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Nigeria Protesters Block Lagos With Army Preparing to Deploy

Bloomberg logo Bloomberg 10/19/2020 Anthony Osae-Brown and Ruth Olurounbi
Augustin Bizimana et al. standing in front of a crowd: Protesters at a live concert at the Lekki toll gate in Lagos, on October 15, 2020, during a demonstration to protest against police brutality and scrapping of Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS). © Photographer: PIERRE FAVENNEC/AFP Protesters at a live concert at the Lekki toll gate in Lagos, on October 15, 2020, during a demonstration to protest against police brutality and scrapping of Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS).

(Bloomberg) --

Protesters blocked key routes in Nigeria’s commercial hub on Monday as the authorities signaled a tougher response to demonstrations against police brutality that have continued for two weeks.

Defense Minister Bashir Salihi Magashi warned protesters against breaching national security, as the army said it’s annual maneuvers that usually take place in the south of the country, will this year be conducted nationwide. The exercises, set to begin on Tuesday, will also include the military’s first cyberwarfare drill.

“The army reassures all well-meaning Nigerians of its commitment to the sustenance of peace and security in Nigeria,” spokesman Colonel Sagir Musa said in an emailed statement. The cyber exercises are designed to “identify, track and counter negative propaganda” on social media, he said.

The protests first emerged online under the hashtag #EndSARS -- a reference to the controversial Special Anti-Robbery Squad that has been the focus of the protests. The demonstrations spilled onto the streets of Nigerian cities on Oct. 5.

The statements by the military authorities signaled a potential escalation in the standoff between protesters and the government of the OPEC member and Africa’s biggest oil producer. The state had earlier issued a directive prohibiting the use of force against marchers and bowed to most of their demands, including disbanding the anti-robbery unit.

While the security forces have quashed previous protests in Nigeria, the nature of the current demonstrations which are being run via social media and don’t have a clear leadership structure makes it difficult for the government to respond, according to Idayat Hassan, executive director of the Abuja-based Centre for Democracy and Development. The government’s earlier conciliatory approach may have been prompted by the scale of the demonstrations, the largest in about a decade.

The demands of the protesters have evolved in recent days to include a call for urgent government steps to end an Islamist insurgency in the northeast of the country.

Their campaign was backed at the weekend by one of the nation’s biggest labor unions, the Nigerian Union of Petroleum and Natural Gas Workers. It said its members are “victims of police brutality and abuses through extortion, illegal detention, harassment and intimidation nationwide.”

Protesters on Monday erected roadblocks in Lagos, the commercial capital, that prevented access to Victoria Island, the city’s main business district, as well as in the capital, Abuja. Thousands of people held candlelight processions in both cities at the weekend to honor those killed since the start of the protests.

In Edo state, in the southern oil-producing Niger River delta region, authorities declared a 24-hour curfew after protests there turned violent. Further north, in Kano, a demonstration erupted after a 17-year-old died in police custody, according to Amnesty International, the London-based rights group.

At least 15 people have died in the demonstrations since Oct. 5, Amnesty said.

(Updates death toll in final paragraph)

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