DAKAR, SENEGAL (THE NEW YORK TIMES) — The Nigerian Army, part of a military criticized for rampant human rights abuses, on Friday used the words of President Trump to justify its fatal shootings of rock-throwing protesters.
Soldiers fired this Monday on a march of about 1,000 Islamic Shiite activists who had blocked traffic on the outskirts of the capital, Abuja. Videos that circulated on social media showed several protesters hurling rocks at heavily armed soldiers who then shot fleeing demonstrators in the back.
The Nigerian military said three protesters were killed, but the toll appears to have been much higher.
Amnesty International and leaders of the protest said more than 40 people were killed at the march and two smaller marches, with more than 100 wounded by bullets. A Reuters reporter counted 20 bodies at the main march.
Human rights activists and many Nigerians were outraged at the military’s response, which echoed a similar confrontation in 2015, when soldiers killed nearly 350 protesters from the same group, the Islamic Movement of Nigeria, the largest and most recognizable face of Shiite Islam in the country. The group organizes frequent protest marches.
Early Friday morning, the military responded to the criticism.
The army’s official Twitter account posted a video, “Please Watch and Make Your Deductions,” showing Mr. Trump’s speech on Thursday in which he said rocks would be considered firearms if thrown toward the American military at the nation’s borders.
“We’re not going to put up with that,” Mr. Trump said in the clip. “They want to throw rocks at our military, our military fights back.”
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The army deleted the post hours later without explanation after it had caused an uproar on social media.
Mr. Trump is popular among groups in Nigeria’s mostly Christian south that admire his tough talk against Islamic extremism. Though a polarizing figure, some people praise what they regard as his straightforwardness and frank talk, despite his reported insult last year when he said Nigerians in the United States would never “go back to their huts” in Africa.
Earlier this year after a meeting with President Muhammadu Buhari of Nigeria, during which Mr. Trump praised the Nigerian leader’s fight against the Islamic State in West Africa, Mr. Trump said he never again wanted to meet someone so lifeless as Mr. Buhari, The Financial Times reported.
On Friday, John Agim, a spokesman for the Nigerian Army, said the initial posting of the video was a response to Amnesty International, which had criticized what it called the military’s use of excessive force.
“We released that video to say if President Trump can say that rocks are as good as a rifle, who is Amnesty International?” he said. “What are they then saying? What did David use to kill Goliath? So a stone is a weapon.”
“Our soldiers sustained injuries,” he continued. “The Shiites even burnt one of our vehicles, so what are Amnesty International saying?”
The army has said as many as six soldiers were wounded during the protest after “thousands” of members of the sect overran a police checkpoint and blocked traffic along a highway.
Soldiers had arrived to assist the police, a news release said, and were met with protesters who threw canisters of fuel, “large stones, catapults with dangerous objects and other dangerous items.”
The military posted photos of six slingshots and one pocketknife on its Facebook page as evidence.
“They wanted to take over the checkpoint with their weapons,” Mr. Agim said. “They knew it was there. We responded to them.”
Ibrahim Musa, a spokesman for the Shiite group, said that on Monday security forces refused to let protesters, who numbered about 1,000, pass the checkpoint as they marched toward their destination. He said 13 protesters were killed during two other marches this week, one before and one after Monday’s deadly march.
“Rocks are not equal to bullets,” he said. “The use of force is disproportionate. I don’t think President Trump is a good example — even in America many are critical of him. I am surprised that the army will use Trump as a role model.”
There was no immediate comment from the White House on the Nigerian Army’s posting. But asked on Friday about whether he condoned American soldiers’ firing on migrants in a Mexico caravan if they attempted to cross the United States border, Mr. Trump said: “They won’t have to fire. What I don’t want is, I don’t want these people throwing rocks.”
A State Department official in Washington, responding to the Nigerian shootings, said in a statement that the United States “supports regional efforts to fight terrorism and protect civilians, employing our full tool kit — including diplomacy, foreign assistance, senior military engagement, and security assistance.”
The statement was a reiteration of a Twitter posting on Thursday by Tibor Nagy, assistant secretary for the State Department’s Bureau of African Affairs, in which he called for restraint on both sides and an investigation to hold all lawbreakers accountable.
There was a conspicuous lack of comment on both the killings and the Nigerian Army’s response from President Buhari and Atitku Abubakar, his main challenger in elections scheduled for next February.
Their silence may partly reflect the antipathy toward the Islamic Movement of Nigeria in their own bases of support.
There were also social-media expressions of support for the military’s response.
“If the military in my country doesn’t shoot back at a group of people who chose to block the highway and throw rocks at them, how would I trust them if they had to go toe-to-toe with a foreign enemy?!” wrote a senior aide to the governor of Kogi State in central Nigeria. “Please, use bullets to cure those fanatics of their madness!!
Despite its history of massacring innocent civilians in the war with the Islamist extremist group Boko Haram, detaining innocent citizens and raping women and girls fleeing war-torn communities, the Nigerian military has been the recipient of warplane sales and other gear from the United States. American officials are particularly worried about a branch of Boko Haram operating in Nigeria that says it has ties to the Islamic State.
A recent report mandated by Congress on the American strategy to improve security in Nigeria played down Nigerian military abuses, said Matthew Page, a former State Department expert on the region who is now an associate fellow in the Africa program of Chatham House, a British research group.
Mr. Page said that even under the Obama administration, Washington sent mixed signals to Nigeria on human rights, adding that diplomats and policymakers have been “house-trained by the Nigerian government to avoid public condemnation.”
“Such concerns are now voiced in private, if at all. Detainee deaths and child imprisonment continues, and extrajudicial killings by Nigerian soldiers are not even covered up anymore,” he said. “Under the Trump administration, any senior-level squeamishness about Nigerian military abuses has evaporated.”
Almost 20 years after the end of military rule in Nigeria, protests are still viewed by many as a public disturbance and threat to the authorities.
Additionally, the Islamic Movement of Nigeria is seen as a threat by some Nigerians to the Sunni form of Islam that is dominant in Nigeria’s north. The group does not recognize the Nigerian Constitution, claiming it excludes protections for minorities. Many Nigerian authorities say the group has the larger aim of creating an Islamic republic inspired by Iran.
In his meeting with President Buhari at the White House this year, Mr. Trump commented on the killings of Christians in Nigeria’s Middle Belt, where clashes over land use have broken out between mostly Christian farmers and mostly Muslim herdsmen.
“We have had very serious problems with Christians who are being murdered in Nigeria,” Mr. Trump told the Nigerian president, who is Muslim.
While many farmers have died, the clashes also have killed scores of Muslim herders.
Correction: November 1, 2018
Because of an editing error, an earlier version of this article misstated the number of protesters at the Monday march. It was about 1,000, not 200.
Dionne Searcey reported from Dakar, and Emmanuel Akinwotu from Lagos, Nigeria