Protests calling for an end to police brutality in the West African country of Nigeria turned deadly this week after soldiers in Lagos opened fire on demonstrators on Tuesday, killing at least 12 people.
Soldiers from a police unit called the Special Anti-Robbery Squad, or SARS, shot at protesters who had gathered in the Lekki toll gate area of Lagos, according to Amnesty International.
“[There was] no provocation whatsoever,” Chioma Agwuegbo, an activist in Nigeria, told Yahoo News in a video chat interview. “People were just singing the national anthem and holding the flag. I have never, ever seen anything like this in my entire life. ... We're not at war. Yes, the governor had declared a curfew, but what is civil disobedience if not people disobeying orders?”
“I never knew how bad they were until the protests started,” said another Nigerian woman who, citing killings and arrests of those who have spoken to the press, requested anonymity to speak with Yahoo News. “But Tuesday’s violence was when I realized these people are demons in uniform. … It’s a sad moment for all of Nigeria.”
Since at least 2015, Nigerian citizens and their international supporters have called for an end to police abuse in the country amid claims of kidnapping, harassment and extortion by SARS officers.
Over the last three weeks, tens of thousands of Nigerians have taken to the streets to protest police brutality and the failure of Nigerian government officials to address it. In response, the state governor imposed a 24-hour curfew in Lagos for citizens and deployed anti-riot police to the country’s largest city.
Videos posted to social media show SARS officers brutalizing citizens, pulling them out of cars and setting the cars on fire, hitting people with sticks or the butts of guns in public and shooting others at close range.
“It’s a rogue unit,” said Agwuegbo. “They stand in the streets. They extort people. They stereotype young men with tattoos or braids or dreadlocks and they extort them. Sometimes they see a young man in their flashy car and they question their money and people are kidnapped. People have disappeared.”
“My two brothers have been victims of SARS,” a 20-year-old Nigerian student who goes by the name of Sheriff told Yahoo News. “They were extorted and brutalized on different occasions. … The situation is really bad.”
Amnesty International tweeted Tuesday that it “received credible but disturbing evidence of excessive use of force occasioning deaths of protesters at Lekki toll gate in Lagos.” In response, the Nigerian Army called the violence “fake news.”
As of Wednesday afternoon, neither President Trump nor Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has spoken about the violence in Nigeria. The U.S. Embassy, however, posted a statement on Tuesday saying that "multiple demonstrations are ongoing across" the country.
"Although most demonstrations are peaceful, some have become violent and have shut down major thoroughfares and bridges,” the message said. “Some police stations have been targeted.”
The message also noted that the U.S. Consulate General in Lagos would remain closed at least through Wednesday and urged Americans to avoid the protests.
On social media, a call to #EndSARS has gone viral, drawing in celebrities and elected officials outside of Nigeria.
“Three years ago Nigeria’s police chief re-organised SARS after public condemnation about the violence that came with their operations,” British-Nigerian actor John Boyega tweeted. “That change has done nothing for Nigerians and today many are still in danger. #EndSarsProtests”
"I am heartbroken to see the senseless brutality taking place in Nigeria,” Beyoncé wrote in an Instagram post. “There has to be an end to SARS. We have been working on partnerships with youth organizations to support those protesting for change. We are collaborating with coalitions to provide emergency healthcare, food and shelter. To our Nigerian sisters and brothers, we stand by you."
Former U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton also called out Nigeria’s president, Muhammadu Buhari.
“I’m calling on @mbuhari and the @hqnigerianarmy to stop killing young #EndSARS protesters,” Clinton tweeted on Tuesday. “#StopNigeriaGovernment”
On Wednesday, Lagos state Governor Babajide Sanwo-Olu called for calm in the country.
“This is the toughest night of our lives as forces beyond our direct control have moved to make dark notes in our history, but we will face it and come out stronger,” Sanwo-Olu tweeted. “As the Governor of our state, I recognize the buck stops at my table and I will work with the FG to get to the root of this unfortunate incident and stabilise all security operations to protect the lives of our residents.”
Citing years of inaction on reforming SARS, many Nigerians no longer put much faith in their elected leaders.
“We need a complete overhaul of the Nigerian system,” said the Nigerian woman who requested anonymity. “These protests have showed that Nigeria is a poisoned British company. No one over 50 should be in power. … Get rid of everything. We need a new Nigeria.”
“The inspector general of police had announced that SARS had been disbanded, but they were shooting at us over the last 11 days,” said Agwuegbo. “The president announced that it has been disbanded as well, but they were still shooting at us. But tonight you have people at Lekki toll gates sitting and holding the flag, singing the national anthem. Earlier in the day people came and took out the CCTV cameras. The light at the toll gates were turned off. And then the military rolled in and started shooting.”
Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden released a statement Tuesday urging Buhari and the national military “to cease the violent crackdown on protesters in Nigeria.”
“The United States must stand with Nigerians who are peacefully demonstrating for police reform and seeking an end to corruption in their democracy,” Biden said in his statement. “I encourage the government to engage in a good-faith dialogue with civil society to address these long-standing grievances and work together for a more just and inclusive Nigeria.”
Nigeria is home to more than 195 million people, many of whom are fed up with the ongoing abuses of SARS officers.
“We don't have anywhere else to go,” said Agwuegbo. “I'm a citizen, just like everyone else. I pay my taxes, I work here, I'm an employer, I'm an employee. … What happened [Tuesday] was murder, pure premeditated murder. They were sitting on the floor and holding flags and they were telling themselves, ‘Let's wave the flags. Let's keep singing.’ ’You don't shoot people like that. … There is nowhere under heaven that that kind of behavior is right.”
“We asked not be killed and they responded by killing us,” Sheriff said.
The state government has ordered an investigation into the incident, according to the Lagos governor's spokesman, Gboyega Akosile.
As Nigerians continue to call out the injustice in their country, Agwuegbo says that everyone can play a role in amplifying Nigerians’ plight.
“[Everyone should be] speaking, calling for justice for Nigerians who have been killed,” she said. “That's what everyone should be doing.”
Cover thumbnail photo illustration: Yahoo News; photos: Getty Images (2)
Read more from Yahoo News: