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Panel says Nigerian troops massacred #EndSARS protesters at Lekki Toll Gate

A judicial panel set up by the Lagos State Government in the wake of the #EndSARS protest that grounded the state in October 2020 said in a report it submitted to the government on Monday said that Nigerian troops massacred protesters.  Nigerian troops on the evening of October 20, 2020, arrived at the Lekki toll plaza…

A judicial panel set up by the Lagos State Government in the wake of the #EndSARS protest that grounded the state in October 2020 said in a report it submitted to the government on Monday said that Nigerian troops massacred protesters. 

Nigerian troops on the evening of October 20, 2020, arrived at the Lekki toll plaza to disperse unarmed protesters, largely young people, who were protesting against police brutality. Nigerian Army said it was invited to the location by the state.

But what followed, though disputed by the government, was described by witnesses and right organisations as a “massacre”.

“At the Lekki Toll Gate, officers of the Nigerian Army shot, injured and killed unarmed helpless and defenceless protesters, without provocation or justification, while they were waving the Nigerian Flag and singing the National Anthem and the manner of assault and killing could in context be described as a massacre,” the report said.

Amnesty International insisted that its investigations showed that officials of the Nigerian Army and police killed at least 12 people that evening at two locations – Lekki and Alausa – the same day. 

Peaceful until ‘soldiers of death’ came
Lekki was the ground zero of the protests in Nigeria. Alausa, which is the seat of the Lagos State government, was also a major meeting point for the protesters in the state.

While security officials and protesters were attacked at different locations in the state, the protests at Lekki were peaceful, sometimes carnival-like. Eyewitnesses told the panel of how the grounds were swept every evening to keep the area clean when protesters left for their homes. 

Muslims prayers were observed daily and food packs were donated to lift the spirit of the young people who were only requesting that they were treated with respect by the members of the now-defunct Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS).

“The protest at Lekki Toll Gate according to eyewitnesses that testified and from the video footages submitted by witnesses and LCC was very peaceful on all the days including the 20th of October, 2020 until the arrival of men of the Nigerian Army,” the report said.

“Protesters had cleaners to clear the environment of debris, stones and any other dangerous object. The Panel finds that the modus of the protest was that they had tents, some brought their cars and some other slept on the bare grass.”

In fact, the panel countered the oft-repeated characterisation of the Lekki protesters by the senior government officials as a gathering of anti-government criminals who wanted to oust President Muhammadu Buhari from office. 

Buhari himself said the same thing in an interview with Arise TV in June. 

But the panel noted that the ” gathering at the Lekki Toll Gate was not that of hoodlums and cultists. They were vigilant against petty thieves and miscreants who they apprehended and handed over to Policemen.”

“They had private security men and bodyguards, they also had ambulances to attend to health issues, they had welfare officers who took care of feeding the protesters and they had an effective sanitation team that cleared the protest ground daily through consistent sweeping with zero tolerance for dangerous items and weapons such as stones, sticks, guns, machetes, etc. They also had an effective crowd control mechanism.”

The protesters received global attention, with world leaders, celebrities, and sports stars from around the world showing their support. 

The hashtag #EndSARS trended on Twitter for days and provided a rallying point for the protesters, and drew the attention of the world to the activities of the notorious Special Anti-Robbery Squad of the Nigerian police. The squad has since been disbanded.

Massacre and coverups
The Judicial Panel of Enquiry and Restitution for Victims of SARS Related Abuses in Lagos State was set up initially to investigate cases of police brutality in the state and was inaugurated a day before the Lekki killings. Investigation of the Lekki massacre was later added to its remit.

The panel was headed by Doris Okuwobi, a retired judge. Majekodunmi. Babajide Boye was its secretary to the panel while Jonathan Ogunsanya was the legal counsel. Other members included Ebun-Olu Adegboruwa, a senior lawyer, Fredrick Taiwo Olakanu, a retired deputy inspector general of police and Patience Udoh. Other members of the panel include Segun Awosanya, Oluwatoyin Odusanya, Lucas Koyejo, Temitope.

Justice Okuwobi said 235 petitions were received with only 14 of it being on the alleged Lekki Shooting incident.

The Lagos panel, perhaps the most high-profile among the several set up by states after the protests, indicted the Nigerian Army, the Nigerian police, and Lagos State Government-owned Lekki Concession Company and absolved protesters of any crime.

The panel said what Nigerian Army did at the Lekki Toll Gate on the evening of October 20 “could in context be described as a massacre”. It indicted the army for disregarding its own Rules of Engagement by denying those who were shot and wounded access to medical help. 

“The Panel also found that the conduct of the Nigerian Army was exacerbated by its refusal to allow ambulances render medical assistance to victims who required such assistance. The Army was also found not to have adhered to its own Rules of Engagement,” it said.

The report also said police officials from the Maroko division participated in the “massacre” that happened that evening and tried to cover up the killings. 

“The Panel found that the Nigerian Police Force deployed its officers to the Lekki Toll Gate on the night of the 20th October 2020 and between that night and the morning of the 21st of October, 2020, its officer shot at, assaulted and battered unarmed protesters, which led to injuries and deaths. The police officers also tried to cover up their actions by picking up bullets.”

Although the panel did not say the state-owned Lekki Concession Company (LCC) was complicit in the massacre, it, however, faulted it for its unwillingness to ” turn over some useful and vital information/evidence as requested by the Panel and the Forensic Expert engaged by the panel, even where such information and evidence was by the company’s admission, available.”

Festival of denials and injustice
The Nigerian government has a dubious history of denying its complicity in dastard crimes committed by its soldiers. The Lekki episode was treated the same way. 

Despite video evidence, Nigerian Army initially denied being at the toll gate on the evening of October 20, 2020. It described the reports that its officials were even at the scene as “fake news”. 

But that position changed days later. It claimed the military was invited by the state government because the “situation was fast degenerating into anarchy.” The army also claimed that the soldiers drawn from the 81 Division followed necessary protocols in dispersing the protesters. 

“The intervention of the Military followed all laid down procedures for internal security operations. And all the soldiers involved acted within the confines of the Rules of Engagement, ROE for internal security operations,” the Acting Deputy Director, 81 Division Army Public Relations, Major Osoba Olaniyi said in a statement on October 26, 2020. 

The army later claimed it officials fired only blank bullets at the protesters and live rounds.

As many young Nigerians marked the first anniversary of the attack last month, Nigeria’s minister for information and culture Lai Mohammed insisted that a massacre never happened.  

“The only massacre recorded was in the social media, hence there were neither bodies nor blood,” Mohammed said last month.

“No bodies, no families, no convincing evidence, nothing. Where are the families of those who were reportedly killed at the toll gate? Did they show up at the Judicial Panel of Inquiry? If not, why?”

Mohammed has consistently accused foreign bodies such as Twitter, Amnesty International and CNN of using #EndSARS to damage the image of Nigeria.

Justice Okuwobi disclosed that the panel awarded a total of N410 million to 70 victims of Police brutality. But critics said the government must accept its complicity in the killings.

“It is unacceptable that despite overwhelming evidence, the government continues to deny the use of live ammunition on protesters at Lekki toll gate exactly a year ago,” Osai Ojigho, director of Amnesty International Nigeria said.