A Deputy Commissioner of Police (DCP), a journalist and six others were killed yesterday as the smouldering rage over the continued detention of the leader of the Islamic Movement of Nigeria (IMN), Ibrahim el-Zakzaky, degenerated into full-scale violence.
El-Zakzaky's followers, popularly known as Shi'ite, numbering over 3,000, marched on the Central Business District of Abuja to demand the release of their leader who has been in detention along with his wife since 2015.
The heavily-armed protesters torched a National Emergency Management Agency (NEMA) Response Post, near the Federal Secretariat while many people, including two police officers of the rank of Assistant Superintendent of Police (ASPs) and a reporter with a Lagos-based private television station, Channels, sustained varying degrees of injuries in the march.
However, the Channels Television reporter, who was hit by a stray bullet and rushed to an undisclosed hospital, succumbed later in the day to the injuries he sustained.
Channels Television in its flagship news programme broadcast at 10pm yesterday, confirmed the death and identified the reporter as Precious Owolabi, a member of the National Youth Service Corps (NYSC), posted to the station.
However, the death toll might be higher as a spokesman for the Shi'ite, Abdullahi Musa, told an online newspaper, THECABLE, 17 members of the sect were killed.
According to him, while IMN was in possession of six bodies, the police dumped 11 corpses at the National Hospital, Abuja.
He said over 100 IMN members who sustained injuries during the protest were arrested by the police "from their sickbed".
Musa said the injured members were receiving treatment at the Gwagwalada Specialist Hospital when they were arrested.
The killings drew the ire of the Amnesty International, which accused the police of "reckless use of lethal force."
The incident also forced the police and other security agencies to beef up security in some key areas of the Federal Capital Territory (FCT).
All the entry points to Abuja through Nyanya-Karu-Nasarawa axis and the entrance through Gwagwalada all the way to the City Gate were cordoned off and a combined team of army, police and intelligence services was conducting stop-and-search operations.
The process snarled traffic, eliciting loud complaints from civil servants, businessmen and other commuters along those areas.
Also, security agents, including the police, were seen patrolling some major streets of Abuja as at last night.
However, the police, which gave the name of the deceased DCP as Usman A. K. Umar, said 54 people had been arrested over the violent march.
Worried by the violence, President Muhammadu Buhari met behind closed doors with the Inspector General of Police (IG), Mohammed Adamu, to resist attempts by the group to create anarchy in the city.
The protest, which was initially peaceful, became violent when the Shi'ite clashed with security men after they were confronted at the Eagle Square.
The protest was in defiance of an earlier police order that all protests should be restricted to the Unity Fountain opposite the Millennium Park.
An eyewitness said many pedestrians and motorists were forced to scamper to safety during the violence, as policemen fired live ammunition at the Shi'ite.
Yesterday's violence occurred barely two weeks after a policeman was killed and several people injured when the Shi'ite invaded the National Assembly.
For many hours yesterday morning, and following a heavy rainfall, armed soldiers mounted road blocks at the AYA Junction of Abuja, apparently to foil any attempt by the sect to march on the city centre.
The lockdown caused a traffic snarl and led to many motorists spending several hours in traffic.
The protest was said to have started at about 1p.m. at NICON Junction in Maitama District, where the sect's procession began heading towards the Three Arms Zone on Ahmadu Bello Way.
But they were confronted by the police at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs Junction at the Eagle Square.
The police fired sporadic gunshots and tear-gas canisters to disperse the crowd.
As the violence escalated, the group set ablaze NEMA ambulance and a bay opposite the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
They also killed a policeman, who was struck on the head by a rock.
After burning the NEMA bay, the protesters moved towards the National Assembly but were repelled by policemen, who opened fire on them.
This forced many of them to beat a retreat and scampered in different directions. Six of them were also fatally shot.
Many people around the scene ran for their dear lives given the sporadic shooting by the police.
