The Nigerian city of Lagos has declared a 24-hour curfew after violence marred mass protests against police brutality that have erupted across the country in recent days and brought Africa’s largest city to a standstill.

With riot police about to be deployed nationwide, governor Babajide Sanwo-Olu on Tuesday afternoon imposed a curfew on Lagos state for 24 hours starting at 4pm, a day after closing schools because of widespread disruption caused by the protests. Only essential workers are allowed on the street.

The governor said the protests against the federal Special Anti-Robbery Squad that has been accused of gross human rights abuses had been hijacked by criminals. At least 15 people have been killed across Nigeria since the protests began and on Tuesday, a police station in Lagos was set ablaze while elsewhere protesters were attacked by armed gangs.

“I have watched with shock how what began as a peaceful #EndSARS protest has degenerated into a monster that is threatening the wellbeing of our society,” he wrote on Twitter. “Lives and limbs have been lost as criminals and miscreants are now hiding under the umbrella of these protests to unleash mayhem on our state.”

President Muhammadu Buhari last week pledged to dissolve the police unit, long accused of crimes including murder, extortion and torture and enact reforms. But given scepticism that the government will follow through, thousands of young people continue to protest in Lagos, Abuja and other cities across the country.

Nigerian police fire teargas during clashes between youths in Apo, Abuja, on Tuesday
Nigerian police fire tear gas during clashes between youths in Apo, Abuja, on Tuesday © Kola Sulaimon/AFP/Getty

In recent days, authorities in a country with a history of violent crackdowns on dissent have begun signalling a tougher response. On Tuesday afternoon, the national police force announced that it would deploy an anti-riot police squad nationwide “to protect [the] lives and property of all Nigerians and secure critical infrastructure across the country”.

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The Nigerian army also suggested it was primed to deploy troops to quash unrest. Last week it issued a statement warning “all subversive elements and troublemakers to desist from such acts as it remains highly committed to defend the country and her democracy at all cost”.

There were scattered reports of violence across the megacity on Tuesday, with small-time criminals known as area boys setting up checkpoints and extorting motorists, or robbing people stuck in traffic jams caused by protesters blocking main roads. On Monday, southern Edo state imposed a 24-hour curfew after a prison break during anti-police protests, and a 17-year-old’s death in police custody sparked a big demonstration in Kano, northern Nigeria’s largest city.

The protests were in part a reflection of the deep distrust young Nigerians have for a government that provides almost nothing in the way of civic services, said Idayat Hassan, executive director of the Abuja-based Centre for Democracy and Development. 

“Citizens . . . believe the curfew is orchestrated to cut the ongoing #EndSARS protest short,” she said. “The prevailing sentiments are the hoodlums hired to disrupt the protests are after all paid by [Mr Buhari’s] ruling All Progressives Congress. So the incidents of violence are orchestrated to provide a basis to clamp down on the protesters.”

Mr Buhari and his government have repeatedly pledged his support for the aim of the protests, which were sparked by a video that went viral on October 3, allegedly showing a SARS officer shooting and killing a young man in Delta state.

That led to an outpouring online, as young Nigerians shared their own stories of alleged abuse, extortion, torture and extrajudicial killings at the hands of the unit, which was set up in the 1990s to combat violent crime. The protests drew support from Nigerian and international celebrities through the #EndSARS hashtag. 

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Via Financial Times