Lagos, Nigeria — Amnesty International said late Tuesday there was “credible but disturbing evidence” that security forces in the megacity of Lagos had fatally shot protesters who were demonstrating against police brutality despite a new curfew going into effect. The Lagos state commissioner for information, Gbenga Omotoso, said in a statement Tuesday night only that “there have been reports of shooting at the Lekki Toll Plaza following the 24-hour curfew imposed on Lagos.”
“The state government has ordered an investigation into the incident,” he said.
“While we continue to investigate the killings, Amnesty International wishes to remind the authorities that under international law, security forces may only resort to the use of lethal force when strictly unavoidable to protect against imminent threat of death or serious injury,” Amnesty tweeted.
Protesters told BBC News that uniformed men opened fire on them in Lagos’ wealthy Lekki suburb on Tuesday evening. Armed soldiers were seen barricading the protest site moments before the alleged shooting, BBC Nigeria correspondent Nayeni Jones said.
“The soldiers pulled up… and they started firing directly at we, the peaceful protesters,” one unnamed demonstrator told BBC News. “They were firing and they were advancing straight at us. It was chaos. Somebody got hit straight beside me and he died on the spot… It was pandemonium and they kept on shooting and shooting at us. It lasted for about an hour and a half and the soldiers were actually taking up the dead bodies.”
The development came just hours after Lagos state Governor Babajide Sanwo-Olu warned on Twitter that the growing protests against police brutality in Nigeria had “degenerated into a monster that is threatening the well-being of our society.”
A police statement also had warned that security forces would now “exercise the full powers of the law to prevent any further attempt on lives and property of citizens.”
The claims of fatal shootings in Lekki came after two chaotic weeks of mounting protests leading to more widespread social unrest. On Tuesday, authorities said nearly 2,000 inmates had broken out of jail after crowds attacked two correctional facilities a day earlier.
The alleged violence by police forces began to draw scrutiny from American politicians on Tuesday, including Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden who called on Nigeria’s leader to “cease the violent crackdown.”
The Inspector-General of Police said it was deploying anti-riot police across Nigeria, which is Africa’s most populous nation, and ordered forces to strengthen security around correctional facilities.
The governor of Lagos state said the new curfew would cover the entire city of some 14 million people and surrounding areas. The announcement came after a police station was burned down in the city and two people were shot dead by police.
“Lives and limbs have been lost as criminals and miscreants are now hiding under the umbrella of these protests to unleash mayhem on our state,” the governor said.
Lagos has been the epicenter of the protests, with demonstrators at times blocking access to the airport and barricading roads leading to the country’s main ports.
A curfew also went into effect in Benin City after a pair of attacks on correctional facilities that left 1,993 inmates missing. Interior Ministry spokesman Mohammed Manga said large, armed crowds had attacked the two prisons, subduing the guards on duty. It was unclear what the prisons’ exact populations had been before the attack.
“Most of the inmates held at the centers are convicted criminals serving terms for various criminal offenses, awaiting execution or standing trial for violent crimes,” he said in a statement.
The protests began two weeks ago after a video circulated showing a man being beaten, apparently by police officers of the Special Anti-Robbery Squad, known as SARS.
Young protesters marched in cities across Nigeria, under the banner #EndSARS. In response, the government announced it would ban the anti-robbery squad, which for several years human rights groups have blamed for widespread abuses, including torture and killings.
The demonstrators have not been satisfied with the disbandment of the SARS unit and are demanding an end to abuses and respect for human rights in all parts of the police force. The protests have stopped traffic in Lagos, the capital Abuja and many other large cities in Nigeria, a country of 196 million people.
With the reports of protester deaths at the hands of police, the unrest in Nigeria has started to draw more international attention. Former U.S. Vice President Joe Biden, now the Democratic candidate challenging President Donald Trump in the November 3 election, released a statement Tuesday urging Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari and his military forces “to cease the violent crackdown on protesters in Nigeria, which has already resulted in several deaths.”
“The United States must stand with Nigerians who are peacefully demonstrating for police reform and seeking an end to corruption in their democracy. 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,” Biden said in the statement released by his campaign.
Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who lost her election bid in 2016 against Mr. Trump, said in a tweet, meanwhile, that Buhari and his forces should “stop killing young #EndSARS protesters.”
Neither President Trump nor Secretary of State Mike Pompeo had spoken about the violence as of early Wednesday morning, but the U.S. Embassy posted a message to American nationals in Nigeria on Tuesday warning 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. Some police stations have been targeted,” the message said, noting that the U.S. Consulate General in Lagos would remain closed at least through Wednesday and urging Americans to avoid the protests.