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A Massacre in Lagos: Nigerian Military Forced to Admit It Fired Live Rounds at Peaceful Protesters

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A CNN investigation has exposed the Nigerian Army’s role in a deadly attack on protesters in the capital city of Lagos in October, when soldiers opened fire on protesters gathered at Lekki toll gate, a key roadway and protest site. At least 12 people were killed in the massacre, which the Army initially denied, and capped weeks of demonstrations against the notorious Nigerian police unit known as the Special Anti-Robbery Squad, or SARS. Senior CNN international correspondent Nima Elbagir says the massacre “had a chilling effect” on the protest movement and enraged many Nigerians. “We kept hearing from these families who were still looking for their loved ones how hurtful it had been for them to hear the Nigerian government deny that they had anything to do with this huge and grievous loss,” says Elbagir.

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: We begin today’s show in Africa’s most populous country, in Nigeria. The country has been stunned by a brutal massacre of more than 100 farmworkers by suspected members of the militant group Boko Haram. On Saturday, armed men on motorcycles slaughtered people harvesting rice fields in a rural part of Borno State. A survivor said the attackers, quote, “engaged in murderous insanity, grabbing workers, tying them up and slitting their throats.” At least 30 of the victims were reportedly beheaded. No group has claimed responsibility.

Meanwhile, new revelations have come to light about a bloody government crackdown in Lagos, in Nigeria, which helped to quash a growing movement against police brutality. A CNN investigation has exposed the Nigerian Army’s role in an attack on protesters in Lagos in October. In a shocking display of violence, on October 20th, the Army opened fire on protesters gathered at Lekki toll gate, a key roadway and protest site. At least 12 people were killed. The Lekki toll gate massacre came after weeks of demonstrations against the notorious Nigerian police unit known as SARS, the Special Anti-Robbery Squad.

This is the full report of the award-winning CNN senior reporter Nima Elbagir. A warning: Some of the images and descriptions are extremely graphic.

PROTESTER 1: They’ve killed him. They’ve killed him.

NIMA ELBAGIR: The Nigerian government denies this happened.

PROTESTER 2: They are killing my people!

NIMA ELBAGIR: A peaceful protest turned deadly.

PROTESTER 3: The police came. We are peaceful. They came and start shooting at us.

NIMA ELBAGIR: CNN investigated the events at Lekki toll gate the night of October 20th in Lagos, Nigeria. After analyzing hours of footage — 

PROTESTER 4: Why they are doing this to us?

NIMA ELBAGIR: — we are going to tell a story that is radically different than the one the authorities are telling.

PROTESTER 5: The peaceful protests happy?


PROTESTER 5: OK. Make everybody the same. Now wave the flag.

PROTESTERS: [singing] Solidarity forever …

NIMA ELBAGIR: This is Godson. He was one of the demonstrators having fun live-streaming the event. He, like many others, gathered in a peaceful demonstration of discontent, after weeks of protests against what they called systemic police brutality and corruption. What Godson and the protesters did not know is that the Army is already on its way.

This is Bonny Camp, a military garrison on the south side of Lagos. We know, through analyzing footage, they left at 6:29 p.m. heading towards Lekki toll gate. We can see here the Nigerian government forces approaching. The protesters are gathered on the other side of the gate. As Nigerian forces get closer, you can see shots. At 6:43 p.m., we start hearing gunfire. We know this from the timestamp and data on this video. Here’s another angle.

WITNESS 1: They are releasing fire.

WITNESS 2: They shoot! They shoot! They shoot! They shoot! They shoot!

WITNESS 2: They are releasing fire.

NIMA ELBAGIR: Nigerian authorities say they fired blanks into the air and not at protesters. But CNN obtained video that appears to show the Army shooting toward the crowd, here and, at the top of your screen, here. In the midst of the chaotic scenes is DJ Switch. 

DJ SWITCH: The place is on fire!

NIMA ELBAGIR: A Nigerian celebrity and activist, she is broadcasting live on Instagram.

DJ SWITCH: I wanted people to see what was happening. I didn’t want anybody to come and twist the story.

NIMA ELBAGIR: Witnesses tell CNN ambulances were stopped from entering by Nigerian authorities. You can see here people at the scene trying to conduct CPR.

DJ SWITCH: Please explain to me how, in which part of the world do you go to a protest with live bullets.

PROTESTER 6: Everybody, look at this. These are the bullets that were falling, that were falling by our side. We are dodging bullets.

