By Stephanie Busari, Nima Elbagir, Gianluca Mezzofiore and Katie Polglase Video by Barbara Arvanitidis, Muhammad Darwish and Oscar Featherstone
See the CNN investigation that refutes authorities’ shifting claims:
‘They pointed their guns at us and started shooting’ Sometime after midnight on October 21, Elisha Sunday Ibanga answered a phone call from his older brother’s number.
The person on the other end of the line — a stranger — broke the news that Ibanga’s brother, Victor, had been shot dead at the Lekki toll gate, in Lagos, Nigeria, where he had been peacefully protesting against police brutality earlier that night.
“The person told me that the police took his body away,” Ibanga, 24, told CNN.
An eyewitness to Victor Sunday Ibanga’s death told CNN the 27-year-old entrepreneur was shot in the head during the protest.
CNN has obtained and geolocated a photograph of Victor’s body lying in a pool of blood and wrapped in the white and green of the Nigerian standard — one of the same flags gripped by fellow protesters earlier in the evening as they sang the country’s national anthem. Ibanga confirmed the photograph is of his brother.
The Ibangas are one of several families yet to locate the bodies of their missing loved ones — protestors at the toll gate — who dozens of eyewitnesses say were shot at, first by members of the Nigerian army and then hours later by police. Eyewitnesses told CNN they saw the army remove a number of bodies from the scene.
What happened on October 20, and into the early hours of October 21, at the eight-lane Lekki toll gate — a key piece of Lagos’ road network — has stunned the country.
The protesters who were present have told CNN it was a “massacre” with multiple people killed and dozens wounded. But local authorities have downplayed that account.
Lagos State Governor Babajide Sanwo-Olu, admitted to CNN that footage showed uniformed soldiers firing on peaceful protesters but claimed only two demonstrators were killed. But, he then said there was “not a scratch of blood” at the toll gate when he visited. The governor said no families had approached authorities saying they were missing relatives.
In the immediate aftermath of the shooting, the army denied any involvement, describing reports of the incident as “fake news,” before backtracking and saying that soldiers were present but fired their weapons in the air and used blanks, not live rounds.
CNN’s calls to the Nigerian army have not been returned. But on November 14, during a judicial inquiry into the shooting, army representative Brigadier Ahmed Taiwo said, “There’s no way officers and men will kill their brothers and sisters. I repeat no way. We have those who constantly seek to drive a wedge between us and between the citizens of Nigeria…”
The army also said at the hearing that it was the governor who called soldiers to the scene because the police were overrun. The governor has denied this, saying he does not have the authority to call in the army. The army has continued to restate that they did not fire live rounds.
But an investigation by CNN into the disputed events has cast doubt on authorities’ shifting and changing statements.
Evidence of bullet casings from the scene match those used by the Nigerian army when shooting live rounds, according to current and former Nigerian military officials. Verified video footage — using timestamps and data from the video files — shows soldiers who appear to be shooting in the direction of protesters. And accounts from eyewitnesses establish that after the army withdrew, a second round of shooting happened later in the evening.
Since Elisha Sunday Ibanga learned of his brother’s death, he has been visiting hospitals in a desperate search for his remains.
“My mother, my sisters, all my family are in prayer, just to see if we can find out and know where my brother’s dead body is,” he said.
The bodies of other protesters are nowhere to be found.
Peace Okon, 24, hasn’t seen her younger brother Wisdom, 18, since he went to the protest the night of the shooting.
“He just came back from work on that Tuesday, ate his food and went there,” Okon told CNN.
She started worrying when he didn’t arrive home that night. By the next morning, Okon was out searching for him. “I’ve gone to hospitals, I’ve gone to police stations, I’ve gone to everywhere. I can’t find him,” she said.
Her brother had only moved to Lagos a few weeks before the protest — Okon had helped him find a job as a cleaner at a bank. She says he didn’t know anyone at the protest and had never been to one before.
Okon said she wants the Nigerian authorities to tell her if her brother is alive and detained or dead.
The shootings at Lekki toll gate followed weeks of “#EndSARS” protests against police brutality that had burst onto the streets of cities across Nigeria.
For almost a fortnight, thousands of young Nigerians mostly under 30 — a demographic that makes up 40% of the country’s population — protested, with calls for an end to the Special Anti-Robbery Squad, a police unit widely and repeatedly accused of kidnapping, harassment and extortion.
