Thousands of Nigerians have demonstrated nationwide every day for nearly two weeks against a police unit, the Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS), that rights groups had for years accused of extortion, harassment, torture and murders. The unit was disbanded on Oct. 11 but the protests have persisted with demonstrators calling for a raft of law enforcement reforms.
“They started firing ammunition toward the crowd. They were firing into the crowd,” said Alfred Ononugbo, 55, a security officer after the soldiers opened fire. “I saw the bullet hit one or two persons,” he said.
The condition of those two people was not immediately known. Amnesty International has said at least 15 people had been killed since the protests began.
In a Twitter post, the Nigerian Army said no soldiers were at the scene of the shooting on Tuesday night in Lekki, an upmarket district where the toll gate has been the site of daily protests in Lagos, Africa’s biggest city.
Lagos State Goveror Babajide Sanwo-Olu tweeted pictures of him visiting people in hospital who were victims of what he referred to as the “unfortunate shooting incident at Lekki.”
He said 25 people were being treated for mild to moderate injuries, two were receiving intensive care and three had been discharged.
“As the Governor of our state, I recognize the buck stops at my table and I will work with the FG (federal government) to get to the root of this unfortunate incident and stabilize all security operations to protect the lives of our residents,” said Sanwo-Olu, adding that he would give a state broadcast on Wednesday morning.
The Lagos state government earlier said it would open an investigation into the shooting, which witnesses said began at about 7 p.m. (1800 GMT).
A Nigerian army spokesman did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
Inyene Akpan, 26, a photographer, said more than 20 soldiers arrived at the toll gate in Lekki and opened fire. He said he saw two people being shot.
Akinbosola Ogunsanya, a third witness, said he saw around 10 people being shot. Ogunsanya, who said lights went out shortly before the soldiers arrived, also said he saw soldiers remove bodies.
Another witness, Chika Dibia, said soldiers hemmed in people as they shot at them.
Video verified by Reuters showed men walking slowly in formation toward demonstrators, followed by trucks with flashing lights, and the sound of gunfire popping. Another video showed the toll gate itself, with a protester waving a Nigerian flag, as people ran amid the sounds of gunfire.
A Reuters witness heard sirens and gunfire.
President Muhammadu Buhari on Tuesday held scheduled talks with the defense minister and the chief of defense staff around 6:15 p.m. (1715 GMT) to discuss national security, two presidency officials told Reuters, speaking on condition of anonymity.
A spokesman for the president did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
The Nigerian army was due to begin a two-month national exercise on Tuesday. When the move was announced on Saturday, it denied the move was part of a security response to the demonstrations. Days earlier, the military said it was prepared to help maintain law and order.
The weeks-long protests were sparked by a video that began circulating in early October purportedly showing SARS officers shooting a man in southern Delta state. Police denied the shooting.
Authorities on Tuesday imposed a round-the-clock curfew on Lagos as the state governor said protests had turned violent.
It is one of five of Nigeria’s 36 states to have announced such measures in the last two days. The national police chief also ordered the immediate deployment of anti-riot forces nationwide following increased attacks on police facilities, a police spokesman said.
(Reporting by Alexis Akwagyiram and Libby George in Lagos, and Paul Carsten; Additional reporting by Felix Onuah and Camillus Eboh in Abuja, Nneka Chile in Lagos and Tife Owolabi in Yenagoa; Editing by Grant McCool and Raju Gopalakrishnan)