By Femi Falana SAN
For several years, the human rights community had called for the prosecution of the operatives of the Special Anti Robbery Squad (SARS) over incessant arrests, detention, torture and extrajudicial killing of citizens. As such calls were ignored by the authorities the SARS intensified the brutalization of citizens particularly young people. The video of the reckless killing of an unarmed young man in Delta State sometime in the first week of October 2020 by trigger happy SARS officials went viral and led to spontaneous street protests in many states of the Federation and the Federal Capital Territory. In its initial reaction to the protests the Federal Government announced that SARS would undergo some reforms.
Since the Government had ignored the reports of many administrative panels that made a strong case for police reforms in the recent past the youths distrusted the authorities They continued the peaceful protests and demanded for the immediate disbandment of the SARS. Having regard to the popularity of the protests which spread like a bush fire in the harmattan the immediate past Inspector-General of Police, Mr. Abubakar Adamu announced the dissolution of the notorious SARS and replaced it with the Special Weapons And Tactics (SWAT). At that juncture, the Federal Government hurriedly released the report of the Presidential Panel on Human Rights Abuse by the Police which had been submitted since 2018 and directed the Police Authorities to dismiss indicted officers and prosecute those who had engaged in illegal execution of criminal suspects and other citizens.
Furthermore, the Federal Government and the various
State Governments instituted Judicial Commissions of Inquiry to probe sundry allegations of police brutality (which had been ignored over the years) in accordance with the directive of the National Economic Council. Notwithstanding that the protests were acknowledged to be peaceful the Federal Government became frustrated that they were not called off. In Ogbomoso, Oyo State, Port Harcourt, Rivers State, Asaba, Delta State, Benin, Delta State and other cities the police killed scores of protesters without any basis. In Lagos and Abuja the protesters were attacked by a gang of hired thugs. The protesters promptly arrested the thugs and handed over to the police for prosecution. But as the criminal elements were released by the police the so called saw a free rein for thuggery and stepped in to hijack the protests.
The armed thugs engaged in the killing of policemen, set private and public buildings on fire, attacked police stations and correctional centres where they freed a number of convicts and awaiting trial inmates. Under the pretext of collaborating with the police to restore law and order a battalion of the Nigerian Army invaded the Lekki Toll Gate, in Lagos. Upon sighting the armed soldiers the #endsars protesters waived the Nigerian flag and sang the national anthem. Without any provocation whatsoever the soldiers opened fire on the protesters. Some of the protesters were killed while others were injured. It was a case of what Fela Anikulapo-Kuti once referred to as “sorrows, tears and blood.” As the killing of the unarmed protesters defied the rules of engagement of the armed forces the Army Headquarters became embarrassed and denied that troops were present at the Lekki Toll Gate.
The Attorney-General of the Federation and Minister of Justice, Mr. Abubakar Malami SAN said that those who attacked the protesters were hoodlums who wore military fatigue. On not less than five occasions, the Minister of Information has categorically denied the killing of any protester. In challenging the claim of the survivors Alhaji Mohammed said that it was a case of killing without bodies and names. But when confronted with irrefutable digital evidence by the #endsars protest movement the army turned round to admit that soldiers were at the Lekki Toll Gate to stop the protests and that they only shot rubber bullets into the air!
Thereafter, four military officers appeared before the Lagos State Judicial Panel of Inquiry on Restitution for Victims of SARS Related Abuses and Other Matters headed by Justice Doris Okuwobi (retd) where they gave evidence and denied the allegation of the killing of protesters. But the military officers and their lawyers suddenly withdrew appearance from the Panel as soon as eye witnesses, victims including amputees, relations of those who were killed, medical personnel and other experts appeared to give evidence at the Panel. Thus, as the Commission rightly pointed out that the overwhelming evidence of the eye witnesses and forensic experts which implicated the military and police personnel who carried out the brutal killing of the protesters was not challenged by way of cross examination.
The Justice Okuwobi Judicial Commission submitted its report last week. Upon receiving the report, Governor Governor Babajide Sanwoolu confirmed that the Government did not interfere with the work of the Commission when he said that “It is instructive for us to put it out on record that the panel has been totally independent. The panel has had its full request and has been given full authority to summon to inquire, to ask, to request anybody or anything so wish that would help them come to conclusion. The governor commended members of the panel for the work done, adding that posterity will be kind to them. He said the report will be submitted to the national economic council (NEC), adding that “proper response” will be accorded to the recommendations.
The Governor has already constituted a four-member committee headed by Mr. Moyosore Onigbanjo SAN, the State’s Attorney-General and Commissioner for Justice to come up with a White Paper on the panel’s recommendations within the next two weeks. Having accepted the report in good faith the Governor said
that “I’m believing and trusting that this process will help us start the very difficult process of proper reconciliation, restitution, bringing together of anyone that must have been one form or the other being affected. By either the police or any of our citizens that must have been wronged by one form or the other, the process of healing, I imagine, with the submission of this panel report, will start that process.”
After the official presentation of the report a leaked version was circulated on social media. In its 309-page report the panel found that soldiers stormed the Lekki Toll Gate to disperse #EndSARS protesters on the night of October 20, 2020 and that at least 48 protesters were either shot dead, injured with bullet wounds or assaulted by soldiers. According to the report, nine protesters were confirmed dead, while four were presumed dead. Among the 48, about 20 sustained gunshot injuries, while 13 others were assaulted by the military. The panel also noted that 96 other corpses were presented by a forensic pathologist at the Lagos State University Teaching Hospital, Prof John Obafunwa. It was confirmed by the Panel that the protesters were killed by policemen and soldiers.