The spokesman of Shi'ite, Abdulahi Musa, in a phone interview, confirmed the killing of six members of the sect during the violence.
He also said the police arrested many of their members, who were taken to an unknown destination in a truck.
He accused the police of fomenting trouble by attacking them while they were on a procession to demand the release of their spiritual leader, El-Zakzaky and other members.
Musa refuted the allegation that the Shi'ite attacked the police with arms and burnt the NEMA facilities.
"We have six dead bodies with us now and the police have taken a full truck-load of our injured members away. We cannot confirm the total number of those who were killed for now.
"It is not true that our members burnt NEMA ambulance. I think those people that did it are police officers in plain clothes. We didn't shoot at anybody as being claimed. It was the police that opened fire on our members.
"We are not going back on the demand for the release of our leaders. If you don't know, Sheikh El-Zakzaky has become very infirm. They are poisoning him and have refused to release him, after the court granted him bail," Musa said.
Resist Breakdown of Law, Order, Buhari Tells IG
Reacting to the violent protest, Buhari told Adamu to resist attempts by the group to create anarchy in the city.
Fielding questions from journalists after the meeting with the president at the State House, Adamu said he came to brief him on the activities of the group, particular the frequency of its protests.
According to him, the president, in his response, instructed him to ensure that all citizens are protected and no group should be allowed to foist lawlessness on the country.
The IG added that he told the president that activities of the group have been put under control.
"We came this morning to brief Mr. President on the security situation in the country, especially the activities of the Islamic Movement of Nigeria (IMN), just to give him an update on what is happening in the country vis-a-vis their activities.
"Specifically, we briefed him on the incessant acts coming out of this group of people, protesting here and there. We briefed him on the fact that we have been able to curtail their excesses and to let him understand that everything is under control.
"The president asked us to make sure we provide security for every citizen of this country and not to leave any space for some groups of people to create a breakdown of law and order. So, the charge by Mr. President is that we must provide security for every Nigerian," Adamu explained.
Earlier yesterday, the police had issued a statement calling for calm.
Force Public Relations Officers (FPRO), Mr. Frank Mba, Deputy Commissioner of Police (DCP), said the police had taken adequate measures to quell the protest.
"There is a violent protest currently ongoing by members of the el-Zakzaky group in some parts of the FCT - particularly the Central Business District and the Three Arms Zone. The police are taking adequate measures to bring the situation under control.
"Citizens are advised to remain calm and avoid the affected areas in the interim. The police will keep the public abreast with further development," he said.
In another statement last night, the police confirmed the killing of the Deputy Commissioner of Police, saying he was killed while trying to contain protesting Shi'ite members.
The police, in the statement signed by Mba, said Umar was shot by the Shi'ite and was rushed to an undisclosed hospital where he died.
Umar was in charge of Operations at the FCT Police Command.
Following the development, security was beefed up around the Louis Edet Police Headquarters and the FCT Police Command in Garki II.
When THISDAY contacted the FCT Commissioner of Police on the matter, he said he could not speak as he was bereaved.
"I can't speak now. I am bereaved," he said.
Amnesty Condemns Killings
Condemning the killing of the protesters yesterday, Amnesty International (AI) accused the police of reckless use of lethal force.
In a statement given to THISDAY last night, AI Programme Manager, Seun Bakare, said members of the IMN were only protesting the detention of their leader unarmed.
He said: "Eyewitnesses have told us that six people were shot dead amid a reckless use of lethal force by the Nigerian police against unarmed Shi'ite. This new crackdown is part of a shocking pattern in which security forces have used live ammunition to disperse them for simply exercising their freedom of expression.
"Images of IMN supporters being driven from the streets of Abuja with gunfire demonstrates once again the Nigerian authorities' resolve to use lethal force rather than the rule of law in addressing the grievances of the IMN."
Amnesty called for prompt investigation by an independent and impartial body, adding that justice must be brought to all those suspected of criminal responsibility.