By Job Osazuwa
The traditional and social media spaces have been awash with hot debate over the report submitted recently by the Judicial Panel of Inquiry on Restitution for Victims of SARS Related Abuses and Other Matters.
For one year, Nigerians waited patiently for the report to be released. But when it was eventually done, the report that is said to have indicted Nigerian Army and Police of cold-blooded “massacre” of innocent civilians calling for an end to police brutality, ended up polarizing rather than uniting them.
Since it was leaked to the public, many Nigerians, particularly the youths, have lambasted the government and its agencies for allegedly killing unarmed protesters. But there are others who have accused its compilers of bias. They insist that the report is characterised by fiction, discrepancies and assumptions. On radio, TV, social media, newspaper pages, this has led to arguments, accusations and counter-accusations. Those asking for a thorough examination of the report said they cannot understand why some persons said to be dead, according to the report, are still alive.
The panel, led by Justice Doris Okuwobi in the report submitted to Lagos State Governor, Babajide Sanwo-Olu, on November 15, 2021, disclosed that at least 48 protesters were either shot dead, injured with bullet wounds, or assaulted by soldiers sent to Lekki Tollgate on October 20, 2020 to disperse the peaceful protesters.
Jubilation, satisfaction among #EndSARS supporters
As witnessed so far, some of the Nigerians that mobilised other citizens to join the nationwide are jubilating over the report, saying that they have been vindicated. They include Senator Shehu Sani. Shortly after the report went viral, he took to his twitter handle to write: “It is like people are holding cutlasses and sticks and looking for those who denied the Lekki massacre.”
In the same vein, Rinu Oduola twitted: “Everyone that joined hands in making us doubt our sanity regarding the Lekki massacre, God will punish you”! A journalist, Fisayo Soyombo, also tweeted: “The Lagos doctor sent by the state to go round hospitals to confirm the #EndSARS casualties from the Lekki massacre and withdraw the bullets extricated from the injured protesters, how do you feel now that all you tried to cover up has been fully exposed”?
Doubts, unanswered questions
By way of providing a contrary view to that held by those applauding the “good work” done by the panel, and calling for the crucifixion of those indicted, a certain Otabor Osagie wrote on his facebook page: “Nathaniel Solomon one of those the panel said to have died has been found alive. Even Kolade Salami that SARS operatives killed in 2019 was listed among Lekki victims. He even granted an interview narrating how he fainted.” In a telephone conversation with the reporter, another Nigerian, Amos Tunde challenged the objectivity of the report. “How can you include those who are aggrieved to be members of the panel? I knew there would be a conflict of interest at the end of the day. And that is what we are seeing today.” He lamented that though there was enough time for the investigation to be neatly done, there are many mix-ups. “And, you don’t expect Nigerians to accept this report.”
Another Nigerian and public intellectual, Mr Temitope Ajayi, wrote on his Facebook Page: “If the leaked document in circulation is actually what was submitted to Governor Sanwo-Olu yesterday, the state government should demand some kind of refund on expended tax payers’ money. I can’t see any reason why it should take one year to put together the report in circulation. It is very shoddy in preparation and untidy in its assumptions and conclusions.
“For some strange reasons, the report has no word for the police officers that were killed and many victims of the violent protests, especially those who lost livelihoods. “Does it mean the lives of the murdered police officers are not important or they deserved to die in such undignified manner?
“It is really befuddling that a panel that sat for a whole year didn’t pay attention to details and facts.
“The panel listed Nathaniel Solomon, a man that granted video interview as a deceased victim of LekkiTollgate. The video interview was published on September 11, 2021. Kolade Salami that was killed in April 2019 by men of SARS was named as another deceased. I have seen other posts where three names among the 11 listed as deceased by the Panel are said to be alive and kicking.
“I guess the panel relied more on social media rumours and gist to arrive at some of the conclusions.”
Calling for caution by all parties involved, the Lagos State Commissioner for Information and Strategy, Mr. Gbenga Omotosho, in a press release, advised Nigerians to restrain themselves from spreading rumours that will further compound the issues, insisting that the purpose of government in setting up the panel was to heal wounds.
A part of the release read: “The Lagos State Government has noted the various reactions that have followed the submission of the report. There have been arguments in the public space over the report. There is need for us to restrain ourselves from nullifying the good intentions of the government in setting up this panel, which was well encouraged to do its job – a fact that was acknowledged by the panel.
“In accordance with the Tribunal of Inquiry Law 2015, a committee has been set up to bring up a White Paper on the report to determine the next line of action. At the appropriate time, the government will make known its views on all the issues raised by the Panel through the release of a White Paper.”
Errors, discrepancies, irregularities in report
Analysts who subjected the document to a “thorough examination” pointed out, according to them, some irreconcilable differences. One of them, Adejare Ibrahim, noted: “The panel, under the chairmanship of Justice Okuwobi, did a great disservice to many Nigerians. The report is a pure distortion of glaring facts and cannot, in the face of in-depth probe and sophisticated analysis, stand the test of time. The report is fraught with discrepancies, irregularities and fallacious stances, which further substantiates the claim of some Nigerians that no one truly died in Lekki Tollgate.”
