ABUJA: Nigerian police fire teargas at people during clashes between youths in Apo yesterday. – AFP

LAGOS: Nigerian protesters paralyzed Africa's biggest city Lagos yesterday, blocking the airport as widespread demonstrations sparked by police brutality spiraled. Footage seen by AFP showed hundreds of mainly young protesters waving flags and placards as they marched outside the international departures terminal in the economic hub. The wave of demonstrations began some 10 days ago when crowds took to the streets over abuses by the police's loathed Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS).

The outpouring of anger forced the government to scrap the unit a week ago and promise reforms - but protests have continued to swell as the young demonstrators demand more sweeping changes. Reports of violence have begun to rise following a lull in bloodshed as officials promised to rein in the security forces after an initial harsh response from police. Amnesty International said five people had died since Friday, taking the overall number of fatalities to 15 since demonstrations started.

The rights group's Nigeria spokesman Isa Sanusi told AFP that one person died in the northern city of Kano on Monday while four others died in Benin City, Abuja and Osogbo over the weekend. Amnesty on Wednesday reported 10 dead, including two policeman, and hundreds injured. The protests in Lagos were peaceful on Monday but demonstrators cut roads across the sprawling megacity of 20 million. An AFP journalist in the capital Abuja said security forces fired tear gas at protesters on Monday.

Around 50 youths in civilian clothes armed with machetes were seen chasing away demonstrators on a road leading to the presidential compound. Police in southern Benin City said one of their facilities was attacked on Monday by "persons posing as #EndSARS protestors", leading the local governor to impose a 24-hour curfew. "Reports indicate that the protesters carted away arms and ammunition from the armoury and freed the suspects in custody before setting some of the facilities ablaze," the force said on Twitter. A resident in the city said that several hundred people were protesting there on Monday. "In my area a few hundred youth came out to protest," Kelvin Osagie, 29, told AFP. "They were not chanting 'EndSARS' but 'End (President Muhammadu) Buhari'."

Officials urge end
The spread and scale of the demonstrations have rattled the government of President Buhari as they have snowballed into the largest show of people power in years. The #EndSARS rallying cry has trended on social media and drawn support from high-profile celebrities in Nigeria and abroad. Officials have urged an end to the demonstrations to give the authorities a chance to implement a promised overhaul of law enforcement.

"I am on the side of the young people out there. I understand your pain and I know your concerns are legitimate," Lagos governor Babajide Sanwo-Olu said on Twitter. "I must reiterate that while we were able to immediately acquiesce to some of your demands, some will require time: we ask you to bear with us as we work on them."

The minister of youth and sports, Sunday Dare, said on Monday he had received fresh reassurances from Buhari. "The president promised that he will ensure that the reforms as promised are met, that the reforms are long lasting and that the reforms will deliver for our country a police force that we will be proud of," he told reporters in Abuja. Last week the head of Nigeria's police announced a new SWAT force would replace the disbanded SARS unit. The police said the unit was set to begin training Monday but it faces huge skepticism from the crowds on the street who doubt it will bring real change. - AFP