Police had agreed to disband the controversial unit but protests continued. It would be the fourth time it was being disbanded.
There were peaceful marches, candlelight vigils, multi-faith prayer sessions and DJ performances that attracted backing and solidarity from celebrities, the Nigerian diaspora and supporters around the world. The movement quickly widened beyond police brutality to other grievances — capturing the frustrations of a young population demanding an end to bad governance in the oil-rich country.
Lekki, a relatively affluent suburb of Lagos, and the toll gate became a focal point of the movement.
However, about 10 days into the protests, the demonstrations were hijacked by “thugs and sponsored hoodlums” who attacked protesters, causing deaths and injuries, according to Amnesty International Nigeria.
In response, on October 20, hours before the shooting, Governor Sanwo-Olu imposed a strict curfew starting at 4 p.m. following looting and vandalism in other parts of the state.
It was later moved to 9 p.m. to allow commuters to get home. The timeline for when the curfew was imposed has become a point of contention between the Governor and the military. The army said their soldiers were unaware of the change to the later time, according to the army spokesperson’s testimony to the eight-person judicial panel on November 14.
For 24 hours, only essential service providers were to be allowed on the streets of the 20-million strong city.
Testimony from dozens of eyewitnesses and family members interviewed by CNN and a forensic examination of hours of video and dozens of photographs captured before, during and after the two shooting incidents show how a fledgling protest movement was all but extinguished by the very thing Nigerians were demonstrating against.
Less than three hours after the original curfew time came into effect, army trucks left the Bonny Camp barracks on Victoria Island and headed towards the toll gate plaza and the protesters, according to videos reviewed by CNN.
Two eyewitnesses told CNN they saw soldiers arriving in a Toyota Hilux pickup truck with “OP Awatse” written on it — the name of a joint military task force that operates in Lagos State.
Videos examined by CNN show the army trucks approaching the protesters from both sides of the toll gate — barricading them in.
DJ Switch, a local musician whose real name is Obianuju Catherine Udeh, was streaming live on Instagram when it all happened and the shooting began.
The shooting started almost immediately, with no warning given. Panic ensued as protesters attempted to flee.
“There was a guy that was running, and he just… he fell, and we looked at him. He was shot in the back,” DJ Switch, 29, told CNN, as she tried to talk during an interview while crying.
“Please explain to me how, in which part of the world, do you go to a protest with live bullets,” she said.
From multiple videos, CNN has pieced together a timeline that shows that shooting by the army lasted from 6:43 p.m. until at least 8:24 p.m., according to video evidence.
The videos capturing some of those 101 minutes tell a story of terror and chaos. They show graphic injuries and people bleeding on the ground.
One eyewitness, Sarah, whose last name we’re not publishing for her safety, told CNN that the soldiers shot in the air but also directly at protesters.
“They pointed their guns at us and they started shooting,” she said. “They were shooting in the air, they were shooting at us, they were shooting everywhere.”
Some chanted: “We are peaceful protesters” and “End Sars, we no go gree [pidgin for we will not agree, or give in].”
“They’re shooting, they’re shooting,” another person screams in one of the videos. Cries of “Na lie, na lie [exclamations of disbelief in pidgin]” can also be heard.
In several of the videos, reviewed and verified by CNN, some of the protesters can be seen carrying bodies, the flashlights on their phones the only thing illuminating the darkness as the sound of ambulance sirens wail in the background. It is not known whether these were dead or injured protesters.
In another, there are several injured people, some on the ground bleeding while defiant protesters continued to wave Nigerian flags.
Injured people whom CNN has confirmed were present at the toll gate started arriving in local hospitals — carried by civilians — from 7:19 p.m. while the shooting was still ongoing, according to videos analyzed by CNN.
CNN has also seen and verified footage from one man who used his car as a makeshift ambulance and transported people to hospital.
Separately, Dr. Ayo Aranmolate, executive medical director at Grandville medical center, told CNN he and his colleagues received around 15 injured people that night with various gunshot wounds and cuts. None of the people they treated died, he added.
“We referred some for treatment to other hospitals,” Dr. Aranmolate said. “One of the victims had to have his leg amputated.”
The army has denied that anyone was taken to hospital with gunshot wounds, and that they only shot into the air.
