ABUJA, Nigeria — The message sent on Twitter was clear: When Nigerian soldiers opened fire on rock-throwing protesters in late October, Nigerian officials swiftly defended them, saying their forces had simply done what President Trump told US soldiers to do in the same situation.
The Nigerian military justified its actions by including a video clip of Trump’s remarks about migrants heading toward the US border, in which he warned: “They want to throw rocks at our military, our military fights back.”
Nigeria’s defense came after its soldiers had shot at protesters — members of a minority Shiite organization — marching on the outskirts of the capital, Abuja. The military insisted that the soldiers had taken action only after being provoked by the protesters, who hurled rocks at them. Ten soldiers were injured in the melee, it said. The military also said a total of six protesters were killed during marches.
But a close review of video from the largest and most deadly of the protests, as well as interviews with more than a dozen witnesses, clearly shows the military opening fire on unarmed demonstrators, sometimes shooting indiscriminately into the crowd at close range as people turned and tried to flee.
Photos and videos recorded that day show at least 26 bodies. The group said it had collected a total of 49 bodies during four days of protests.
The killings are the latest example of a military that for years has been accused of human rights abuses, with rarely any action taken, despite President Muhammadu Buhari’s promises to crack down on military violations and restore security in the country. Since Buhari took office in 2015, Nigerian security forces have detained scores of children and babies, raped women living in camps for displaced people, and carried out civilian massacres.
Despite the documented abuses, Trump has strengthened ties with Nigeria. This year, he allowed the sale of warplanes and other equipment to Nigeria that had been blocked by the Obama administration over concerns about human rights abuses. Before leaving office, President Obama had been prepared to resume the sales. But then the Nigerian military bombed a camp for displaced people, killing dozens of civilians and prompting Obama to keep the restrictions in place.
Now Buhari is facing reelection in February and his critics are pointing to a new unraveling of the security situation across Nigeria that has rattled citizens in all corners of the country.
The Nigerian president has struggled to address a broad range of problems in the military. Its abuses have been carried out not only against protesting Shiites, but also against separatists in the southeast, where the president has launched major military operations. It has used excessive force in the northwest, where he has scrambled jets against gangs roaming the forest.
At the same time, Buhari’s campaign against Boko Haram, the terrorist group that has been at war with the nation for nearly a decade, has suffered crippling failures on the battlefield. In recent weeks, more than 100 Nigerian soldiers have been killed in at least 20 attacks against military installations, one of which was captured on video and posted online by a Boko Haram faction.
Parts of neighboring countries that have been peaceful for years have suffered attacks by militants, who have emerged armed from their new victories with heavy military equipment confiscated in raids.
Soldiers fighting Boko Haram have complained of low food rations, shoddy equipment, and no days off in more than a year, local news media have reported.
On Friday, the military suspended the operations of UNICEF in the areas most affected by Boko Haram, saying that the organization trains and deploys spies to help Boko Haram because it offered programs to help spot human rights abuses by the military. The military later rescinded the suspension.
Buhari recently traveled to the war zone to rally troops, but he has yet to address the military abuses.
A close review of video clearly shows the military opening fire on unarmed demonstrators.
The president’s “turn-a-blind-eye approach has bolstered the military’s culture of impunity,” said Matthew Page, a former top expert on Nigeria for the State Department.
“Nigerians’ growing frustration with insecurity — whether it be kidnapping, armed robbery, communal violence, or terrorist attacks — outweighs the disgust they feel about human rights abuses by security forces,” he said.
Brigadier General John Agim, the spokesman for the Nigerian military, said soldiers had abused no one during the recent marches. He said he had not seen video of the events but was certain that whatever existed had been manipulated to make Nigerian soldiers look bad, calling it “stage managed.”
The protesters from the group generally “cause a lot of disruption,” he said. “They destroy other people’s cars. They block the traffic.”
“When they attack the military, what do you expect soldiers to do?” he said.
Amnesty International disputed the military’s statements, saying its allegations against marchers were an attempt to justify unlawful killings.