Panel of inquiry finds Nigerian army culpable in Lekki ‘massacre’

Leaked report confirms dozens of casualties, details efforts to cover up shooting of unarmed #EndSARS demonstrators at Lagos’s Lekki last year.

The Lekki toll-gate plaza was a popular protest ground during last year's protests [File: Afolabi Sotunde/Reuters]

A panel of inquiry has found the Nigerian military to be culpable in the shooting and killing of unarmed citizens protesting against police brutality in the commercial capital of Lagos in October last year.

In its report, which was leaked on Monday, just hours after it was submitted to the Lagos state government, the panel found that there had been 48 casualties, including 11 people killed, and four people missing, during what it described as a “massacre”.

The army did not adhere to its own rules of engagement and its conduct “was exacerbated by its refusal to allow ambulances render medical assistance to victims who required such assistance”, the report said.

There was no immediate comment by Nigerian authorities.

For years, young Nigerians had cried out against the repeated and discriminate occurrences of torture, maiming, extortions, and even murder at the hands of operatives of a rogue police unit, the Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS). These complaints exploded into two weeks of peaceful #EndSARSprotests across mostly southern and central Nigeria.

On the evening of October 20, 2020, a large number of peaceful youths were at a toll-gate plaza in Lekki, an upscale Lagos district, continuing the demonstrations despite a curfew.

“At the Lekki Toll Gate, officers of the Nigerian Army shot, injured and killed unarmed helpless and defenseless 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,” said the report.

‘Open secret’

Earlier in the day, men believed to be officials of the state government had tampered with surveillance equipment at the toll gates but the unfolding scenario was captured by live streams on social media platforms.

The next morning, the committee said “there was abundant evidence before the panel” that three Lagos State Waste Management Authority (LAWMA) trucks with brushes underneath were brought to the scene “to clean up the scene of bloodstains and other evidence”. It also said police officers “tried to cover up their actions by picking up bullets”.

“The outcome of the inquiry … basically confirmed an open secret that the sinister attacks on young Nigerians were orchestrated by state actors, premeditated and there was a coordinated attempt to erase the memory of the victims,” said Adewunmi Emoruwa, lead strategist Gatefield, an Abuja-based policy analysis and media firm which had its accounts frozen by the authorities for providing small grants for journalists to report on police brutality last year.

“Acknowledging the massacre is the first step, but the greater hurdle will be bringing the perpetrators to book, as they hold sway over the institutions that are established to serve this purpose.”

There were other violent episodes attributed to security forces elsewhere in Lagos that day, including one in the densely populated low-income area of Mushin where the police reportedly killed more than 10 people and left dozens wounded.

While the commission, officially known as the Judicial Panel of Inquiry and Restitution, was commissioned by the state government to probe extrajudicial violence a day before the Lekki shootings, the governor “​​expanded the Terms of Reference of the Panel” to cover the incident.

The inquiry was marred by a number of controversies from the beginning.

Rinu Oduala, named as one of its youth representatives after being heavily involved in the protests, resigned, saying she would not “be part of a cover-up”.

Meanwhile, Sanusi Ovada Bello, the lieutenant colonel believed to have led the troops from the Bonny camp barracks only about 5km (3.1 miles) away from the toll gates, received two summons but did not appear before the panel. Other army officials also repeatedly failed to heed the panel’s summons for months, despite some of them filing affidavits, as acknowledged in the report.

The government categorically denied that the army had fired at the protesters, despite witness accounts and findings by news reports and rights groups such as Amnesty International. Information Minister Lai Mohammed who described the incident as a “phantom massacre”, threatened to sanction CNN journalists for an investigation into the matter.

Lagos state Governor Babajide Sanwo-Olu, who blamed the shooting on “forces beyond his control”, had previously said there were only two fatalities during the incident.

The panel also cited a lack of time to fully carry out its investigation, saying it “was unable to determine all Petitions arising from the Lekki Toll Gate Incident” and recommended for them to be heard by a tribunal on human rights.

Local media reported Sanwo-Olu, who named a four-person committee led by the state’s attorney general to look into the findings and issue a white paper on the government’s position, promised to aid “proper restitution and compensation for everyone who must have been wronged”.

Source: Al Jazeera