative, including trying to make it an ethnic and religious issue. But fail, they must.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: But, Omoyele, as you pointed out, these protests are not just about police violence, but about a number of other issues. But I just want to say that a University of Leiden report in 2016 found that police violence in Nigeria is apparently among the worst in the world, if not the worst, that when police intervene in a confrontation, almost 60% of the time someone — the police shoot and kill someone. Could you talk about — as you said, President Buhari’s government was responsible for imprisoning you last year just for organizing protests. What has his response been to these protests and the response to his decision to disband SARS?

OMOYELE SOWORE: The reason why people did not take his decision seriously is that President Buhari is tone-deaf. This is who he is. This has been his character. He was the former military dictator who had carried out killings of people, judicially at that time, supposedly, because he — that some drug carriers were sentenced, and he brought their sentences forward and sentenced them to death. He’s been part of every military regime in the country that partook in abuses of human rights up ’til 1983, when he took over government. And he continued it. He clamped down on the press.

And that’s what he’s doing now, because beside just killing people, beside this whole clampdown on people, they’re also clamping down on social media. They have laws to criminalize people who are speaking out against the government. That carries death penalty. They are pushing these laws through the National Assembly. And the National Assembly has become a rubber-stamp National Assembly in Nigeria.

So, this is not new. This is Buhari’s way of doing things. Buhari doesn’t believe in human rights, doesn’t believe in public opinion. Buhari doesn’t believe in democracy. But, unfortunately, he was packaged in 19— I mean, 2015, as a reform democrat, and came to office. And he’s just continuing with his own way of doing things. And he’s surrounded by people who have the same mindsets, because it suits their agenda to have a populace that cannot speak, that cannot discuss openly. And it suits their agenda that they suppress everybody so that they can carry out — they can continue to carry out corruption of immense proportion. So, Buhari came to power saying he will fight corruption, but, you know, we discovered even more corruption in his government than even previous governments in the history of Nigeria. So, this is Buhari for you.

And in rejecting his ban on SARS, people are just saying, “Look, this is not enough.” You know, you have the inspector general of police — they asked him to be fired. They refused. You had the chief of Army staff, who presumably ordered the stealings at — or, the shooting at Lekki. The people have been asking for this man to be removed for years. You know, they refuse to remove them because they are there to protect the despot, the Nigerian despot Muhammadu Buhari.

And unfortunately, I don’t think the international community is doing enough. But, hey, you know, this is what they are about, because, for them, oil coming out of Nigeria is more important than the people of Nigeria.

But the good news we have here is that people can now speak up. They can tell their own stories through the social media platforms, that have helped in galvanizing public opinion internationally and locally. And we now have a solid diaspora, too, that has become part of this struggle in a way that has never happened before in Nigeria.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Aderonke Ige, I just — could you say — we just have a couple of minutes — what exactly are protesters calling for now?

ADERONKE IGE: [inaudible] beginning, it was about End SARS at first, because of the brutality, because of what we saw as the indiscipline, the way that citizens, ordinary citizens, especially young people, were treated as common criminals, just by profiling them and stereotyping and so on. However, it went beyond. It became a thing of — you know, these things have been pent up over the years, years of indiscipline, lack of accountability, impunity on the part of government officials. So it became a thing of reform the entire police. Their modus operandi is not suitable. They are killing people. At the same time, the nonchalant attitude of government, especially the federal government, the criminal silence when you need their voice to be loudest. They are totally silent, aloof in a criminal manner. People die under your watch. There’s no accountability for anything. Even officers that are named, nothing happens to them. There’s no prosecution. No justice is being seen as been done, manifestly done. So, people were tired. It became a whole lot of issues.

Now, what the demands were initially, we were asking for protest stands that were — even in the course of the protests, as we were protesting against brutality, people were still brutalized, arrested and so on. And we said, “OK, release these people already. Then, every named victim of police injustice, of systemic injustice, we want them to be duly compensated. We want them to get justice, just by bringing people to book and then getting a proper sanction. We want to have that. Then we want to manifestly see that government is taking action on every other issue, topical issue, that we have raised.” And we have said we want this to be done and that to be done.

For instance, we will tell you here that there’s a commission that is called the National Human Rights Commission. This commission normally is supposed to oversee all human rights issues, you know, abuses and just violations and so on. But let me tell you, even as we speak, that commission seems to be a toothless bulldog, because there’s no governing council. And without a governing council, what can they do? There has not been a governing council since 2015. Those are some of the issues.

But then — so, it became a thing of even the End SARS that we are calling for, that became the hashtag for all these other holistic demands, the government was playing politics with it. So that’s the reason you will see, OK, they came and said the IGP — still, as we speak, General Muhammadu Buhari has been criminally silent. So, let’s even leave him aside. The IGP came and said —

AMY GOODMAN: Could these protests bring down the government of Muhammadu Buhari?

ADERONKE IGE: Look, anything can happen at this point, because everybody is speaking with one voice. And that is the reason that when they tried to politicize this and say, “Oh, it’s this group, is that opposition” — no, we can’t all be opposition at the same time. We are calling you out on certain things that you are not doing, on the fact that the system is running on injustice, and you are choosing to politicize it.

So, even at the point that they said they were disbanding SARS, was that it means these people are not listening. They don’t get the point. We are not doing a christening ceremony. You can’t disband SARS and then immediately replace it with SWAT, because SWAT is going to eventually become a worse form of SARS. So, they are not listening. And that is the anger of an average Nigerian.

So, yes, you are correct: This can totally unseat the government. And this can totally lead to a kind of reform that we have been asking for, to that social revolution, intellectual revolution, people political resolution, because right now what is worse is that instead of listening to the people and engaging appropriately, you are suppressing the people. You are oppressing the people for that. And for how long can you do that? Now, in fact, you will see —

AMY GOODMAN: Aderonke Ige, we want to thank you so much for being with us. We are certainly going to continue to cover this. Please be safe. Human rights activist and lawyer, now in the streets of Lagos, Nigeria, where security forces gunned down at least a dozen people in the last few days. And Omoyele Sowore, Nigerian journalist, human rights activist, ran for president, was imprisoned by the current Nigerian regime, speaking to us from the capital.

For folks who want to see more of our coverage of Nigeria, you can go to our documentary Drilling and Killing: Chevron and Nigeria’s Oil Dictatorship. Democracy Now! went to Nigeria. I covered the Niger Delta with Jeremy Scahill, and we went with Sowore Omoyele to the Niger Delta, where we were investigating the activities of an earlier SARS, called, as he said, the Kill-and-Go. That’s the Kill-and-Go.

When we come back, as fighting continues in the South Caucasus between Armenia and Azerbaijan, we look at the conflict, which has already taken the lives of over 700 people. Stay with us.