Nigeria’s military opened fire on Islamic Movement in Nigeria (IMN) protesters during separate demonstrations on Saturday and Monday, killing at least 45 people and wounding hundreds in the country’s capital city of Abuja. An investigation by Amnesty International suggested that soldiers used automatic weapons to fire indiscriminately into the crowd, wounding at least 122 protesters on Monday alone and in some cases blowing the legs off of their victims.
Demonstrators gathered over the course of the two days – many returning on Tuesday as well – to protest the three-year imprisonment of the IMN’s founder, Ibrahim Zakzaky. Zakzaky founded the religious and political organization decades ago, inspired by the 1979 Iranian Revolution. In basic terms, Nigeria is split geographically: the IMN boasts a unique and growing membership of Shiites in the largely Sunni Muslim north, which exists in contrast to the majority-Christian Nigerian south. Zakzaky was arrested in 2015 after the military massacred some 300 members of his organization in Zaria, Zakzaky’s home city in the north. He is currently awaiting trial for a “culpable homicide charge,” and remains in prison despite a high-court order demanding his release.
On Tuesday, the military arrested upwards of 400 members of the organization and went on to issue a number of statements denying its culpability and placing the official death toll at the demonstrably false number of three people. The Nigerian Army also claimed that the violence on Saturday began after “thousands” of protesters overran a police checkpoint, despite evidence that even the larger of the protests on Monday drew no more than 1,000 demonstrators. Jimoh Moshood, a police spokesman, called the operation the “quelling of the disturbance of public peace and public safety.”
In an effort to justify the massacres, the Nigerian Army posted pictures of six slingshots and one pocketknife to its Facebook page. The Nigerian Army also posted a video on Twitter of U.S. President Donald Trump apparently suggesting that the American military would be prepared to shoot members of the group of refugees currently heading through Mexico and expected to arrive in depleted numbers at the American border. “Anybody throwing stones and rocks…we will consider that a firearm,” Trump said. “Because they’re throwing rocks viciously and violently…When they throw rocks like they did at the Mexico military and police, I said consider it a rifle.” “Please Watch and Make your Deductions,” the army captioned the video, the logic of which is supposed to justify the killing and maiming of hundreds with automatic weapons.
Videos circulated online show the military firing into crowds of fleeing protesters, streets littered with bodies, and wounded protestors being beaten with rods and dragged into armored vehicles. One man is beaten until unresponsive and hoisted onto his feet by the back of his pants. The soldier responsible for him pauses, turns around, picks up his rod and hands the barely conscious man to another soldier before continuing to beat him with the rod as they throw him into the bed of a pickup.
Nigeria’s military has a well-documented history of human rights abuses, many of which are overshadowed by the routine kidnappings, bombings, and attacks by the militant jihadist group Boko Haram that has killed tens of thousands and displaced millions over the course of its ten-year insurgency. The army’s abuse of the civilian population is in some sense excused by officials because of its fight against the ongoing insurgency.
Take the systematic rape and starvation of women and children in military-controlled “satellite camps,” where people who are rescued or escape from Boko Haram, or are otherwise displaced in the violence, are held. A report by Amnesty International earlier this year found that those who starved to death in these camps numbered in the thousands. Hunger, in turn, is routinely used by soldiers as a means of threatening women into forced submission. “You’ll see a military man with food in the hand and he’d say, ‘If you like me, take this food.’ If you accept the food, later, he’d come back to you to have intercourse. If you refuse, he’d rape you [using physical force],” one anonymous survivor of these camps told Al Jazeera.
It should come as no surprise that these same forces do not respond well to criticism, in particular the criticism that results from Amnesty International reports. “The Force sees the Amnesty International allegation against the police as a deliberate and desperate attempt to cast aspersions on the investigation and ongoing prosecution of the arrested members of the group,” said Moshood, referring, again, to the more than 400 people brought into custody following the massacres.
“The Shia people always obstruct the work we’re doing,” Brigadier General John Agim told the BBC. Agim went on to say that it was “not true that they were protesters.”
In a short statement on its website, the U.S. Embassy in Nigeria said that it was “concerned by the deaths” following the “clashes” between protesters and the military. It concluded, “We urge Government of Nigeria authorities to conduct a thorough investigation of the events and to take appropriate action to hold accountable those responsible for violations of Nigerian law. We urge restraint on all sides.”
In May, President Trump signed off on the sale of 600 million dollars worth of jets to the Nigerian military, a scheduled transaction that had been halted by the Obama administration after the military bombed a refugee camp and killed 100 people.