NIMA ELBAGIR: CNN has verified that these bullet casings are from live ammunition. They are of mixed origin. Some are Serbian, this one from 2005. Nigerian military sources verified to us that these are munitions that are currently in use by Nigeria’s Army. And in collaboration with the Balkan Investigative Reporting Network, we were also able to procure Serbian export documents proving that Nigeria purchased weaponry from Serbia for almost every year between 2005 and 2016.

The shooting continued past midnight. Eyewitnesses tell us it wasn’t just the Army. At this point, they say, police arrive and open fire.

PROTESTER 7: My hand is broken. My leg is broken. And police are still shooting at us. And if I don’t make it through the night, let it be known: I died fighting for our freedom.

NIMA ELBAGIR: So, why were live rounds used at a peaceful protest? Many family members of those still missing are asking that question as they hunt for answers or the bodies of their loved ones. Elisha’s brother Victor was at the protest that night.

ELISHA SUNDAY: Someone picked up my brother’s phone and called me and said that my brother Victor Sunday is among of those people who died, who were shot at Lekki toll gate. And I entered into the hospital and searched. I could not see him. And we are trying, we are trying our best, just to find him. But there is no way to find him.

NIMA ELBAGIR: What we’re about to show you is incredibly graphic, but it’s also incredibly important. This is Elisha’s brother Victor. The data in this footage shows it was filmed at 1:04 a.m. at Lekki toll gate. Elisha says he received a call about his brother’s death around this time. This places Victor exactly at the location of the protest on the night witnesses say they were shot at. This is important, because Nigerian authorities deny anyone was killed at the scene. Since this incident, CNN has contacted over 100 protesters and family members.

PROTESTER 8: They pointed their guns at us, and they started shooting.

NIMA ELBAGIR: We asked what they heard —

PROTESTER 9: We heard gunshots from behind the toll.

NIMA ELBAGIR: — and felt.

PROTESTER 10: This is where I was shot. And the bullet went through my back.

NIMA ELBAGIR: Many are in hiding. Some have fled the country. CNN tried to share these findings with the Nigerian Army but received no response. Lagos state authorities would not comment on our reporting until, they said, a Judicial Panel of Inquiry presents its findings. The wait for answers here continues. Nima Elbagir, CNN, London.

AMY GOODMAN: After that initial CNN investigation, the Nigerian Army admitted they did use live bullets in the Lekki toll gate massacre. This is part of a follow-up report by Nima Elbagir. It begins with General Ahmed Taiwo speaking to the Lagos Judicial Panel of Inquiry about the attack.

GEN. AHMED TAIWO: The soldiers would be given both live and blank bullets. In this particular case, we saw that this protest had been infiltrated by hoodlums.

NIMA ELBAGIR: But eyewitnesses and families we spoke to say the ammunition used that night by Nigerian authorities was very real.

PROTESTER 10: This is where I was shot. And the bullet went through my back.

NIMA ELBAGIR: Up until this point, the Army had denied they had live bullets at all on that night. It confirms a key finding in our investigation, that there was live ammunition at the scene.

AMY GOODMAN: And that, again, is CNN reporter Nima Elbagir. And we are joined by the award-winning senior international correspondent, based in London.

Nima, it’s great to have you back, under these difficult, difficult circumstances, though. Talk about the significance of this protest, that happened not only in Lagos, but all over Nigeria, but this live ammunition used by the military, and what you forced the Nigerian military to admit, and what this means for the country.

NIMA ELBAGIR: It had a chilling effect on the protest movement, on the ability for these young people — and it was generally young people — to come forward and make their voices heard. One of the activists whose Instagram Live actually was a key part of the evidence that we reviewed, DJ Switch, she said, “It made us realize that Nigeria is a dictatorship wearing the face of a democracy.” And that really goes to the heart of the sentiment of people who thought that they had the legal right to protest, and now find themselves in hiding or having been forced to flee the country, or, worse, under some kind of arrest. It has been really, really difficult for people in the country.

