Nigeria – #EndSARS: Army indicted for killing protesters but activists see ‘low’ chance of justice

By Dele Yusuf
Posted on Friday, 19 November 2021 09:03

Nigeria Protest Anniversary
People protest at Lekki Toll plaza in Lagos, Nigeria, Wednesday, Oct. 20, 2021. (AP Photo/Sunday Alamba)

A long-awaited judicial panel report on the shooting of Nigerian protesters who organised a rally against police brutality has finally been concluded and the verdict is clear: soldiers of the Nigerian army indeed shot protesters with the intention to kill them and they succeeded in killing 11 of them.

After a year-long investigation into the shooting of protesters in Nigeria’s economic hub Lagos, a government-backed judicial panel set up in Lagos to probe the shooting of anti-police brutality protesters has submitted a 300-page report on its findings which included that soldiers and police officers indeed killed the protesters.

It is not the first time such a finding was made but it is the first confirmation from a government-back enquiry that people were killed while they protested police brutality. The bigger concern though is whether the report will be implemented or tarred with the same brush as the many others.

Though Oke Ridwan, a lawyer who was actively involved in some of the cases considered by the panel, admits that expectations for setting it up were met, he says the probability of the recommendations being carried out “is quite low.”

“We have several panel reports in Nigeria that have never been adopted with the pressure on the government from the youths and other watchdogs, we should expect something tangible,” he tells The Africa Report.

The Lekki Massacre

20 October 2020 – remember the date.

Nigerians have for many years cried out over allegations of illegal detention, torture, extortion and killing of suspects by personnel of the Nigeria police force. A viral video in October last year that showed a young man being brutalised by persons who appeared to be security forces in the southsouth Delta state, reopened fresh wounds of police brutality especially regarding a now-dissolved brutal police unit known as the special anti-robbery squad (SARS).

Starting from Lagos, people poured out en masse into the streets to demand justice for victims of police abuse. Such protests are common in Nigeria but last year’s demonstrations were by far the biggest which both the government and security agencies never envisaged.

And as protesters gathered at the Lekki toll gate in Lagos, a 24-curfew announced in the aftermath of attacks on government and security facilities was the Genesis of what is now notoriously known as a massacre.

Just at about 7pm, military trucks rolled out from a nearby barrack and headed to the toll gate. The protesters — buoyed with the anger over the many cases of police brutality in Nigeria — remained at the scene as they saw the soldiers approach. In singing Nigeria’s national anthem and flying the country’s flag, they drew strength but not shield as the soldiers opened fire at the scene.

The outcome is what has now been officially recognised as a massacre.

As the panel put it in a copy of its report that was leaked: “Officers and soldiers of 65 Batallion of the Nigerian Army, led by Lt. Col Bello, left their base with blank and live ammunition to confront and disperse youths holding only their national flags, with live bullets; the soldiers actually shot blank and live bullets directly and pointedly into the midst of the protesters at the Lekki Toll Gate, with the deliberate intention to assault, maim and kill; the soldiers turned back ambulances that were invited to render first aid and assistance to the wounded protesters.”

The panel added that the soldiers “shot, injured and killed unarmed helpless and defenseless protesters without provocation or justification … and the manner of assault and killing could in context be described as a massacre.”

Two members of the panel declined to speak on the findings, telling The Africa Report that they are not allowed to speak to the media about it. And the hushed voices used by those of them who have spoken off the record coupled with only the leaked copy being available has started to raise concerns over transparency in addressing the issues raised.

But as a source close to the panel said, “it is the authority that will speak on the findings, not the panel members. Their duty starts and stops with the investigation and they have done the investigation.”