Consequently, the panel recommended that all officers and soldiers that were deployed in the Lekki Tollgate on October 20, 2020 should be made to face appropriate disciplinary action, stripped of their status, and dismissed as they are not fit and proper to serve in any public or security service of the nation.” The Commission further recommended that the Divisional Police Officer of the Maroko Police Station along with policemen deployed from the Maroko Police Station on October 20 and 21, 2020 be prosecuted for arbitrary and indiscriminate shooting and killing of protesters. The Commission recommended that the Lekki Toll Plaza be made a memorial site for the protest by renaming it the #EndSARS Tollgate and that October 20 of every year be made a “toll free day” at the plaza as long as the tollgate exists.
The findings of the Commission is a complete negation of the consistent claim by the Federal Government that there was no massacre at the Toll Gate during the nationwide protests against extrajudicial killings and police brutality by operatives of the SARS. Having read the report, I wish to state without any fear of contradiction the panel gave everybody fair hearing, analysed the oral and documentary evidence, summarised the findings and made profund recommendations. The Nigerian Army which withdrew its officers from the proceedings of the Panel has itself to blame for the indictment of its personnel. In defence of the security officials a few persons had attempted to poohpooh the findings of the Commission and discredit the members.
Furthermore, the Lekki Concession Company Limited, an agency of the Lagos State Government which later disabled the CCTV camera at the Lekki Toll Gate which captured the tragic incident of the night in question had issued a press statement to condemn the wanton killing of the protesters. A copy of the press statement was tendered and admitted in evidence during the proceedings. In any case, the controversy surrounding the findings of the Commission is centred around the number of the protesters that were killed and not that the killings did not occur. But it is on record that a few hours after the incident Governor Sanwoolu had disclosed that two people were killed at the Lekki Toll Gate. The disclosure was made after the Governor had visited several injured people who were then receiving treatment in some hospitals. It is therefore crystal clear that those who are out to discredit the report are obviously weeping more than the bereaved.
But no amount of campaign of calumny can impeach the solid credencials of members of the Judicial Commission. The panel was led by Doris Okuwobi, a retired judge and former Solicitor-General and Permanent Secretary in the Lagos State Ministry of Justice. Other members are Taiwo Lakanu, a retired Deputy Inspector General of Police, Ebun Adegboruwa, a Senior Advocate of Nigeria and Patience Udoh (representing the Civil Society), Segun Awosanya (human rights activist), Olutoyin Odusanya (Director, Lagos Citizens Mediation Center), and Temitope Majekodunmi, a youth representative. The remaining two members, who were among the protesters, resigned from the panel.No doubt, the Lagos State Government must have been stunned by the findings of the Commission.
Unlike similar bodies in other states of the Federation the Okuwobi Commission was empowered by the Lagos State Government to pay compensation to the victims of police brutality in deserving cases. Based on its findings the Commission was able to pay not less than N409 million to victims of illegal detention and torture as well as bereaved family members of unarmed citizens who were extrajudicially executed by some trigger happy police officers. However, as police brutality has continued unabated the Okuwobi Judicial Commission has rightly recommended the establishment of a standing Human Rights Committee to address the allegations of human rights abuse by security forces. Since the Panel was only able to attend to 186 out of the 252 petitions submitted to it by victims of police brutality the Panel urged the Government to authorise the proposed human rights committee to consider the remaining petitions.
Contrary to the antics of the critics of the report of the Commission the Lagos State Government has demonstrated its readiness to implement the recommendations. It is pertinent to note that while the Commission was sitting the Governor Sanwoolu visited the homes of the 6 police officers who were killed in Lagos during the protests, paid them N60 million and announced that the State Government would educate the children of the slain officers up to university level. The widow of a spy policeman who was killed by the mob has equally been compensated by the State Government. To stop the police from killing participants during peaceful rallies and public meetings the Lagos State Government has equipped the State Police Command with cannisters of teargas and water cannon.
The members of the Okuwobi Judicial Commission of Inquiry deserve commendation for the thorough investigation of police brutality in Lagos State. In view of the integrity of the members of the Panel and the quality of the findings I am confident that the Lagos State Government will pluck up the courage to implement the remaining recommendations of the Commission. President Muhammadu Buhari has said that the Federal Government is awaiting the report of all the Judicial Commissions of Inquiry instituted by the State Governments with a view to taking appropriate action on the recommendations. The Lagos State Government and other State Governments should not hesitate to forward the reports of the Commissions to the Federal Government. To that extent, the Commissions that are still sitting should conclude the national assignment without any further delay.
Finally, while commending the witnesses and their lawyers for exposing the official cover up of the egregious human rights abuse perpetrated by the merchants of death in the country last year the Federal Government and the various State Governments should ensure that venues are designated where aggrieved citizens can hold rallies in exercise of their fundamental rights to freedom of expression and assembly guaranteed by sections 39 and 40 of the Nigerian Constitution. The violent attack of unarmed protesters during peaceful rallies by military personnel should be completely halted by the Federal Government. This demand is in line with several decisions of Nigerian courts against the involvement of military personnel in the maintenance of internal security in the country. Since section 83 (4) of the Police Establishment Act, 2020 has imposed a duty on the police to provide adequate security for citizens who participate in public meetings and rallies the Inspector-General of Police should stop the police from subjecting protesters to unwarranted attacks.