On Tuesday night, the Nigerian military opened fire on peaceful anti-police brutality demonstrators in Lagos. Hundreds of activists had gathered at the Lekki toll gate, a busy intersection in a wealthy suburb of Lagos Island that has become the epicentre of the city’s protests and where a large number of protesters have been camping for almost two weeks.
At around midday on Tuesday, Babajide Sanwo-Olu, the Lagos state governor, announced a 24-hour curfew that would go into effect in just four hours. The short notice sparked citywide panic as millions of people were forced to immediately rush home, leading to gridlock in a city famous for its bumper-to-bumper traffic. While some protesters decided to defy the curfew and continue their demonstration, others were simply stuck with no way to get home.
“We imagined the most they would do was arrest us or tell us to go home, and so before the curfew began the organisers for the protest that day had already told us to go home if we wanted to,” Anthony*, who was at the toll gate on Tuesday, tells VICE News.
“Nobody knew there would be shootings, nobody even knew the soldiers would be coming,” said photographer Inyene. “It was only after I called my friend who was at another protest in Alausa, Ikeja, and he told me that soldiers had driven past their protest ground and had done nothing to them that I felt the possibility of them also coming to Lekki toll gate. We just felt at peace knowing that the soldiers were friendly at Alausa.”
The shooting started at around 7PM, shortly after street lights surrounding the toll gate were turned off, as was a giant illuminated billboard that towers over the intersection, plunging the sitting demonstrators into darkness. Video from an office building overlooking the toll gate appears to show army officers approaching from the opposite end of the site and firing into the crowd. This happened despite Sanwo-Olu extending the start of the curfew to 9PM.
Protesters gather at the Lagos-Ibadan expressway on the 15th of October. Photo: Benson Ibeabuchi
Inyene has been documenting the protests at the toll gate since they started. The 26-year-old was there on Tuesday night when the shooting started. Inyene had only planned to stop at the site for a short while, he tells VICE News. But when he arrived shortly after 1PM, he decided to stay and document the evening, inspired by the protesters who couldn’t make it home as a result of the citywide gridlock.
Inyene was there as shots fired up in the air, and turned into to direct shots aimed at protesters who were sitting down and waving Nigerian flags, singing the national anthem. As the crowd scrambled, many of the protesters took to Instagram Live, showing in real-time activists tripping over themselves in panic and being shot by advancing military officers. The footage also showed that a fire had been started at both ends of the toll, trapping many of the demonstrators in.
Another photographer, Dale*, 30, who was at the scene when the shooting began, tells VICE News that some of the crowd remained seated in the hope that would calm the officers and make it clear that they were protesting peacefully. “People were rushing, and DJ Switch who was making the live video, was trying to control the crowd and get them to lie down,” Dale says. “The soldiers still kept shooting.”
With the Lekki toll gate thrown into darkness, demonstrators struggled to make their way out of the site and could scarcely make out the soldiers surrounding the crowd.
“It was an organised crime,” Anthony adds. “Mobile [signal] went down. The billboard was switched off. I was trying to get out, while helping those that were injured. There were so many of them. I saw an ambulance make away with many more bodies.”
Despite Sanwo-Olu insisting at a press conference the following morning that there were no deaths, Amnesty International reports that more than 50 people have died since the #EndSars protests began, with 38 deaths recorded on Tuesday alone.
“It feels disheartening to hear the governor deny the deaths. It makes it even more painful, it was a calculated massacre,” Anthony adds.
Adebayo*, a doctor who works in a hospital near the Lekki toll gate where injured protesters were rushed to for treatment and many more are still being attended, tells VICE News that he has treated multiple gunshot victims and polytraumatised patients. “We have been dealing with a lot of fractures, blood loss, gunshots to the abdomen, laceration of wrist, gunshot to the lungs, gunshot to the upper limb and other injuries of the sort,” Adebayo says. “Some people were unfortunate and didn't make it.”
“One out of the three people who contacted us for help during the shooting got a stray bullet on her foot while she was trying to find her way home,” says Temmie Ovwasa, a singer and coordinator at SafeHouse, a program set up to assist queer Nigerians to find safety, shelter, and financial assistance during the protests. “The bullet tore off her skin and chipped at her bones, she had to be operated twice.”
Kokoma, a 22-year old student and comedian, was one of the protesters who couldn’t make it home due the traffic, so she stayed at the site. She later sustained injuries from the stampede that followed the initial gunshots. She considers herself luck to have made it out, and that a close friend of hers was shot in the leg as they ran.
“While I was running to safety, I had to stop by some people who were lying about, seriously injured,” Inyene remembers. “There was an elderly woman. There was a young man with a bullet stuck deep in his thigh. It was a lot but I did my best to take photographs, to collect evidence because I knew that the government would try to deny it.”
On Thursday night, Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari broke his nine-day silence with an address to the nation that made no reference to Tuesday’s deadly attack. Instead, Buhari, a former 1980s military dictator who was elected into office in 2015, spoke against any further protests and denounced activists for spreading “deliberate falsehood and misinformation through the social media.”
“In the circumstances, I would like to appeal to protesters to note and take advantage of the various well-thought-out initiatives of this administration designed to make their lives better and more meaningful, and resist the temptation of being used by some subversive elements to cause chaos with the aim of truncating our nascent democracy,” Buhari said. “For you to do otherwise will amount to undermining national security and the law and order situation. Under no circumstances will this be tolerated.”
*Names have been changed to protect their identities.