An indefinite 24-hour curfew has come into force in Nigeria’s largest city, Lagos, following almost two weeks of youth-led demonstrations against police brutality.
The move on Tuesday came as the country’s police chief ordered the immediate nationwide deployment of anti-riot forces following increased attacks on police facilities, according to a spokesman.
Tens of thousands of people have taken to the streets every day for nearly two weeks across Nigeria to demand an end to police violence, as well as sweeping reforms in the country. Amnesty International says at least 15 people have been killed since the demonstrations began.
Declaring the curfew in Lagos, home to some 20 million people, Governor Babajide Sanwo-Olu alleged that criminals had hijacked the protest movement “to unleash mayhem”.
“Nobody except essential service providers and first responders must be found on the streets” from 4pm local time (15:00 GMT), he said. “We will not watch and allow anarchy in our dear state,” the governor added, saying the protests had “degenerated into a monster”.
The Lagos state governor’s spokesman, Gboyega Akosile, said the curfew would not end on Wednesday. “A 24-hour curfew means all round the clock, day and night. It is indefinite. Nobody moves until we lift the curfew.”
Citizens in Nigeria’s financial hub stocked up on food after the governor’s announcement. Staples such as tomatoes and eggs were sold out in some places as women in markets closed shops and people queued at cash machines. GTBank, one of the largest lenders in Nigeria, said all its branches would remain closed for the duration of the curfew.
As the lockdown went into force, hundreds of defiant protesters sang the national anthem as they pledged to remain out on the streets. “Are you afraid?” a man shouted to the flag-waving crowd from a stage at a tollgate in the city centre that has become the epicentre of the demonstrations.
“We will stay here peacefully,” 32-year-old demonstrator Akin told AFP news agency. “This is our new home.”
The curfew in Lagos came a day after the southern state of Edo imposed a similar measure after a jailbreak by prisoners during demonstrations.
Tensions running high
Lagos has witnessed some of the biggest protests, with crowds blocking main roads and access to the international airport.
The police spokesman said in a statement the anti-riot officers were being dispatched “to protect lives and property of all Nigerians and secure critical national infrastructure across the country”.
On Tuesday, a police station in the Orile Iganmu area of Lagos was set ablaze, TV news station Channels reported.
Some demonstrators in Lagos have accused authorities of using agitators to create the conditions for a security crackdown, a charge the authorities deny.
Meanwhile in the capital, Abuja, crowds were violently dispersed by security forces on Tuesday and thick black smoke could be seen over the city, according to reports.
The peaceful and largely leaderless protests, organised under the #EndSARS hashtag, began with calls to scrap a notorious police unit, the Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS), which has long been accused of extortion, torture and extrajudicial killings.
After days of widespread demonstrations, the authorities announced the dissolution of SARS and later ordered all personnel to report to the police headquarters in Abuja for debriefing and psychological and medical examinations. Meanwhile, the forming of a new Special Weapons and Tactics (SWAT) team was announced to replace SARS.
However, the announcements did not satisfy protesters, who viewed them as just another renaming exercise and pledged to stay on the streets until promises are delivered and their demands – including the release of those arrested – are met.
Officials have called for protesters to suspend the demonstrations to give the government time to make good on its pledges. Youth Minister Sunday Dare said on Monday the government had met demonstrators’ demands for talks on reforms in law enforcement and urged them to enter into dialogue.
Early in the protests, police fired on protesters in the Surulere area of Lagos and elsewhere. Armed gangs have attacked protesters in Lagos and Abuja, where demonstrators besieged the headquarters of SARS.
Femi Gbajabiamila, speaker of Nigeria’s lower chamber of parliament, said he would not sign off on the federal budget for next year unless it included provisions to compensate victims of police brutality over the past two decades.