On Tuesday 20 October 2020, unarmed protesters hoisted green and white Nigerian flags as they belted out the national anthem. They were seated on the floor of the Lekki tollgate in Lagos, protesting in front of heavily armed operatives. In several videos posted on social media, unfazed soldiers ignored the protesters’ patriotic gestures.
Minutes later, the Nigerian flag had turned bloody. “The army came to kill us,” said protester Eti-Inyene Akpan.
Images of the bloody national flag being held by protesters have become an overnight symbol of resistance. It is a fitting metaphor. In the past two weeks, peaceful protests have called for the disbanding of the notorious Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS), Nigeria’s most brutal policing unit, known for its extortion, harassment and extrajudicial killings.
Although the calls were heard and the unit disbanded, the youth in Nigeria want action taken against officers from the squad. They also want a total reform of the country’s policing system. So protests continued.
The nationwide protests against the SARS deteriorated into chaos. An organised group said to have joined the security operatives to disrupt peaceful protests is alleged to have formed to disrupt the protests with criminality. More than 15 people have died, a number of their deaths caught on video.
Before Black Tuesday, in Edo State, the group was reportedly responsible for opening the doors of the Benin Correctional Centre. The incident led to the announcement of a 24-hour curfew in the state. The next day, Lagos woke up to news of arson. Three police stations had been razed, allegedly by the group.
Just before noon that Tuesday, Babajide Sanwo-Olu, the governor of one of the most populous and busiest cities in Africa, announced a 4pm curfew. According to him, what started as a peaceful protest “degenerated into a monster” with “lives and limbs” lost as “criminals and miscreants are now hiding under the umbrella of these protests to unleash mayhem on our state”.
Olivia, who would give only her first name, works in Ikeja on the mainland but lives on Lagos Island, where Lekki is situated. “I knew that I had to stop all I was doing to get back home to the island before 4pm,” she said.
“At about 1pm, we left Ikeja, driving towards the island, and we started seeing roadblocks. They weren’t protesters. They were thugs. So they’d blocked one road and were redirecting people through another road. If you passed that road they had opened, you’d pay.”
With a population estimate of more than 14 million people, Lagos is well-known for traffic jams. With a little over four hours left to make it home, residents had to leave work to avoid flouting the curfew. Again, criminals took advantage.
After trying several unsuccessful routes and “driving in circles” for more than two hours, Olivia and her friend decided to camp out at a hotel on the mainland. But some protesters stood their ground at the Lekki tollgate, which has been the main site of the protests. Many celebrities have participated because it’s on Lagos Island, where the city’s affluent residents live.
The Lekki massacre
Akpan, who is a photojournalist, has been documenting the Lekki protests since 9 October. He chose to remain there despite the curfew, saying he felt it was the right thing to do. But early on Wednesday 21 October, the 26-year-old said he was having “nightmares when my eyes are still open. I still can’t sleep since last night.
“I saw some staff of the Lekki tollgate remove their [closed-circuit television (CCTV) cameras] from the tollgate, and the lights and billboard were switched off. This was around 3pm,” said Akpan. “The atmosphere literally changed from that moment, but we kept hope alive and were still there … peacefully.”
The Lekki Concession Company has condemned the attack on unarmed citizens and denied reports that CCTV cameras had been removed.
When the curfew started, protesters sang the national anthem and carried on “smoothly” before the soldiers arrived in military vans, said Akpan. “It was a few minutes before 7pm and not up to 30 seconds, they alighted from their military vans, they took positions and started to shoot at us.”
At 7.08pm, Sanwo-Olu announced that curfew would only start at 9pm because people were trapped in traffic. But the army had already opened fire on the protesters.
With the CCTV cameras off and MTN, Nigeria’s largest telecoms provider, encountering service difficulties around the tollgate area, Akpan “put my life on the line because history was happening right in front of my eyes and it needs to be documented properly”.
