Nigeria: Row over massacre Toll Gate hits Tinubu

By 'Tofe Ayeni
Posted on Friday, 25 March 2022 10:52

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

A plan to restart operations at the Lekki Toll Gate in Nigeria’s commercial capital of Lagos on 1 April has revived demands for the names of the beneficial owners of the complex to be made public along with those linked to a massacre there. Activists speak of a cover-up on behalf of business and political interests in the city.

News about Lekki Toll Gate flashed around the world in October 2020 when soldiers were filmed shooting unarmed #EndSARS protestors at the complex. The Nigerian government is yet to identify those military officers and politicians who ordered what Amnesty International, CNN and other media organisations called a massacre at the toll gate.

Many activists in the #EndSARS movement pointed fingers at Bola Ahmed Tinubu, a former governor of Lagos State, claiming that he had a stake in the Lekki Concession Company (LCC) which operates the Toll Gate. Angry protestors tried to burn down the offices of Tinubu’s Nation newspaper and a five-star hotel which he is also said to own.

Now one of the leading contenders in next year’s presidential race, Tinubu is also embroiled in a messy legal battle with Dapo Apara, a former managing director of Alpha Beta, the private company which has the sole rights to monitor and collect tax revenues on behalf of the Lagos State government.

Tinubu has a stake in Alpha Beta, which won the revenue collection contract in the state while he was governor of Lagos. His political opponents say that this amounts to a blatant conflict of interest. A veteran political bruiser, Tinubu is known as the godfather of Lagos, one of Africa’s richest and most unequal cities.

An investment banker in his 20s based in Lagos who describes his situation as “suffering under the current regime” says: “I think the reopening [of Lekki Toll Gate] is a huge deal. I feel like they are doing it now because they think we are distracted, but the backlash will kick in on 1 April.”

For him, when reading about the announcement “on Twitter on Monday”, the initial reaction was that it “should be burned down again … They’re opening it because Tinubu wants to run [for the presidency].”

Tinubu has repeatedly denied that he owns or controls the LCC or that he played any role in getting soldiers to clear protestors from the Toll Gate complex on the night of the massacre in October 2020. But the Lagos State government is yet to release accurate information about the owners and operators of the Toll Gate.

The road to repossession

Following what has become known as the #LekkiMassacre, the Toll Gaste operations were suspended pending the investigation into the military and the police, thought to be responsible for opening fire.

A judicial panel was established by the Lagos State government to look into the brutality of the Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS), now disbanded. Some compensation was given to citizens – around 70 victims of police brutality were awarded N410m, but many remain dissatisfied.

The LCC went before the panel on four different occasions to request repossession of the Toll Gate complex. The company is said to owe about N24.52bn ($59m) to foreign and local lenders, and the financial impact of the closure made matters worse. On the final request, in February, five out of nine of the panel members voted to return control of the toll gate to the LCC.

Doris Okuwobi, a retired judge who headed the panel, said that the Toll Gate could be in operation again as “no party has shown evidence of any further need to investigate.”

However, other panel members disagree. Ebun Adegboruwa, a senior advocate of Nigeria (SAN) and member, believes that handing it back “is hasty, premature and will overreach the work and eventual recommendations of the panel.”

Possible reactions

In Nigeria, economic and political tensions are running high. A chronic fuel shortage has lasted about over a month.  It started when the federal government held back imports found to be sub-standard, which led to scarcity at filling stations. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on 24 February triggered a global price hike over concerns of a supply crunch.

For Nigerians, who heavily rely on diesel for their generators and petrol for their cars, the shortages and rising prices are making life harder. In addition, the national grid, supplying electricity to the whole country, collapsed in mid-March, causing a nationwide blackout. Now, Lagosians are being asked to pay a toll to a government that they believe is failing them.

I’m not sure if this will spark another round of protests. What are we protesting for? Just to remove toll? In October 2020, we were protesting against police brutality. I think now people will just be angry.

The Lagos State Commissioner for Information, Gbenga Omotosho, said in an interview on Arise TV: “Most of the people that have been vociferous about the Lekki Concession Company returning to the toll gate are people who do not live around that place … They send messages from thousands of miles away asking people not to go there and pay a toll while saying all manners of unprintable things.”

However, Kolapo Akande, a 26-year-old geoscientist and engineer based in Lagos, who took part in the October 2020 #EndSARS protests, found out about the reopening on his work group chat.

His office is based in Lekki, so this will “…affect us because of the toll money and fuel scarcity. Now driving past the toll gate every morning, I just think about what a headache this is going to be, especially with the added traffic.”

Bottom line

Times are getting tougher in Nigeria, from power cuts to fuel shortages to price hikes. Some argue that so much is going on that some people might ignore the reopening of the Toll Gate.

Akande thinks the Toll Gate reopening “…is going to be overshadowed, as the fuel scarcity is still going on. It is smart for the government to slide it in during this time.”

He adds: “I’m not sure if this will spark another round of protests. What are we protesting for? Just to remove toll? In October 2020, we were protesting against police brutality. I think now people will just be angry.”

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