The panel’s report found 48 casualties including 11 killed and four “presumed dead” in the aftermath of the toll gate shooting. It also found that:

  • Officers of the Nigerian Police Force “shot at, assaulted and battered unarmed protesters, which led to injuries and deaths” and “the police officers also tried to cover up their actions by picking up bullets.”
  • LCC ( Lekki Concession Company (LCC, the company managing the toll gate) hampered the panel’s investigation by refusing to turn over some useful and vital information/evidence as requested.
  • There was an attempt to cover up the Incident of the 20th of October by the cleaning of the Lekki Toll Gate and the failure to preserve the scene ahead of potential investigations.
  • All officers of the Nigerian army deployed at the toll gate “are not fit and proper to serve in any public or security service of the nation.”

Recommendations that may never see the light of the day

The panel recommended “expeditious” compensation for victims of the shooting, “holistic” police reforms, sanctioning of the security personnel who participated in shooting, injuring and killing of unarmed protestors, public apology to the protesters and the setting up of a standing tribunal to deal with cases of rights violations by security forces.

And in case you are wondering, the Lekki toll gate shooting report is just the latest of many from similar panels either set up by the government or watchdogs to investigate allegations of such abuses.

But in most cases, “the panels will do a very good job, give recommendations and the recommendations will end up in the drawer somewhere without being implemented,” says Oluwafemi Ajibade of the Lagos-based Citizens Gavel Foundation for Social Justice. “At the end of the day, (the) government does whatever it wants.”

As the EndSARS protests swept across Nigeria in October, a presidential panel on reform of SARS recommended the dismissal of 37 police officers and the prosecution of 24 others after considering more than 100 complaints bothering on alleged human rights violations by the officers.

But none of the officers has been dismissed and, according to a source close to the Police Service Commission’s (PSC), the government body supervising the Nigeria police, “almost all of the officers have not been prosecuted.”

When contacted, Ikechukwu Ani, the commission’s spokesperson, told The Africa Report that he is not aware if the officers were later dismissed.

“What the commission does is to take decisions. We have taken and we sent those decisions to IG (inspector general of police) to imp

In August 2018, the federal government set up a judicial panel of inquiry to probe SARS and recommend steps for police reforms. The report never made it to the public eye. That same year, Amnesty International released a report titled, ‘Nigeria: Time to End Impunity’,  detailing cases of illegal detention, extortion, torture and killing of suspects in police custody, but the government is yet to act on the report.

Amnesty International has released three reports on police brutality in Nigeria in the last six years, Damian Ugwu of its country office told The Africa Report. “In all these reports, we made far-reaching recommendations (but) these things have not been done,” he said.

But Tony Eze, a representative of the Nigerian lawyers association at the Lagos EndSARS panel says he is optimistic that things will change for good this time.

“If the Lagos government was not interested in enforcing or carrying out the recommendations, they wouldn’t have set up a panel in the first place. So now that the report is out, one can only expect that there will be a logical conclusion,” he tells The Africa Report.

“It is now left for the civil society groups to continue to put pressure on the government to see it through to ensure it doesn’t just end like a paper but it goes ahead to be implemented. NBA as a body is also a big lobbyist and we are also going to throw our own weight behind this to make sure that the rule of law is followed and justice is done,” he adds

Bottom line

The Lagos state government “must begin with making the report public so that citizens can engage and follow up because it is one thing for the panel to make recommendations and totally different thing for them to implement,” says Ibrahim Faruk of the Youth Initiative for Advocacy, Growth and Advancement (YIAGA), a non-profit on the forefront of good governance and human rights campaign in Nigeria.

He further tells The Africa Report: “Because we run a government by committees, the governor of Lagos will set up another committee to look at how to implement the recommendations. The committee will submit its own report and the governor will decide whether he wants to take action or not.”

Ajibade of Citizens Gavel shares the same sentiments and adds that the focus should also shift to other judicial panels set up across Nigeria for the same purpose.

“When it comes to the reform of the Nigeria police, more attention should be given to the panel in Abuja not Lagos,” he said. “It will have more impact on police reform because that is the only recommendations the federal government can say this is what we can work with because it is in Abuja.”

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