The all-important report on the #EndSARS protests in Lagos State might have been submitted slightly over a year after the panel was inaugurated, but the controversies surrounding the report have left the document open to objectivity and credibility questions, writes Muritala Ayinla
In the beginning
At the height of last year’s violent nationwide protest that nearly grounded Nigeria’s economy, Governor Babajide Sanwo-Olu of Lagos State inaugurated a seven-man judicial panel of inquiry to investigate cases of brutality and human rights violations committed by operatives of the disbanded Special Anti-robbery Squad (SARS). Obviously dissatisfied with the dimension the protest widely known as #EndSARShadassumed, thegovernor announcedtheconstitutionof thepanel during a live address at the State House in Marina on Thursday, October 15, 2020, sayingthat he took action based on agreementsreachedattheNationalEconomicCouncil( NEC) meetingpresided over by the Vice President Yemi Osinbajo and attended by all the governors.
The governor had earlier announced that a N200 million trust fund has been established for the compensation of victims and families of those who died in the course of the activities of SARS. The development, according to him, was in line with the five-point demands by youths demonstrating against police brutality.
Hence, he named a sevenmember Judicial Panel of Enquiry and Restitution for victims of SARS-related abuses, adding that the panel would ensure that all those with verifiable cases of SARS brutality or fatality get justice and receive compensation. Sanwo-Olu named retired Justice Doris Okuwobi as the chairman of the panel. Other panel members were Mr. Ebun Adegboruwa (SAN) (representing the civil society), Taiwo Lakanu (a retired Deputy Inspector General of Police), Ms Patience Udoh (representing the Civil Society), Mr. Segun Awosanya (human rights activist), Mrs. Olutoyin Odusanya (Director, Lagos Citizens Mediation Centre), as well as a representative of the youth-led protest and a representative of the Human Rights Commission. Butafterslightlyoverayearof working in the Lagos Court of Arbitration located at 1A, Remi Olowude Street, 2nd Roundabout, Lekki-Epe Expressway, Okunde Bluewater Scheme, Lekki Peninsula, Phase 1, Lagos, the members of the Lagos Judicial Panel of Inquiry on RestitutionforVictimsof SARSRelated Abuses and Other Matters on Monday, November 15, 2021 submitted its report to the Lagos State Government.
Controversies trail report
But no sooner than the report was handed over to Governor Sanwo-Olu that some facts about the report started flying around through a leaked version suspected to have been leaked by a member of the panel. There were claims and counter-claims on the number of people allegedly killed in the Lekki Toll Gate shootings, the leaked report also established that a massacre occurred at LTG on October 20, 2021 among other appalling claims. It was learnt that at least three of those listed as dead are said to be alive and there seems to be no diligence on the part of the panel beyond compiling the testimonies. Although only the state government’s White Paper can have the final say, the report is believed to be tainted, with 40 discrepancies from the original as more and more Nigerians, especially the legal luminaries expressed their reservations on the credibility of the reports. More shocking were allegations of bribery and disagreement among the panel members. There is no doubt that retired Justice Doris Okuwobi- led panel has been in the hot seat of public opinion since Monday, November 15, 2021 when the panel submitted its report to the Lagos State Government.
JPI report: Lawyers, scholars pick holes
Following the release of the unsigned copy of the report in the social media by a suspected member or members of the JPI, reactions immediately began to trail the document and the facts said to be the findings of the panel. Lawyers, panelmembersdescribedthereport as full of errors and irregularities. While some expressedtheirdisappointmentsonsocialmedia, others took their concerns to other platforms. Among those who picked holes in the report was a legal scholar, Dr Abubakri Yekini, who described the release of the document as a total breach of trust and the law setting up the JPI.
He said the leaked report was in tandem with a threat issued by a Panel member Ebun-Olu Adegoruwa (SAN) who had in a (Facebook) post threatened to release the report. He said: “I must first confess that even one death is bad enough and this write-up should not be seen as justifying the death of anyone, be they protesters, security agents or anyone for that matter. At page 283 paragraph 3 (A) and page 284 (C), the findings against the deployment of the military overlook the complete breakdown of law and order all over Lagos which led to the imposition of a curfew by the State Government on 20/10/20.
Uncontroverted evidence before the Panel was that the military deployed all over Lagos and not just to Lekki Toll Gate (LTG) because the Police had clearly become overwhelmed and could no longer maintain law and order. “Page 286 (D) Panel held that it recovered bullet casings/shells at LTG when it visited the toll gate on 30/10/20. This contradicts the finding of the same Panel at page 296 paragraphs 13 & 14 that ‘Three trucks with brushes underneath were brought to LTG on the morning of October 21st 2020 to clean up the scene of bloodstains and other evidence.’ This finding the JPI stated amounted to evidence of a cover-up, yet it still found 2 bullet casings at the same cover-up scene 10 days after the incident.
“Page 287 (H) The medical evidence before the Panel from hospitals who treated protesters said only 2 deaths were recorded in their facilities. This is contrary to the evidence of Doctor Lawson contained at page 56 – 68 and Dr. Aromolate contained at pages 109-115 respectively.
