Fresh Trouble at Lekki Toll Gate

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TUESDAY WITH REUBEN ABATI

BY REUBEN ABATI

The rancor that occurred, Saturday, February 6, at the sitting of the Lagos State Judicial Panel of Inquiry investigating the shootings and alleged killings at the Lekki Toll gate in Lagos in October 2020, in addition to reported cases of police brutality is most unfortunate and disturbing. It will be recalled that the clampdown on protesters at the Lekki Toll Gate, the widespread mayhem that followed, in the shape of attacks on police men and police stations, the assault on warehouses where COVID-19 palliatives had been detained by unconscionable politicians, the attack on homes and businesses of both politicians and innocent persons, in general, the needless loss of lives – attracted mass outrage.

A meeting comprising the 36 state Governors, the FCT Minister, the Inspector General of Police and the Human Rights Commission in October 2020, chaired by Vice President Yemi Osinbajo resolved at the time that all state governments should set up panels of inquiry and organize public hearings to establish the truth and ensure that justice was done, and victims duly compensated. Most states promised to set up the panels of inquiry, 29 did eventually, but some did not. As at January 30, 2021, the following states: Borno, Jigawa, Kano, Kebbi, Sokoto, Yobe and Zamfara had refused to set up any panel of inquiry. Kogi state announced that it had also constituted a panel of inquiry, but that panel has not met for even five minutes to date.

In some of the states where the panels exist and have been sitting: Plateau, Nasarawa, Kaduna, Ekiti, Ogun, Edo, Ondo, Rivers, Delta, Cross River, Abia, Bayelsa, Anambra and the Federal Capital Territory, the pace of work has been rather slow and inconsistent. In Oyo State, the panel commenced sitting in January 2021, two months after its inauguration! The panels in Niger State, Katsina, and Rivers have since concluded sitting. But of all the states, Lagos State has been the most responsive, the most active, and one of the very first states to commit to doing a thorough job of ensuring justice and establishing the truth. The nine-member Lagos Panel of Inquiry and Restitution, as announced, was set up on October 16, 2020. Justice Doris Okuwobi (rtd) was named Chair of the Panel. It began sitting on Tuesday, October 27, 2020. The Okuwobi panel has received more coverage than any other panel in the country, perhaps because of its consistency, its proximity to the Lagos-Ibadan media, the international media as well, and the fact of the Lekki Toll Gate being the epicentre of the #ENDSARS protests.

In October 2020, the Lekki Toll gate and its satellite, the Ikoyi Bridge Toll gate managed by the same company, the Lekki Concession Company (LCC) were the primary locations of the protest against police brutality in Nigeria, with specific focus on the notorious Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS). The protests soon spread to other parts of the country, even if the Northern parts of the country adopted another label and were significantly different in orientation from the protests in the South. Nigeria’s Southern protesters talked about an end to police brutality. Northern youths who would later be joined by Governors of the North and traditional rulers called for an end to insecurity. Both groups were linked by a common thread – the crisis of insecurity in Nigeria, the failure of the security agencies and the urgent need for government to deliver on its mandate under Section 14(2) (b ) of the 1999 Constitution, to wit: the responsibility to protect the people and ensure their welfare. Nigeria thus found itself in the grips of a movement: an organized, but decentralized rebellion against the Nigerian state and its ineffectuality, more desperate than the youth protests of 1962 against the Anglo-Nigerian Defence Pact and far more incendiary than the Ali-Must-Go-Protests of 1978. It was youth revolt in ebullition against mis-governance, bad politics, poor leadership and elite greed. The youths had five specific demands. The battle was fought on the streets and social media. The youths called for reform. They demanded change. They even asked for better welfare for policemen. But then everything went out of hand.

The Nigerian Government’s expressed commitment to accede to the five demands and to investigate the reported killings and acts of inhumanity and ensure justice gave intimations of hope. In the course of its proceedings, the Lagos Panel of Inquiry offered useful details that kept that hope alive: all those stories about the number of persons that died or were shot, whether or not live bullets or blank bullets were used, how and why anyone asked for the deployment of soldiers to confront harmless, unarmed and defenceless protesters, and shoot in whatever direction, the role of the police, the state government, state officials… Every week, testimonies and revelations at the Lagos Panel of Inquiry provided useful insights. But all of a sudden, that panel is now in disarray, and that is what is disturbing. Last Saturday, it must have been common sense that retrained members of the panel from engaging in fisticuffs. How sad

But the signs of impending chaos were foreseeable. Earlier in the year, the Nigerian Army stopped appearing before the panel. Army counsel disclosed that their mandate with their clients, that is the Nigerian Army, expired in November 2020 and the panel had been so informed. Justice Okuwobi however, affirmed the rights of the panel, appropriately under the Tribunals of Inquiry Act, and adjourned the date for the response of the Army to already issued summons to February 27. I am not too sure any soldier will show up to respond to those summons. After the embarrassment that the Nigerian Army has received with its testimonies over whether or not its officers used live bullets and killed persons at the Lekki Toll Gate, the military hierarchy may have opted for the option of decided contempt in the face of and away from the face of the panel, knowing of course, that the likely penalty may be inconsequential.