Speaking in front of the judicial panel, the army spokesman Brigadier Ahmed Taiwo continued to deny that anyone was shot.
Multiple eyewitnesses told CNN that ambulances were prevented from reaching the scene by the authorities.
A video filmed at 8:49 p.m., according to metadata, shows ambulance workers in a van at the scene saying they are unable to get through.
When contacted by CNN to share the findings of this investigation, a Lagos State government spokesman declined to comment. “Talking about that subject now will be sub-judicial since the matter is already before a panel of inquiry. Until the panel concludes its investigation, the subject will not be open to any discussion or comment by any State official,” the spokesperson said.
DJ Switch said she wanted people to see what was happening which is why she started broadcasting.
“I didn’t want anybody to come on and twist the story. I wanted people to see. So, I just went live.”
At one point during the broadcast, there were attempts to resuscitate a man in red clothing who had passed out.
Later, DJ Switch can be seen helping to extract a bullet lodged in another man’s thigh as he screams in agony. Someone in the crowd says, “you will live, you will not die.”
As the live broadcast ends, people are still trying to apply CPR on the man in red, while DJ Switch can be heard saying, “this guy is dying.”
DJ Switch told CNN that protesters lifted bodies with bullet wounds and put them at the soldiers’ feet.
“I said, why are you killing us? Why are you doing this,” she said. “He expressly told me: ‘I am acting on orders from above.'”
CNN has examined bullet casings found at the scene and confirmed with current and former Nigerian military sources that the bullet casings match those used by the army. Two ballistics experts have also confirmed with CNN that the shape of the bullet casings indicate they used live rounds, which contradicts the army’s claim they fired blanks.
And working with the Balkan Investigative Reporting Network, CNN has established that several of the bullets from the Lekki toll gate originated from Serbia. Export documents CNN has seen show that Nigeria purchased weaponry from Serbia almost every year between 2005 and 2016.
After the army withdrew from the scene, members of the police, including the SARS police unit — disbanded by authorities on 11 October — moved in, according to multiple eyewitnesses CNN spoke with.
In a video obtained by CNN and geolocated to Lekki toll gate at 2:36 a.m., one eyewitness, Legend, whose second name we’re not publishing for his safety, can be seen with the Nigerian flag around his head saying, “…my hand is broken, my leg is broken, and police are still shooting at us.”
“They are shooting anything that moves outside…Stay safe through the night. And if I don’t make it through the night let it be known that I died fighting for our freedom, for what we believe in.”
Legend, who survived, told CNN his father was a police officer and that he recognized the SARS uniform. About 200 protesters remained at the toll gate when witnesses say police and SARS arrived, he added.
“I couldn’t count how many dead because I was running for my life,” Legend said. “If I stood my ground five more seconds, I would be dead.”
While CNN has not been able to independently verify that SARS members were present, multiple eyewitnesses said they saw police officers, accompanied by officers from the unit, at the scene after the army left.
A Lagos State police spokesman declined to comment because of the ongoing panel investigation. But police have denied any use of force against protesters on Twitter, saying, “….our police officers never resorted to use of unlawful force or shooting at the protesters.”
The widespread looting and damage that occurred across Lagos in the aftermath of the Lekki toll gate shooting has led to the authorities clamping down on people who took part in the protests.
Many feel they are being scapegoated for taking part in peaceful protests — wrongly blamed for the looting — and fear has descended on the movement since the shooting.
Moe Odele, a prominent lawyer who was giving legal advice to demonstrators arrested during the protests, says she was recently prevented from leaving the country after her passport was seized. Odele told CNN that her passport has since been returned.
The country’s central bank has obtained a 90-day court order freezing the accounts of those who took part in the demonstrations, according to media reports, while a journalist who covered the protests was arrested and detained for five days before being freed on bail.
Several eyewitnesses have fled the country, while others are living in safe houses. Some told CNN they were offered money to recant their initial testimonies.
CNN has seen some of the messages received, though it is unclear who is sending them.
“We’re hiding because our lives are in danger,” an eyewitness named Sarah told CNN. “We can’t go out, our jobs are on hold right now, and it’s really sad because we did nothing wrong.”
“All we did was ask for change.
“Edited by Esezobor Ohimai, Blathnaid Healy. Map by Natalie Croker and Henrik Pettersson. Photo editing by Sarah Tilotta.