Following the #EndSARS protests, which rocked most parts of the country in October 2020, the Federal Government in the heat of the protest acceded to the five-point demands of the protesters in response to their agitations and as a means of encouraging them to leave the streets that had taken a negative toll on social, economic and political life of some states due to the total lockdown occasioned by the blockade of roads and highways for days and its attendant violation of the rights of other law abiding citizens to free movement and extortion of motorists and commuters by some protesters at roads points before they could secure safe passage.
But lo and behold, the protesters turned a deaf ear to the call for dialogue from the Federal Government and well meaning Nigerians and groups who originally bought into the ideals of the agitations and started shifting the goal post in the middle of the game by coming up with new demands to the authorities, which pointed to the fact that the protest as genuine as it seemed, had now transformed into the Biblical hand of Esau, but the voice of Jacob.
This refusal of the protesters to embrace dialogue and peaceful resolution of the demands of the protest as proposed by the federal government saw the protest turned more violent and criminality perpetrated with the invasion, looting and burning of police stations, private homes, offices, release of cell inmates, stealing of arms and ammunition as well as attack and killing of law enforcement agents and innocent citizens.
Before we go further, we must quickly recollect that days after the commencement of the #EndSARS protest and particularly on October 12, 2020, the protest had taken a criminal dimension with the killing of two persons, including a policeman in Surulere, and the attack on the Anti-Kidnapping Unit station of the Nigeria Police Force, Surulere division, the burning of police and exhibit vehicles, the release of kidnap suspects from police detention facility and the burning down of private properties in Surulere area of Lagos state.
Unfortunately, due to the glaring breakdown of law and order, occasioned by the attack on security agencies and formations and the attendant carting away of arms and ammunition and the release of inmates from police detention facilities with the associated loss of human lives and destruction of public and private properties and the attack on correctional facilities with the motive to free inmates, the Lagos State government was left with no other option but to declare a statewide curfew which was expected to commence at 4pm but was later shifted to 9pm on October 20, 2020.
In the process of enforcing the curfew in Lagos State in line with statutory procedure, the Nigeria military was drafted in to restore law and order. The Nigeria Army in line with its constitutional mandate was drafted to all parts of the state as evidenced from the military testimony at the Lagos state judicial panel with images and videos, but the area which attracted local and global attention was the confrontation of the military with #EndSARS protesters at one of their famous convergence point, the Lekki tollgate plaza on the Lekki-Epe Expressway corridor on October 20, 2020, which was described by some section of the media as a massacre of peaceful protesters.
Subsequently, the threat to national security was heightened by the criminal invasion and attack of government institutions and private warehouses across the country by protesters who vandalised and stole COVID-19 palliatives and everything in sight as a result of the tension generated by the Lekki tollgate plaza incident, which attracted local and international attention with a call for justice not only for the victims of SARS related abuses, but also for an investigation of the Lekki tollgate plaza incident to unravel the truth of what transpired on October 20, 2020, though latter developments changed the narrative of the occurrence from Massacre to Incident in the public domain.
Thereafter, the Lagos State Government in obedience to the National Economic Council meeting communiqué and in line with one of the 5 for 5 demands of #EndSARS protesters, directives that all states of the federation should set up a judicial panel of inquiry into SARS abuses and compensation for victims, established its own judicial panel of inquiry into SARS abuses and compensation and even extended its mandate to include an inquiry into the October 20th 2020 Lekki tollgate plaza incident.
The Lagos State judicial panel of inquiry on restitution for victims of SARS related abuses and other matters was inaugurated by the Lagos state Governor on October 19, 2020 and comprised nine members from various strata of the society and headed by a retired judge of impeccable character and integrity.
The Lagos State judicial panel on restitution for victims of SARS related abuses and other matters has since October 27, 2020 commenced sitting by conducting hearings into petitions by victims of SARS, Nigeria police and other security agencies abuses among other matters. Fortunately, the work of the panel has been aided by the provisions of free legal services for indigent petitioners by the Nigeria Bar Association and its coverage by the media and other interests, which is highly commendable.