From our perspective, we never wanted to get into a back-and-forth with the Nigerian authorities. But when we put out our piece, we kept hearing from these families who were still looking for their loved ones, how hurtful it had been for them to hear the Nigerian government deny that they had anything to do with this huge and grievous loss. So, we went back, and my colleague Stephanie Busari received a call with somebody who had access to the CCTV footage. And so, it was very important for us to come back out and just reinforce what we had been able to find, and also to use the government’s own words. You saw Brigadier Taiwo there saying — admitting that they did have live ammunition. That was such a key issue, because up until that point they denied it entirely.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: And, Nima, in addition to that response from the Nigerian government, the minister of information responded to the allegations in the report by threatening to sanction CNN for spreading misinformation, as he said, and saying the Lekki shooting was, quote, “a massacre without bodies.” Has he since changed his perspective?

NIMA ELBAGIR: No, no. And I can only imagine, if I was grieving a loved one, how it would feel to hear the minister of information speak that way about that night. They have threatened us with sanctions. They’ve accused us of being fake news. They’ve had fake human rights advocates putting forward petitions in front of the tribunal to have us be forced to appear; otherwise, we would face criminal action.

And that’s what they’re doing to us. Can you imagine what they’re doing to Nigerian journalists? Nigerian television channels were fined for reporting on Lekki toll gate. They have really waged war against the press. And in a way, I’m really glad that they’ve come after CNN, because it’s allowed Nigerian journalists to be able to report and, in a way that has allowed them to evade the wrath of the government, come out and say, “This is what the media landscape in Nigeria looks like.” And yet we hear nothing from the leadership around the world about this.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: And, Nima, your report mentions the Lagos Judicial Panel of Inquiry that is looking into this incident, as well as broader abuses by the police. And that inquiry is supposed to go on for about six months. Can you tell us what the inquiry has so far found and what you expect to come out of it eventually?

NIMA ELBAGIR: Well, most of the people we’ve spoken to on the ground are really concerned, because Minister Lai Mohammed, the minister for information, at one of the press conferences where he was having a go at CNN, came out and said, “Well, we are very satisfied. We, as the federal government, are very satisfied with the conduct of the police and the Army.” And that rings alarm bells, because it presumes innocence months ahead of the findings of the panel.

And witnesses have asked for protection to appear in front of the panel. The counsel representing the “End SARS,” the “End police brutality” protesters has asked for protections by the panel, for the panel to officially compel the government to give him some kind of security, because he says he has received some pretty frightening threats. None of that has been forthcoming. So, if many of those who were there at the scene feel unsafe appearing in front of the panel, what exactly is the panel going to be able to adjudicate on?

AMY GOODMAN: And, of course, what we’re talking about here, these protests were precisely against police brutality. If you can talk about the significance of this movement throughout Nigeria right now, and then also refer to the latest massacre — wasn’t a military massacre, but what happened with Boko Haram?

NIMA ELBAGIR: Well, both what happened with Boko Haram and both what we saw over the last few months with regards to the protests against police brutality speak to the same thing, which is a sense by the people of Nigeria that the state has fundamentally failed in its duties towards them, whether it’s failed with regards to civilian authorities and their policing, and this perception that corruption isn’t just something that is being ignored or being perpetuated by politicians within the state system, but even the police, those who are supposed to be cracking down on this, are themselves corrupt.

And although at the moment this does seem to have had a chilling effect, there is a sense from the activists that I’m speaking to that they are trying very hard to find a way to make their voices heard again. One of the activists who organized the protest spoke at the Senate Foreign Relations Committee a few weeks ago. They’re also speaking to the Democratic Black Caucus. They are trying very hard, those who have gotten out to safety, to amplify what’s happening entirely in Nigeria now.

With the Boko Haram massacre — and we believe about 110 civilians were killed — this was because that local community felt so unprotected by the state authorities that they actually made a deal with Boko Haram militants that they would feed them, that they would provide them with resources and support, if they were left alone. And some militants came back and overstepped and actually took, forcibly, cattle. They took key elements of these farmers’ livelihoods. And when the farmers just went to get their possessions back, this is what it resulted in. It resulted in the horror that was perpetuated at the weekend. And they both rise from the same place, which is a sense by Nigeria’s citizens that its government is ineffective, at best, and corrupt, at worst.

AMY GOODMAN: Nima Elbagir, we’re going to ask you to stay with us. We’re going to break. When we come back, we want to ask you — you’re based right now in London — about what’s happening with COVID and the vaccine in London, but also the latest news on Ethiopia, with so many refugees fleeing from Tigray into Sudan, which is where you are from. This is Democracy Now! We’re speaking to the award-winning senior international correspondent for CNN, Nima Elbagir. Stay with us.

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