More than 130 000 viewers watched live via Nigerian DJ Switch’s Instagram account as soldiers massacred protesters. They watched her offer help and keep people abreast of the situation.
“While everything was happening, we were just following DJ Switch on Instagram,” said resident Daniel Chukwuma. “I could hear people living next door crying and screaming while watching, too, and everything was happening just two blocks away.”
Chukwuma heard “all the gunshots, screaming and running”. He and his brother approached the scene after the first wave of the attack.
Akpan hid under a car as soldiers walked around, inspecting fallen protesters and picking people up. He had put his camera away as it made him a “potential threat”. But his friend was missing. Akpan last saw her on the ground. She had been shot in the leg. He has not been able to find her at any of the local hospitals.
He had no escape plan but “stood up, carried the Nigerian flag. With my ID card around my neck, I slowly walked out while waving the Nigerian flag in the air.
“One of the military guys saw me and even pointed his torchlight on me. I stood still and turned around, and I saw him with a gun. I turned back, raised my two hands just to show I don’t have anything with me and at that point, I just told myself, ‘It’s either I walk out here or you shoot me right now.’
“When I got to some distance, I started running to safety.”
Ambulances were denied entrance despite protesters needing urgent medical assistance. Akpan saw three dead bodies. Phones and cameras were destroyed as people tried to get away. Some protesters jumped into the lagoon and soldiers shot at them. Another of Akpan’s friends dived in and a boat came to his rescue.
“They were firing. [There were] empty bullet shells and blood all over the floor … a lot of blood and bullet shells. And a lot of very angry individuals,” said Chukwuma after things had died down.
Denials and more bloodshed
Later, the governor made his way to hospitals as sporadic shootings were being reported around Lekki. He confirmed that 25 people were treated for mild to moderate injuries, with two in intensive care.
On Wednesday morning, the army denied responsibility for the attack despite video footage from different sources showing men in uniform shooting at the protesters. They labelled several news reports as “fake”.
Angry people set alight some buildings and facilities in Lekki.
Sanwo-Olu condemned the attack in a live broadcast and said no lives were lost. The governor also announced “the immediate suspension of all state activities for three days”.
He ordered that the flags in all government establishments be lowered and sanctioned the creation of a fact-finding committee to look into the Nigerian Army’s possible connection to the massacre.
Later, Sanwo-Olu announced the first death, although he was unsure if the deceased was a protester.
Amnesty International rebuffed claims that there were no casualties. The human rights group said “an on-the-ground investigation” confirmed that the army and police killed at least 12 protesters at Lekki and Alausa in Lagos, stating that “some of those killed and injured at both grounds were allegedly taken away by the military”.
Trigger-happy police officers reportedly killed 13 more people in Mushin.
Speaking on the British Broadcasting Corporation’s Newshour programme, Sanwo-Olu’s submission contradicted the army’s. “I think about seven o’clock or thereabouts there was a small unit of the military that went [to Lekki] and we heard that gunshots were fired,” he said.
On the evening of 22 October, President Muhammadu Buhari finally broke his nine-day silence to address the country. This came two days after the Lekki massacre and he remained silent on the incident.
He urged concerned international parties to “seek to know all the facts available before taking a position or rushing to judgement and making hasty pronouncements.” He also asked the “youths to discontinue the street protests and constructively engage [the] government in finding solutions” so that Nigerians can “go about their normal businesses”.
The Economic Community of West African States expressed concern in a statement that drew the ire of a lot of people, but asked protesters and security forces to exercise restraint.
More than 24 hours after the attack, Nigeria vice-president Yemi Osinbajo promised justice for the “victims of the Lekki shooting and also the policemen, and other men and women who lost their lives”.
Unrest continued throughout the state, along with arson and looting. And security operatives have been caught on camera killing anti-police protesters.
The unease has spread to other parts of the country. Ekiti, Enugu, Rivers and Ondo are some of the other states that have announced curfews in light of the violence spilling over from protests calling for an end to police brutality. Graphic videos continue to flood the internet.