As an observer at the daily sittings of the panel, one must commend the professionalism, neutrality, diligence, thoroughness and enthusiasm for fairness and justice conduct of the panel in the discharge of its mandate so far, that deserves huge commendation
A lot of petitions numbering over 300 have been brought before the Lagos State judicial panel even with some cases dating back as far as 1979, 42 years ago of alleged abuse of citizens right by the security agencies. However, one is very grateful for this golden opportunity obliged most especially indigent victims of security agencies abuses of which the narration by the direct victims themselves or family members as well as the emotional trauma and pains suffered among other inconveniences is better imagined.
A critical process of the Lagos State judicial panel work is that petitioners have a right to a counsel in case they can afford the services of one or access the NBA offer of free legal services or tell their stories themselves, but at the end of the day, counsel from the security agency, most especially the Nigeria Police Force, who are the major respondent in most of the cases, cross examine petitioners and their witness to ascertain the truth of their testimony.
As we write, petitions hearing at the panel has been a mix bag of some sort, with some petitions at the decision stage while some are still being heard and some have been struck out due to the voluntary withdrawal by the petitioner or due to the fact that the crux of the petition has been decided by a court of competent jurisdiction or still ongoing in court or due to lack of diligent prosecution by petitioners who repeatedly failed to turn up or be represented at least on three occasions.
But while we await the decision of the panel on those petitions for which counsels have adopted written address, a sore point of the allegations of abuse of citizens rights by the disbanded SARS, is the recurring pattern of crude invasion, extortion, inhuman torture and indiscriminate shooting to death allegedly perpetrated as narrated by victims or family members which is heart wrenching and traumatising for watchers of the panel proceedings. In fact, victims or family members apart from providing documentary evidence of torture or death, also go as far as removing their clothes in the dock to reveal broken, damaged or deformed limbs as a result of the torture or indiscriminate shooting by the disbanded SARS operatives. The testimony of some petitioners who were victims of the disbanded SARS torture, almost moved one to tears to inquire that how can man exploit his position and authority to dehumanise fellow human being? In fact, it was unbelievable, but the facts as evidenced by supporting documents and images were incontrovertible and admitted as exhibit.
While the panel is yet to commence full proceedings into the petitions of alleged victims of the Lekki tollgate plaza incident of October 20, 2020 well over 4 months after inauguration due to the absence of the Nigeria Army who have made just an appearance with the testimony of Brigadier General Ibrahim Taiwo, who corroborated his evidence-in-chief of the Nigeria military role in the restoration of law and order across Lagos State and with particular reference to the Lekki-Epe Expressway corridor with images and video evidence, the Nigeria Army have been summoned on at least three other occasions, but have failed to turn up, though the alleged victims of that incident have shown up at the panel with their counsels and it is expected that the hearings into their petitions will commence at the next and final adjourned date for the military to appear to defend itself and state its own side of the story.
However, there was a mild drama at the Lagos State judicial panel on February 6, 2021 when the panel by majority judgement ordered the owner of the Lekki tollgate plaza LCC to repossess the facility for repairs and insurance claims after having been shut out of the company facility since early October 2020 as a result of its occupation by #EndSARS protesters and out of respect for the assignment of the panel, which summoned it to assist with relevant materials and testimony in unraveling the truth of what happened on the said date.
The Lagos State judicial panel by a simple majority of 5 to 4 voted in favour of Lekki Concession Company to repossess the tollgate plaza based on its earlier ruling that the decision to repossess the tollgate plaza by LCC will be dependent on its receipt of the forensic analysis of the tollgate plaza by experts contracted to undertake the exercise.
That ruling by the panel exposed the independence and integrity of the panel members to vote on issues according to their conscience and conviction, though people are at liberty to advance their own reason for the voting decision of members depending on which side of the divide they belong, but for some of us, that is democracy at work in which the tenets of while the majority will have their way, the minority must also have their say, and so, one must give a big kudos to the panel members for being united, committed and focused on their mandate despite this division on a critical issue.
As the Lagos panel begins the countdown to the expiration of its tenure in the next few months, one must reiterate his absolute confidence and conviction in the competence and ability of the Lagos State judicial panel on restitution for victims of SARS-related abuses and other matters to dispense justice to the petitions before it and can only wish it the best of luck in this national assignment of healing the wounds of our collective abdication of responsibility.
. Ekujumi, an activist, is based in Lagos.