Sporadic shooting has been reported in Lagos as the president of Nigeria appealed for calm hours after security forces opened fire on protesters against police brutality in the centre of the city.
Muhammadu Buhari did not directly address the shootings, but called on Nigerians to be patient as police reforms “gather pace”. On Tuesday night, Nigerian security forces fired at hundreds of people gathered at a key protest site, killing at least seven, according to witnesses, with more injured.
Graphic scenes posted on social media showed protesters at a tollgate in the centre of Lagos fleeing as security forces, including soldiers, shot live rounds towards the crowds. Others were seen struggling to treat the injured, or pleading with security officials to allow medics to treat victims. Ambulances were reported to have been turned back by soldiers.
Lagos state government said 30 people were injured in the shooting, which witnesses said took place at about 7pm.
Babajide Sanwo-Olu, the governor of Lagos, said in a statement that there had been no fatalities recorded, but described the incident as among the “darkest hours from our history as a people”. The Nigerian army has branded all reports of involvement as “fake news” but offered little further information, beyond saying that no soldiers were at the scene.
However, Amnesty International said there was “credible but disturbing evidence” that security forces had fatally shot protesters.
Shortly before the shooting, observers described the atmosphere at the tollgate site as “festive”. Thousands of protesters had gathered in defiance of a 24-hour curfew imposed on Nigeria’s commercial capital, setting up tents and tables offering refreshments, singing songs and waving Nigerian flags.
“We were all sitting down, peacefully, and they shut down the lights and the billboards, everyone started screaming … They came to us, but I don’t know who it was. They were shooting, and everyone was running for his life,” said a protester called Toye, who asked that her full name not be used.
Inyene Akpan, 26, a photographer, said more than 20 soldiers arrived at the tollgate in Lekki and opened fire.
An Amnesty spokesman, Isa Sanusi, corroborated the claims. “Several people were killed by security forces. We are working on verifying how many,” he said.
Fears had grown of increased unrest after the curfew was imposed by Sanwo-Olu, in an attempt to shut down continuing protests against the notorious special anti-robbery squad (Sars) police unit that have erupted across Nigeria.
The federal Sars unit has long been accused of extra-judicial killings, torture and extortion.
In an effort to quell unrest, the government last week announced the unit would be disbanded, and promised a raft of reforms. But many demonstrators are sceptical of government promises without clearly specified timeframes.
Though the protests are focused on issue of police abuse, the grievances of those taking part are broader.
Nigeria is Africa’s biggest economy but development has been very uneven. About 60% of the population of 200 million are under 24, and many young people feel shut out of a political system that largely serves the interests of a narrow section of society.
All over the continent, established rulers are facing challenges from a youthful, urban and educated population that is increasingly frustrated by misgovernment, authoritarianism and poor prospects for reform.
Youth icons such as 27-year-old David Adedeji Adeleke , known as Davido, have spoken out in support of the protest movement.
Authorities had signalled a tough line earlier in the week, with Sanwo-Olu saying that demonstrations had “degenerated into a monster threatening the wellbeing of our society”.
On Tuesday night, Sanwo-Olu tweeted pictures of himself visiting people in hospital who he said were victims of the “unfortunate shooting incident” the evening before.
He said 25 people were being treated for mild to moderate injuries, two were receiving intensive care and three had been discharged.
“I recognise the buck stops at my table and I will work with the [federal government] to get to the riot of this unfortunate incident and stabilise all security operations to protect the lives of our residents.”, Sanwo-Olu tweeted.
Rights groups and protesters have accused “thugs and sponsored hoodlums” of attacking the peaceful demonstrations and seeking to discredit the movement.
In recent days, people wielding machetes, knives and clubs have attacked protesters, leaving many injured, according to Amnesty International.
At least 15 people have died since protests began two weeks ago, Amnesty said, condemning widespread violence by police forces against peaceful demonstrations. Other estimates put the total at 18.