As lawlessness roils Nigeria, police chief vows to take back streets
By Shola Lawal
Nigeria’s police chief on Saturday ordered the mobilization of all police resources to reclaim public space after more than two weeks of peaceful protests over police brutality gave way to widespread vandalism and looting.
The order came four days after police and soldiers fired on demonstrators, killing 12 and injuring hundreds in an upscale Lagos neighborhood. The protesters are demanding that the government dismantle and discipline a police unit known as SARS, the Special Anti-Robbery Squad, which for years has been known for detaining, brutalizing and stealing from citizens, particularly young people.
Tuesday’s violent crackdown on protesters, combined with a nighttime curfew imposed in its wake and protest leaders urging people to stay home, have largely cleared peaceful demonstrators from the streets of Lagos.
But following the shootings, which outraged Nigerians, at least 17 police stations were destroyed in Lagos, according to a police spokesperson.
Widespread looting has also taken place, including at government warehouses stocked with food. Malls, TV stations and banks have been targeted as well as retail stores in popular shopping districts in Lagos, Nigeria’s commercial and cultural hub.
“Enough is enough to all acts of lawlessness, disruption of public peace and order and wanton violence, which have resulted in indiscriminate looting of shops, malls and warehouses, damage to property and loss of lives in some parts of the country,” said the police chief, M.A. Adamu, in a statement Saturday.
Additional police units are being deployed to all 36 states, Adamu said. He added that police would “use all legitimate means to halt the further slide into lawlessness and brigandage.”
Violence and looting were also reported in other states.
On Saturday, the governor of the southwestern state of Osun, Adegboyega Oyetola, imposed a 24-hour curfew “to forestall the breakdown of law and order and protect the lives and property of citizens and residents.”
Dozens have died in the protests against police brutality that started Oct. 8, with 38 killed across the country on Tuesday alone, Amnesty International said. The turmoil has been the worst street violence since Nigeria’s return to civilian rule in 1999.
Many of the demonstrators have been middle-class, well-educated young people in the southern and central cities who are too young to remember the military rule that ended two decades ago.
The government has promised to reform the police force in the wake of the protests, but President Muhammadu Buhari has been criticized for not mentioning Tuesday’s shooting and for warning Nigerians against “undermining national security.”
He further inflamed the protesters Friday by saying security forces have exercised “extreme restraint” in handling the situation.
Buhari has said 51 civilians have been killed, along with 11 police officers and seven soldiers since the protests began.
Protesters said the surge in violence this week could damage their peaceful efforts at reform and allow the government to cast the movement as having been hijacked by criminal elements.
“The lootings don’t put us in a good light,” said Chiamaka Ebochue, 27, a protester in Lagos. “We have to take this loss and restrategize. We need to be aware of our voting rights; that’s the only ammunition we have.”