He gave out some proofs of the points he was trying to make as follows: “Kolade Johnson (Salami) was shot during a raid by officers of the Nigeria Police Command at Onipetesi, Lagos-Abeokuta Road while watching an English premiership match between Tottenham and Manchester United on March 31, 2019. Why did they mix it up with Lekki issue? Kolade had nothing to do with Lekki violence.
“On Nathaniel Solomon and Abuta Solomon, on September 11, 2021, a national newspaper had an interview with Nathaniel, where he claimed that he fainted the day he saw his brother’s lifeless body at Lekki Tollgate. The person he claimed to be his brother was Abuta. The panel also published Nathaniel Solomon as one of the Lekki casualties.
“Amidst the spread of fake news by EndSARS supporters that one Folorunso Olabisi was shot by the Army and his corpse deposited at St. Nicholas Hospital, VI, Lagos, the management of the Hospital later debunked the malicious claims. Till date, no one has countered the claim of the hospital. How then the name later crept into the report is surprising.
“One Jide was mentioned. This is laughable. I don’t want to believe that a retired Justice of the Lagos High Court approved this for public consumption. Who is Jide? No surname and no description. The same thing with Tola; Wisdom, no surnames or further details.”
In addition, he mentioned other instances in the report, which he said were difficult to reconcile with what really transpired, particularly after one year of investigation. The panel should have understood that Nigerians were critical thinkers who would not accept everything thrown at them without probing, he noted. “After all, the family members of the Ikoyi collapsed building victims, within hours, quickly showed up after the incident. Why have the family members of the Lekki victims not shown up after a year? Are they still afraid? I implore Sanwo-Olu to think deep and ponder on this report before accepting it as a fact,” Ibrahim said.
He opined that those who killed and maimed Nigeria’s security operatives and innocent citizens and destroyed public and private property deserved to be punished, not compensated for their criminal acts.
Leaked report not Govt White Paper – Panel member
While being featured on a live TV programme in Lagos, a private solicitor who represented the interest of Lagos State Government at the panel along with his colleagues, Abiodun Jelili Owonikoko (SAN), said that by law, the decisions, recommendations, resolutions of the panel were not meant for public consumption in the first instance, but to be reviewed by the government before releasing it to the public.
He quickly clarified that even the government’s decision on it, which comes by way of White Paper, is not binding on anybody that is aggrieved. And, concerned persons were entitled to subject it to the judicial review in a court of law.
“I am totally shocked about what I read to be the report, particularly the finding with regards to 40-something victims, some of whom were described as deceased, some of them described as missing but all attributed by the panel to what is called the Lekki incident. My opinion here is based on my first-hand information and involvement in the proceedings and the record that we have.”
When Owonikoko was told that the youth representative at the panel had already confirmed the authenticity of the report circulating online except for some typographical errors, he expressed his shock at a member of the panel already discussing the content of the report on a national TV against the oath of fidelity, impartiality, and confidentiality guiding the activities of the panel. “I cannot be part of those who would justify extra-judicial killings or abuse of state power,” he said. “From the evidence that we were able to gather at the hearing, there was not a single thing that was established.
“I am not speaking for Lagos State Government. Nevertheless, I can’t pretend not to be aware that certain documents have been circulating in the social media. I have seen one of such reports. It is unsigned, but it contains the names of all members and I did not, on going through it, see any indication that it was not a unanimous position. It may well be, however, that it is a draft of a minority opinion, because giving what I know, having spent one whole year from beginning of the sitting of the panel till the end, except for occasions where one or two of my colleagues had to stand in for me, we have the record of proceedings.”
He alleged that some members of the panel had personal interest, which he said defiled the goal of submitting an objective and neutral report. He accused certain members of the panel of being in the habit of consistently taking to the social media to share their pre-informed opinions on the issues being investigated. He described such acts as being in sharp contrast to every goal the panel originally set out to achieve.
“The mistake I observe now that the government made was that there should have been a different panel entirely to look into the Lekki incident. The panel that was constituted originally was meant to address victims and abuse of police brutality and SARS. There was no single member of the panel who had a personal case that he wanted to establish. There was no reason we should be afraid that anybody there would have a pre-conceived notion or a settled position that they were going to be opened to being persuaded by evidence-led.
“But in the course of that panel’s work, this incident happened, but this incident had protagonists and antagonists. Unfortunately, at least, three members of the panel were picked from those who were protagonists of the case against the police that people like us also represent. I was fully in support of what was going on up until October 20, even up until the night, until I became wiser the next morning when I did my enquiry. Those members are ordinarily not entitled to sit in this panel. But they are members of this panel where we were trying to establish who were killed, at Lekki Tollgate, whether Lekki Tollgate Concession Company withdrew camera to suppress information. This is the case they have been making on their own even before the panel sat. So from the very beginning, that panel lacks the judicial competence to determine this issue.”
When asked why he didn’t raise the alarm about the contention while the sittings were on, than waiting for the report which now seems unfavourable to the Lagos State Government, Owonikoko said that the duty of Lagos State Government, the burden on them was to establish whether they were the ones that deployed Army to the scene or not. According to him, the evidence before the panel and the finding did not support such a suggestion. He said that was the only thing Lagos State had to explain.
“I have to identify almost 40 discrepancies, very material discrepancies in that report, including awarding damages to people who are claimed to have died, who never died, who have even come out to say they did not die,” he said.