Nigeria’s army signaled it was prepared to intervene in a standoff between a burgeoning protest movement against police brutality and the government of Africa’s biggest oil-producing nation.
Nationwide protests have rocked the country for eight consecutive days as thousands of mostly young Nigerians have marched in the West African nation’s largest cities.
The demonstrations began with a call to ban a notorious police unit, the Special Anti-Robbery Squad, or SARS, which has been accused of torture, extortion and extrajudicial killings. The government agreed to disband the unit on Sunday after the number of people killed in clashes with security forces rose to 10. But the demonstrations, organized under the name #EndSARS, have since mushroomed into broader protests against alleged police brutality and corrupt government.
Nigeria’s army said on Thursday that it was prepared to act decisively to help the government maintain law and order, warning “all subversive elements and troublemakers to desist.”
Shortly after, the government banned protests in the capital, Abuja, citing violations of safety rules and social-distancing guidelines.
Tensions have been growing on the streets in Abuja and the commercial capital, Lagos, where groups of men armed with clubs and bats attacked groups of protesters camped at strategic intersections. Protesters said the men were government-sponsored agitators aiming to scare demonstrators and give security forces a pretext to crack down. Nigeria’s government didn’t respond to requests for comment.
“The government does not have the right to ban our peaceful protest,” said Ayodeji Amoo, a 30-year-old geologist, as he walked in a thousands-strong throng toward the National Assembly. “We will continue.”
Demonstrations against security forces have risen in several West African nations this year, as they have in the U.S.
Nigeria’s government, after hoping the protests would fizzle out, appeared to be laying the groundwork to end them by force, analysts said.
“The army’s statement is significant and the next few days will be crucial,” said Chidi Nwaonu, a former Nigerian army officer now at Peccavi Consulting, a risk advisory firm. “These protests are fairly organic with a trajectory and momentum of their own.”
Rights groups and Nigerians have condemned the Nigerian police for years, accusing officers of heavy-handed methods including beatings and extortion. Street protests flared last week after a video circulated alleging to show officers from the SARS unit killing an unarmed man in the oil-rich Delta state.
The video ignited the #EndSARS digital campaign, which trended online in Nigeria for several days. Nigerians used the hashtag to share stories of alleged abuse at the hands of SARS, including torture methods including hanging, mock execution and sexual violence. Nigerian diaspora communities have been gathering outside embassies and consulates in London, Berlin and Washington.
The largely peaceful protests led by Nigerian youth have won the backing of celebrities and business leaders. In recent days, a coalition of influencers including musicians Kanye West and Drake, TV host Piers Morgan and Star Wars actor John Boyega have backed the #EndSARS campaign.
Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey tweeted his support on Wednesday, encouraging people to donate to the protests via bitcoin.
President Muhammadu Buhari pledged in a televised address on Monday that disbanding SARS would be “only the first step in our commitment to extensive police reforms.” The touted reforms include a pay rise for more than 350,000 federal police officers to reduce the temptation to resort to extortion to supplement meager wages.
Mr. Buhari, a former general who briefly ruled Nigeria at the head of a military junta in the 1980s before returning as elected civilian president in 2015, has deployed the army against other protests in recent years. Over two days in 2018, government forces killed 45 Shiite Muslims marching to support a jailed cleric, after what the army called an attack by a massive group of protesters. Amnesty International called it a shocking use of deadly force.
On Thursday, there was a sign of a political backlash against Mr. Buhari’s pledges by his allies in Nigeria’s majority Muslim north, as a group of northern governors rejected the total disbandment of SARS. Simon Lalong, the governor of Nigeria’s Plateau state, said SARS had been instrumental in fighting the Boko Haram insurgency and should be reformed to optimize its operations.
Protesters said they would stay on the streets until the promises are delivered and the government releases those arrested at the recent demonstrations and commits to not using live rounds during civil unrest.
An oil price crash and the impact of the coronavirus pandemic have slammed Nigeria’s moribund economy, which is failing to keep pace with the country’s rapid population growth. More than 55% of Nigerians are underemployed or unemployed and youth unemployment is even higher, according to official statistics.
Many of those on the streets are educated and digitally savvy members of a new Nigerian generation who have less deference to the authorities and no longer see a government job as a path to security.
“We’re not going to stop protesting, the government’s ban is unconstitutional,” said Bisola Bamigbola, a 27-year-old lawyer who has been protesting in downtown Abuja since last week, carrying a placard emblazoned with: #EndBadGovernment. “This protest is not just about #EndSARS but about bad governance.”
Write to Joe Parkinson at [email protected]
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