Close Watch By Bolaji Adebiyi

Justice Doris Okuwobi-Panel report leaves high government officials stranded, writes Bolaji Adebiyi

Buffeted by searing public condemnation of the brutal clampdown on peaceful protesters at Lekki Tollgate, Lagos by combined forces of the military and the police on October 20, 2020, Lai Mohammed, the nation’s minister of information and culture, struggled to deny the obvious. The country had been woken up by media reports of the horrific death of peaceful young protesters whose only weapon was the national flag they waved while singing the national anthem in protest of age-long and widespread police brutality. The youths had been at that nationwide, in the rain and in the sun, for about two weeks without any violent incident until the government introduced thuggery, first in Abuja, then Lagos.

When the introduction of violent thugs by state agents failed to dissuade the protesting youths, the army and riot police were brought in on the night of October 20 to disperse the youths massed at the tollgate of Lekki. Live bullets were reportedly used and many deaths and varying degrees of injuries were reported. It was an angry nation that queried the next day, the use of excessive force against a non-violent protesting young Nigerians.

The habitual instinct of government was to deny that the brutality occurred. The chief culprit, the army was the first to deny involvement. It, however, went incoherent when footages of its troops shooting during the incident surfaced. Even that did not abate further denials. Babajide Sanwo-Olu, the governor of Lagos State would later admit one death. He did better than federal minister Mohammed, who insisted no death had occurred.

“It is the first world’s massacre without blood and bodies,” Mohammed said derisively a month after during a world press conference somewhere in Abuja where he scolded the media for an alleged inaccurate report of the incident. The harshest part of his tongue was reserved for America’s Cable Network News and the British Broadcasting Service he accused of all sorts, including incitement of uprising, asking them to apologise to the federal government.

As the protests persisted with mounting public condemnation of the government, Yemi Osinbajo, learned silk and vice president of the nation, was brought in to do what he was known to do best: damage control. The National Economic Council under his watch quickly met and accepted the youths’ five-point demand, directing state governors to establish judicial panels of inquiry to look into their grievances. Tempers cooled as the panels began to emerge.

More than a year later, the one in Lagos, led by Doris Okuwobi, a retired judge, submitted its report on Monday. It was a damning repudiation of all official narratives of the shameful incidence.

“While the protesters were waving the Nigerian Flag and singing the National Anthem, officers of the Nigerian Army shot, injured and killed unarmed, helpless and defenceless protesters without provocation or justification,” the report obtained exclusively by THISDAY said, adding: “The manner of assault and killing could in context be described as a massacre.” It stated emphatically that 11 persons died from the assault at Lekki and that four others were missing and presumed dead.

On the issue of bodies, it accused the police of blatant cover-up, saying a number of unidentified bodies were removed by security agents and the Lagos State Environmental Health Monitoring Unit and deposited at various hospital mortuaries in the state. It stressed that trucks with brushes underneath were brought to Lekki Tollgate on the morning of October 21, to clean up the scene and conceal evidence.

“The panel found that the Nigerian Police Force deployed its officers to Lekki Tollgate on the night of October 20, 2020, and between that night and the morning of October 21, 2020, its officers shot at, assaulted and battered unarmed protesters, which led to injuries and deaths,” it said, adding: “The police officers also tried to cover up by picking bullets.”

Without a doubt, these clear findings of the panel that included respected silk and human rights activist, Ebunoluwa Adegboruwa, have left many senior government officials who had denied the fact of deaths, stranded. In the meantime, only the military has given a preliminary response. The military, Lucky Irabor, its general and defence chief, said, remains a professional body, appealing to Nigerians not to denigrate it even as he said only a white paper on the report could attract a detailed reaction.

The police and the usually loquacious Mohammed have been tongue-tied so far, four days after Okuwobi submitted her report to Sanwo-Olu who has constituted a committee to produce a white paper on the implementation of the report. To be clear, silence, particularly in the face of public agitation and wholesale condemnation of the government’s obvious wrong-doing, is not in the character of the federal minister Nigerians prefer to call Lai because of the similarity between its pronunciation and that of lie. As they mischievously put it, if it is from Lai, it could be a lie. He would certainly talk in a matter of days to come. But would it matter? What would he say now that for the first time in recent times, a panel set up by the state has delivered a compound indictment of government and its coercive agencies? Indications of what is to come are all over social media with hired hole-pickers poking fun at the report and saying panelists identified deaths without old bodies. Incidentally, it is this same social information space that the federal government has worked tirelessly to circumscribe that it is now using to preface its anticipated response. Again, it matters not what he says so long justice is done somehow.

As citizens await Lai’s response and the outcome of Sanwo-Olu’s white paper committee, what matters most now is the fulfilment of the government’s one-year-old commitment to harken to the demands of the youths. While submitting her report, Okuwobi told Sanwo-Olu that the panel awarded a total of N410 million to 70 victims of police brutality. These awards, she explained, came from a review of 235 petitions against police highhandedness. Although that’s a hefty sum, the government should be thinking by now not only how these compensations would be paid but also how citizens will no longer be harassed by security agents whose mandate is to protect the lives and property of Nigerians.

Adebiyi, managing editor of THISDAY Newspapers, wrote from