A week after the shooting of peaceful demonstrators in Lagos, Nigeria’s army has admitted its soldiers were deployed to restore order, but denied they opened fire on the gathered crowd protesting against police brutality.
At least 10 protesters were killed in the Lekki plaza shooting on October 20, according to Amnesty International.
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The army had maintained that its troops were not at the site, but late on Tuesday a military spokesman, Major Osoba Olaniyi, said soldiers were sent to enforce a curfew. However, he denied that the troops shot at the protesters.
“At no time did soldiers of the Nigerian army open fire on any civilian,” Olaniyi said in a statement.
Olaniyi said soldiers were deployed on orders from the Lagos state government due to “violence which led to several police stations being burnt, policemen killed, suspects in police custody released and weapons carted away”.
Lagos Governor Babajide Sanwo-Olu, however, has said the state has no authority over the national army. “It is imperative to explain that no governor controls the rules of engagement of the army,” he wrote on Twitter the day after the shooting. “I have nevertheless instructed an investigation into the ordered and the adopted rules of engagement employed by the men of the Nigerian Army deployed to the Lekki Toll Gate.”
The military did not say how the soldiers intervened to curb unrest beyond denying that they shot protesters.
The military’s statement came shortly before Amnesty International’s Wednesday publication of an investigation that said it had tracked army vehicles from their Lagos barracks to Lekki Toll Gate using photographs and verified videos of the soldiers’ movements that had been posted on social media.
At 6:29pm (17:29 GMT) on October 20, two military vehicles were filmed leaving at Bonny Camp, while later footage shows four others that appear to be used by the military and police, according to the group.
“What happened at Lekki Toll Gate has all the traits of the Nigerian authorities’ pattern of a cover-up whenever their defence and security forces commit unlawful killings,” said Osai Ojigho, Amnesty’s country director for Nigeria.
“The initial denials of the involvement of soldiers in the shooting was followed by the shameful denial of the loss of lives as a result of the military’s attack against the protests. Many people are still missing since the day of the incident, and credible evidence shows that the military prevented ambulances from reaching the severely injured in the aftermath.”
Lekki Shooting: Timeline of Denial
20.10.20: Military not at Lekki Toll Gate
21.10.20: Military denied involvement
22.10.20: Governor of Lagos denied involvement
23.10.20: Lagos & Military denied there was shooting
24.1020: Lagos governor admits military were there#LekkiTollGate
— Amnesty International Nigeria (@AmnestyNigeria) October 28, 2020
A Lagos-based soldier, who declined to be identified because this soldier was not authorised to speak to the media, told Reuters news agency that troops from the army 81st Division’s 65th Battalion, based at Bonny Camp, had fired on unarmed civilians at the toll gate.
Witnesses at Lekki described armed men in army fatigues arriving around 7pm (18:00 GMT) at the site of the peaceful protests, where demonstrators knelt to wave flags and sing the national anthem, before the men raised their guns and shot into the crowd.
A judicial panel began investigating the shooting on Tuesday. The panel is also investigating allegations of abuse against the Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS), an infamous police unit accused of extortion, extrajudicial killings, rape and torture.
Youth-led protests against police brutality erupted in early October after a video that allegedly showed a SARS operative killing a man was widely shared online.
After days of demonstrations, President Muhammadu Buhari’s government agreed to disband SARS, but the protests persisted with participants demanding sweeping reforms of the police force and action against corruption.
The shooting at Lekki plaza took place after authorities imposed the round-the-clock curfew ordering everyone to stay at home. For two days after that, Lagos saw widespread rioting.
Overall, Amnesty estimates that 56 people have died across the country since the protest began, including protesters and “thugs who were allegedly hired by the authorities”.