Beyond the #EndSARS many controversies
The rejection by the Lagos State Government of a critical aspect of the report of the judicial panel of inquiry that investigated the #EndSARS protest, and the shooting incident at the Lekki Tollgate in the state last October, did not altogether come as a surprise. The government of Babajide Sanwo-Olu, just like the Federal Government, had consistently contested reports of killings at the toll gate; and, as it were, it was not about to change its mind merely by the panel’s report. Incidentally, the state government itself set up the panel, known as the Lagos State Judicial Panel of Inquiry and Restitution for Victims of SARS Related Abuses on October 19, 2020; a day before the Lekki incident following the #EndSARS protest of 2020. Led by retired High Court judge, Justice Doris Okuwobi, the panel spent more than a year on its investigation and, among other findings, concluded that armed security agents shot and killed unarmed peaceful protesters at Lekki Tollgate, in a manner likened to a “massacre” on October 20, 2020. But Lagos State government rejected that conclusion in the White Paper it issued on the report, asserting that it was not supported by evidence analysed by the panel.
Specifically, the state government accepted 11 out of 32 recommendations of the panel, rejected one outright, agreed on six with modifications and referred 14, which it said fell outside its powers, to the Federal Government for consideration. What has happened unfortunately has left many questions, and answers on the protest blowing in the wind, while parties, depending on the side of the divide they belong to, hold tenaciously to their positions. Nevertheless, many Nigerians feel justified in their belief that the panel did enough investigation to arrive at its findings and conclusion, noting that government’s White Paper largely endorsed the report except for the denial on the “massacre.”
One of the ugly fallouts of the episode was the reaction of Minister of Information and Culture, Mr. Lai Mohammed describing the panel’s report as “tales by moonlight,” even as members of the public awaited the resolutions and recommendations of the review committee set up by the state government. The minister had granted a press conference where he was quick to dismiss the contents of the report, which confirmed the killing of at least nine persons at Lekki Tollgate, as being fraught with “errors, inconsistencies, discrepancies, speculations, innuendoes, omissions and conclusions that are not supported by evidence.” It is instructive that at the time of the minister’s comment, the report of the Panel was yet to be made public while the review committee was yet to be out with Lagos government’s Whitepaper on it. No doubt, Mohammed’s comment was hasty, highly prejudicial and unbecoming of his office. It was a desperate action seemingly aimed at unduly influencing the state government’s position or to sweep important matters under the carpet. Mohammed should have at least waited for the state government to conclude its study of the report and make its position public.
The minister’s comments also contradicted President Muhammadu Buhari’s earlier pronouncement that the Federal Government awaited the reports from the respective states and would not impose ideas on them; and it aggravated an already inflamed situation in addition to displaying a lack of circumspection as his utterances do not represent the position of the Federal Government.
Given its earlier contention of reports of killings in Lekki, it was almost expected that the Lagos State government equally rejected sections of the Panel Report that referred to the events of October 20, 2020 at the Lekki Tollgate as a “massacre in context” thereby jettisoning its ancillary recommendations and reiterating the earlier stance of the state and Federal Government which denied alleged killings at the tollgate by men of the Nigeria army drafted to quell the protest.
To the average Nigerian, the whole exercise looked like a charade by the government, lacking in sincerity, and simply designed to calm the frayed nerves of Nigerians. Clearly, government was determined not to take responsibility for the alleged actions of men of the army on whose orders they had acted. It is rather unfortunate that one year after, and so much taxpayers’ money expended (Lagos government had, through the panel, paid N420 million as compensation to victims of police brutality), public perception and frayed nerves on the Lekki issue in particular have remained hanging.
Be that as it may, it is evident that the essence of the protest and the sacrifices made by the Nigerian youth is not lost on the government. The demands for justice and questions surrounding the Lekki Tollgate shooting was but a byproduct of the #EndSARS protest which aim was to amongst others, end police brutality and prompt compensation for its victims; improved welfare of the police, good governance/accountability by elected and or public office holders.
Sadly, one year since the incident, the government has evidently not fared well in yielding to these demands which by all standards are fundamental and reasonable in a democratic setting. The answers could well be found on all facets of national life. Nigerians still suffer from cases of police brutality and extortion, insecurity remains on the rise with kidnappers and terrorists calling the shots, while cases of corrupt practices by public office holders are still rampart in government circle. Certainly, not much has changed, in spite of assurances by Buhari that the demands of the youths had been heard “loud and clear” and its government was responding.
By all means, the panels set up by other states on the protest should conclude their proceedings and report to the government for action. But isn’t it ironic that some officials of the Federal Government’s agencies blatantly refused to honour the invitation of the panels? Notably, many petitioners to these panels had earlier complained to relevant authorities without receiving any recompense. Yet, government does not require the panels’ report before taking steps to improve the welfare of the nation’s police personnel who still live in pitiable condition in barracks provided by the state. The issue of insecurity in the country cannot be overemphasized and, at a time like this, welfare of security agencies should be made a priority in order to secure their commitment to safety of lives and properties of Nigerians.
It is without doubt that lives and properties worth billions of naira were lost during the course of the protest across the country, and particularly in Lagos State. Governor Sanwo-Olu had, in reference to this point, stated that the state has bounced back in its economy. He did recognise and promise to do the much more that need to be done to enable the state fully recover from the protest. He stated that this month, he would lead “a walk for peace to herald the healing of our land,” adding: “Let me use this occasion to extend an open invitation to our youths, members of the diplomatic corps, civil society groups, students and the media as well as other stakeholders to join me.”
Like every other society, Lagos does need peace to grow. The government, in view of the circumstances, needs to do a lot to earn the respect and confidence of the people; else the governor’s peace moves will be treated with suspicion. Nigerians are frustrated with the insincerity displayed by government at various levels. While the governor’s appeal for cooperation is passionate enough, he needs to demonstrate more practically that governance in Lagos State revolves around the people, and not merely in competing for a position among the world’s mega cities.
The demands and agitations by Nigerians which culminated in the #EndSARS protest is a reflection of government failure to deliver its end on the social contract with the people and the basis upon which it was elected into office. As such, government at all levels should think deep and serve justice to all Nigerians when it matters most.