LAGOS, Nigeria—Several people were killed as Nigerian soldiers opened fire at a key protest site in Lagos, witnesses said, as the government sought to end two weeks of marches against police brutality that have mushroomed into broader nationwide demonstrations.
Three witnesses, gathered among hundreds of protesters at Lagos’s Lekki toll gate, said that pickup trucks arrived shortly after nightfall and soldiers began to fire tear gas and then bullets into the crowd. It wasn’t immediately clear how many people had been killed, but each of the witnesses said they saw several bodies on the road. Videos posted on social media showed screaming protesters surrounding bloodied corpses, visible through a haze of yellow tear-gas smoke.
“The Nigerian government sent the army to come and kill us,” said Akinbosola Adeyemi, a talk-show host who ran five-eights of a mile to safety. “A lot of people were hit. You are not meant to shoot live firearms against us.”
Nigeria’s army referred questions about the killings to the civil police, who couldn’t be immediately reached for comment. Nigeria’s national government also couldn’t immediately be reached for comment. The state government said it would open an investigation into the shooting.
The decision to use military force to quell the protests moves politics in West Africa’s most populous nation and largest oil producer into an uncertain phase. The intervention came just hours after the governor of Lagos declared a curfew across Africa’s most populous city, saying that swelling protests against police brutality had “degenerated into a monster,” setting up a showdown between demonstrators and the government.
Babajide Sanwo-Olu said on his Twitter feed that a curfew would come into effect at 4 p.m. local time on Tuesday and affect all parts of the state, which is home to more than 20 million people. “Nobody except essential service providers and first responders must be found on the streets” the governor said. “We will not watch and allow anarchy in our dear state.”
Tensions have escalated across the oil-rich West African nation in recent days as violence has flared across several cities across southern and central states. Armed groups—which demonstrators say were government agitators, a charge the government and its allies has denied—have clashed with protesters, property has been vandalized and in the southwestern Edo state, dozens of prisoners were freed in a jail break, prompting the state governor to impose a curfew.
The Lekki toll gate, situated at one of Lagos’s busiest intersections, has become a key rallying point for peaceful demonstrations in recent days, with food stalls, canvas tents and a private security detail patrolling the perimeter. DJs and Afrobeat stars have sung protest songs to young demonstrators waving their cellphones behind a large plasma screen beaming the slogan Soro Soke, or “speak louder.”
The intervention comes after Monday protests where tens of thousands of demonstrators brought swaths of the commercial capital to a standstill, mounting the biggest demonstration in a two-week campaign against police brutality. A city police station was set on fire on Tuesday morning, leading the national police chief to order the deployment of anti-riot police to quell “increasing attacks including acts of arson and malicious damage.”
Lagos has emerged as the epicenter of a protest movement known as #EndSARS—it began with demands to disband a police force called the Special Anti-Robbery Squad that had been accused of extortion, torture and extrajudicial killings—that mushroomed into calls for broader complaints about corruption, poor governance and a weak economy.
Hours before the curfew began, hundreds of protesters remained at the toll gate, pledging not to move.
“This has become about much more than police brutality. It’s about our future,” said Stephen Adedoja, a 35-year-old driver. “We have to make a stand before it’s too late.”
President Muhammadu Buhari, a former general, has said little about the protest movement that has evolved from a single-issue campaign into a more diffuse protest against alleged government corruption, economic mismanagement and nepotism. Mr. Buhari agreed in a televised statement last week to disband SARS but has been silent since. Several cabinet ministers and military officials have warned in recent days that the protests had become political and were lurching toward “anarchy.”
A former general who briefly ruled Nigeria at the head of a military junta in the 1980s before returning as elected civilian president in 2015, Mr. Buhari has deployed the army against other protests in recent years, including in 2018, where government forces killed 45 Shiite Muslims marching to support a jailed cleric. He has urged the protesters to give the government time to address their concerns.
Some analysts who have supported the protests said the reports from Lagos were reminiscent of a military dictatorship. “It’s a demonstration of how far the Nigerian government can go to stop Nigerians from exercising their rights. It’s an affront on the constitution and democracy,” said Bulama Bukarti, a human-rights lawyer who represented the families of SARS victims.
Inside the protest movement, fractures have appeared between those who want to keep the focus on police brutality and those who want more fundamental change.
In the hours before the incursion, hundreds of #EndSARS supporters on social media urged demonstrators to withdraw from the streets to continue the protest online. “We’ve lost enough people,” one said. Amnesty International said on Monday that at least 15 people have died since the protests began.
Oladotton Collins-Ebiesuwa, 49 years old, was at the toll gate when he heard automatic gunfire begin and began to run amid a crowd of protesters.
“It was chaos. Everybody was running but then some tried to go back,” said the businessman, who has been protesting for days. “But we will continue. These people have been cheating us for so long.”
Write to Joe Parkinson at email@example.com
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