Protesters blocked key routes in Nigeria’s commercial hub on Monday as the authorities signaled a tougher response to demonstrations against police brutality.
Defense Minister Bashir Salihi Magashi cautioned the protesters against breaching national security, as the army said it will begin nationwide maneuvers on Tuesday, including a cyberwarfare exercise. The protests first emerged online before spilling onto the streets of Nigerian cities on Oct. 5.
“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 statements by the military authorities signaled a potential escalation in the standoff between protesters and the government of Africa’s top oil-producing nation. The state had earlier issued a directive prohibited the use of force against marchers and bowed to most of their demands, including disbanding a unit that bore the brunt of the police brutality allegations.
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 been prompted by the scale of the protest, 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 labour 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.
At least 10 people have died in the demonstrations so far, according to Amnesty International, the London-based rights group.