Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari urged citizens in remarks Thursday to “discontinue the street protests” that have engulfed the country in the last two weeks, triggered by police corruption and abuse.
Protesters began taking the streets of the country’s south in mid-October to demand the dismantling of the nation’s Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS), a police unit designed to target larceny and violence. Since its establishment in 1992, human rights groups have documented extensive evidence that SARS officers used their positions to commit atrocities against Nigerians, including regularly extorting bribes from people, torturing and killing subjects, and using their power to kidnap and rob civilians — the crime their unit was built to fight. The latest uproar followed the publication of videos on social media allegedly showing SARS agents executing civilians.
Buhari’s administration announced on October 11 that it would officially dismantle SARS, but the concession did little to stop the protests. SARS officials are eligible to return to the streets as members of other police units.
On the eve of Buhari’s speech Thursday, the first directly addressing police violence against protesters, the nation’s military was facing global reprimand for allegedly opening fire on unarmed protesters in southern Lagos, a key economic hub. Amnesty International has documented at least 56 people killed in the protests so far. He did not condemn state violence against protesters.
The Nigerian military has denied that it has committed any abuses. The only soldier the Nigerian Army has reported punishing was a lance corporal who posted a video to social media urging his fellow soldiers not to shoot at protesters.
Buhari — a former dictator who won the presidency on an unfulfilled campaign promise to eradicate Boko Haram in 2015 in the first peaceful transfer of power in national history — used his statement instead to lament violence from protesters and gangs of criminals who have used the chaos to loot businesses and destroy property. He also accused protesters of being driven by false information.
“I call on all Nigerians to go about their normal businesses, and enjoin security agencies to protect lives and properties of all law abiding citizens without doing harm to those they are meant to protect,” Buhari said, according to Nigeria’s Premium Times. “Let me pay tribute to officers of the Nigeria Police Force who have tragically lost their lives in the line of duty.”
“The result of this [the protests] is clear to all observers:” Buhari listed, “human lives have been lost; acts of sexual violence have been reported; two major correctional facilities were attacked and convicts freed; public and private properties completely destroyed or vandalised; the sanctity of the Palace of a Peace Maker, the Oba of Lagos has been violated.”
“The spreading of deliberate falsehood and misinformation through the social media in particular, that this government is oblivious to the pains and plight of its citizens, is a ploy to mislead the unwary within and outside Nigeria into unfair judgement and disruptive behaviour,” he added.
Buhari’s remark on the “unwary … outside Nigeria” appears to be a response to global demands on his regime to stop attacking protesters from a growing list of foreign politicians and celebrities. U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo issued a statement Thursday demanding Buhari order an end to state violence against peaceful protesters.
“I therefore call on our youths to discontinue the street protests and constructively engage government in finding solutions. Your voice has been heard loud and clear and we are responding,” Buhari concluded.
On Friday, Buhari held an online meeting with every living former leader of Nigeria to explain his handling of the crisis, claiming that bad actors had “hijacked” the movement.
“We accepted all the demands and proceeded immediately to scrap SARS and started the process of addressing the other demands,” Buhari claimed. ”Unfortunately, the protesters refused to call off the protest and engage the Government to address their grievances. Instead, they became emboldened and gradually turned violent.”
One of the measures Buhari said he took as a concession to the protesters was to raise the salaries of police officers.
Buhari’s speech triggered criticism from his political opponents in Congress, who noted that Buhari failed to address the most recent and concerning act of state violence: agents opening fire on unarmed protesters in Lagos. The minority caucus of Congress noted that the shooting was “the very development that sparked off violent restiveness across the nation and consequent widespread demand for a presidential address.”
“Indeed, the expectation across Nigeria was for Mr. President to reassure Nigerians, especially the youths, by forcefully condemning the killing and brutalisation of our young ones, announcing an accelerated independent inquiry into the circumstances surrounding the gruesome acts and setting a clear pathway for the much-needed overhaul of our security system,” Minority Leader Ndudi Elumelu said in a statement.
Police in Lagos, where much of the violence has occurred, urged citizens to stay home and not join the protests as they attempted to deal with what appeared to be a wave of apolitical violence, surging as criminals take advantage of the police being distracted by assemblies.
Criminals have attacked houses of worship, looted stores, and recently engaged in inter-ethnic violence.
“Police officers are currently patrolling major parts of the city to ensure the safety of residents. Please stay indoors,” Lagos State Police Command urged on Friday, according to Nigeria’s Vanguard newspaper.
In parts of Lagos state, violence erupted on Friday with reportedly no authorities around. One incident that reportedly caused extreme panic among locals was a brawl erupting between a group of ethnic Yoruba locals and travelers from the Hausa community. Vanguard reported:
According to an eyewitness, trouble started when a horde of hoodlums intercepted a truckload of cows from the northern part into Lagos in transit to Agege Lairage […]
The truckload of cows, however, ran into the roadblock which the occupants, mainly Hausas resisted. The situation subsequently, degenerated into a bloody clash as various dangerous weapons were freely used, throwing the entire area into chaos as other Hausa origins were called in to rescue their colleagues. “Apparently, overwhelmed, the police kept away from the scene for fear of being attacked as well.”
The Hausa people are a majority-Muslim group most commonly found in northern Nigeria. The Yoruba are native to southwestern Nigeria and are religiously diverse, including many following the traditional pagan Yoruba religion also common in Nigerian diaspora communities in the Caribbean.