How Nigeria’s peaceful protests were hijacked

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Ephraim Osinboyejo’s eyes fill with tears as he recalled the idealism that drove thousands like him to campaign against police brutality – and the night he saw young activists gunned down.

“There is a storm brewing inside of me and I don’t know where to put it, I don’t know what to do with it.”

What began as a largely peaceful movement against the now disbanded Special Anti-Robbery Squad has since turned into some of the worst street violence since the end of military rule in 1999.

Eyewitnesses and Amnesty International say security forces killed at least 12 people in two districts of Lagos on October 20 as they enforced a curfew, though the army and police have denied involvement.

Osinboyejo, a 39-year-old businessman, was at the main protest site – the Lekki district toll gate.

“This place was a war zone, but it was more army fighting civilians, unarmed civilians, peaceful civilians, civilians who were exercising their constitutional right.”

The army says its forces were not at Lekki.

But in a Lagos hospital, Nicholas Okpe lies wheezing and coughing after being shot, he says, by a soldier.

“That soldier man stood with a cap, I saw him standing there and he was shooting, I thought it was rubber bullet or firecracker until the bullet touched me, then I realised this was meant to kill someone.”

It’s not just the police who have been accused of violence.

In the days following October 20 crowds set fire to government offices and police stations, and looting was reported.

Protesters and government officials say those doing the looting and vandalism are for the most part, not those who mobilized against police brutality.

Protest organizers, some of whom are in hiding, are now urging followers to stay off the streets and focus on the online campaigning that has successfully grabbed global attention.

And despite the bloodshed, Osinboyejo has hope.

“I also saw people chanting we would die for our country, and though I do not want to watch anyone die and I don’t want to see anybody die, I find optimism in that, that maybe for the first time young people are willing to stand up against tyranny because that is what this is.”