To worsen matters, the Lagos Panel of Inquiry degenerated into near-chaos on Saturday, February 6, 2021. The source of confusion was the decision of the panel announced by five panel members, including Justice Okuwobi, to approve the re-opening of the Lekki and Ikoyi Bridge Toll Gates by their managers, the afore-mentioned LCC. Four members of the panel objected to this resolution and immediately made public their position in a now widely-circulated Dissenting Opinion signed by Ebun-Olu Adegboruwa SAN. By the weekend, the same panel hitherto praised for being an exemplar, had become a divided house. The video of the proceedings that is in circulation is embarrassing to say the least. We saw members of the panel having a shouting match. I do not want to re-hash the arguments: about whether or not a quorum was formed, the right of the civil society representatives to be in attendance and whether or not they were, the fact that a civil society member – Segun Awosanya (aka Segalink) is on the Chairperson’s side in the matter, and the reasonableness or not, of the dissenting quartet apparently led by Ebun Olu Adegboruwa SAN who has been accused of adopting tactics that would be considered strange in a Court of Appeal procedure even if the Okuwobi panel is quasi-judicial. The legal correctness of the proceedings of the panel, and the dissensions within would require a closer scrutiny of the facts to which we are not full seised but it is sufficient to express alarm about how a process that was meant to calm nerves and promote truth and reconciliation has now become a catalyst for conflict. By Monday morning, the matter before the Lagos Judicial Panel of Inquiry had spilled back onto the streets, with implications for public safety.

For, by the morning of Monday, February 8, a coordinated protest against the decision of the Lagos Panel of Inquiry to grant the Lekki Concession Company the permission to re-open its toll gates had gone viral on social media with such hashtags and banners as #RevolutionNow, #OccupyLekkiTollGate and a protest is purportedly planned for Saturday, February 13 at 7 am. The LCC had approached the Lagos Panel to ask for permission to resume operations. The two toll gates under its management have been shut down since October 2020. The position of the dissenters is that a reopening of the toll gates will compromise evidence and forensic analysis and hence, the status quo should be maintained until the work of the panel is concluded. The Okuwobi Five argued that the forensic investigation had been concluded and there was no justification to continue to shut LCC out of business indefinitely. Outside the panel, those who want to #OccupyLekkiTollGate on February 13 are convinced that re-opening the toll gate will derail the course of justice. Whichever way you look at it, another Lekki Gate protest is not an encouraging prospect. The way the arguments are packaged on both sides, every proposition sounds and looks plausible and ominous. But I guess this is the time to advert our minds to a number of fundamental issues.

One –in principle, the investigations and judicial inquiry emplaced by the state governments of Nigeria over the 2020 #EndSARS protests were meant to reassure the people and demonstrate government’s readiness to respond to popular yearnings. The Lagos Panel in particular had proved promising. Now, that it is divided, it is difficult to see how its objectives have not been compromised, and how this has not provided a bad example for other states where the panels have been slow and non-committal. Will the panel still be able to work as a team?

Two – those who argue that the Lekki Toll Gate is a crime scene that should be left intact till the conclusion of the work of the panel may be missing the point. That toll gate is no longer a crime scene. It was never treated as such. Elsewhere, crime scenes are preserved, cordoned off, to protect the integrity of evidence and investigations. This so-called crime scene was never protected. It was in fact subjected to a thorough clean up, and whatever was hidden was picked up by visiting inspectors and trespassers, including a certain camera, the content of which has not been disclosed. Vehicles and motorists have been passing through, glad that they have not had to pay any tolls for more than three months. Whatever has not been established before now, may be difficult to prove again. The dissenters in the panel may have the legal right to hold a different opinion, but they risk being accused of sabotage and fuelling another round of protests.

Three- the Lekki Toll Gate is a public-private partnership scheme. The investors have to pay back loans, maintain the staff who have been kept at home for months, process insurance claims and fix the offices and infrastructure destroyed during the #EndSARS protests. But majorly, they are paying a price for identity politics. Most of the protesters are angry in part, because of deep-seated suspicions about the ownership of the toll gate. Even in the absence of verifiable evidence, the Lekki Toll gate has become a symbol of power, oppression and graft in the eyes of many. Does it belong to the Lagos State Government or some oppressors? Whatever the truth is, the managers of the Lekki and Ikoyi Toll Gates have had to pay so much. They have lost money and time. They have been vilified. Their brand has been dragged in the mud. What if on top it all, they are truly innocent? How about their staff who have been jobless for months? Even in the worst of circumstances, the toll gates would still be re-opened anyway at some point.

Four – But will the re-opening sabotage the investigations? May be not. The US Congress was attacked by a domestic terrorist mob on January 6, 2021. Five persons died on that occasion. Congress has since re-opened and continued its work, but that has not stopped the investigations. What we are actually dealing with in our case, is a terrible lack of trust in the Nigerian process. Nobody trusts the government. The people would rather trust anybody who is willing and ready to attack the government or raise doubts about its methods. This alienation is self-inflicted by government itself. Here is an example: During the October 2020 #EndSARS protests, the Nigerian government promised to accept and address the five demands by Nigerian youths. But shortly after, the same government clamped down on the protesters. Bank accounts belonging to known leaders of the protests were frozen. The airports of Nigeria became a no-go-area for such persons. Even now, the Central Bank of Nigeria’s decision to ban financial institutions from cryptocurrencies has been linked to an attempt to cut off financial oxygen for protests. Here is another example: the Governor of Lagos State was accused of lying to the public! The combination of these factors has ignited the anger of the average Nigerian youth again. The flame of that anger could result in an inferno that we do not need. The fire this time could be worse than the explosion last time.

Five – will the Lagos panel of inquiry reverse itself because of the threat of a resumption of protest on February 13? I doubt. But I worry more about the damage that may have been done to the Okuwobi panel. Nothing must be done to derail the work of this Panel of Inquiry. Its original mandate should be preserved: to investigate, to unmask the truth, to make recommendations that will ensure justice, and to ensure the compensation of victims.

Nigeria lost so much last year. To shut down Lagos again and initiate another round of chaos is difficult to imagine. The security agencies, whatever the provocation, must not behave like goats this time around. The Lagos State Government must act and think wisely, must not tell lies, and take steps to prevent further trouble at the Lekki Toll Gate.