Page 287 (K) Panel claimed it relied on evidence of one of the protesters who was shot and taken for dead, but escaped and stated that 11 corpses were in a van where he had been put in and presumed dead. However, Olalekan Sanusi the protester in question was never stated to have testified before the Panel. This crucial finding made by the Panel was based merely on video footage of Olalekan Sanusi played by another witness Serah Ibrahim at page 165.” Dr Yekini argued further that at page 293 paragraph N, the Panel found that one protester was killed by the police around LTG, wondering why neither the name of the protester nor that of the alleged police shooter was provided. He described the report as evidence of the levity with which the Panel arrived at its findings. This finding is not backed up by any iota of evidence.
“It is unbelievable that a finding of death can be made in such a cavalier manner,” he added. “At page 295, paragraph 9, the Panel rejected the evidence of experts who relied on science to compile their report/testimonies and preferred anecdotal stories from so-called eyewitness accounts of protesters,” he said. Also speaking, a lawyer, who pleadedanonymity, expresseddisappointmentaboutcontroversies trailing such an important report, saying that the manner the report was leaked with so many errors and conflicting claims coupled with allegations of bribery and disagreement among the panel members have left room for speculation.
“The credibility of the document is now a subject of public debate. It is very disappointing that such a critical work on a major landmark in our history has been handled this way. With the errors and conflicting claims in the leaked report, some Nigerians are already saying that it looked like the controversial report was written by the protesters themselves because it appears nothing was said about the slain and maimed police officers in the protest,” he said.
Furore over technicalities of the panel and its
findings While some argued over the findings of the panel, others faulted the composition of the panel, saying that a new panel ought to have been constituted immediately after the October, 20, 2020 incident happened at the Lekki Toll Gate. A member of the panel, Mr Abiodun Jelili Owonikoko (SAN), who appeared on Arise TV last Thursday to speak on the panel’s report, said, among other things, that the panel’s report he had seen was “unsigned” and going through it, he could tell it was not “a unanimous decision of the members’ position. It may well be a draft of a minority report.”
He said he was shocked to read in the report: “Particular findings with regard to 40 something victims, some of whom were described as deceased or missing and some of whom had come out to say they did not die, especially a man who came to testify at his brother’s death, to whom damages amounting to N15 million was to be awarded. Any report that had that fundamental error will not be supported by any reasonable person.” According to him, the government should have set up two different panels, one on #End- SARs and another one to probe the Lekki Tollgate killings. “The mistake by the government is that it should have appointed two panels. The panel was set up to address police brutality and #EndSARS and in the course of its work, the Lekki incident happened. The panel’s work had to be expanded.
Three members of that panel are protagonists. They are not entitled to sit on that panel. That was why they initially had dissenting opinions as soon as the tollgate incident happened. Some of them were in the position to express dispassionate opinions.
The one that issued a statement, Adegboruwa, stopped sitting for five months. These people swore to an oath of fidelity, impartiality and confidentiality, not to divulge the content of proceedings anywhere, except await government reports.” Adegboruwa, however, disagrees with Owonikoko’s remarks that there was a minority report by a member of the panel. “There is no minority report from the panel as the report submitted to the Lagos State governor on November 15, 2021 was unanimously endorsed by all members of the panel, who worked tirelessly, day and night, to serve the government and the people, even at great risks to their health, personal safety, career and family obligations and their general well-being.
“I’m very sure that members of the panel would have been lionised to the highest heavens, if we had bought into the narrative of the government before the panel that criminals, cultists, hoodlumsandunknown gunmenhad operated at the Lekki Tollgate on October 20, 2020,” hesaid, adding thatsomeconnectedpersonsfoundthedecisionsof thepanelshocking.
Another member of the panel, Temitope Majekodunmi, in a statement, admitted that there were typographical errors in the report in circulation but disagreed with Owonikoko about the report’s authenticity. He said: “While others were particular about the error of name duplications, it is imperative to note that the leaked report in circulation is not far from the original, but I can confirm that the original is without all the identified errors.”
Leaked report and many unanswered questions
Whether the report is authentic or not some legal luminaries are of the view that such a report should not be taken seriously due identified lacunas. According to Seni Owoyale, a Lagos-based lawyer, it is not enough for the panel to claim that a massacre was carried out at Lekki without proven evidence. “Who killed them and with what? Where are the families of those killed at Lekki Tollgate? Where are the pictures of the dead victims as supplied by the supposed bereaved families? Where are their bodies? Are the bodies still in mortuaries or have they been buried? Who buried them? How can we ascertain that they died in the incident? I don’t know if the government can bribe any family to keep quiet for killing their loved ones.
When a building collapsed recently in Lagos, by the number of families who claimed their relatives were trapped in the ill-fated 21-storey building, it was glaring to everyone that more people were buried in the rubbles even before their bodies were recovered and DNA conducted but my argument in this case of Lekki report is simple: Show us all the relatives of the alleged dead victims of the Lekki shootings, let’s establish concrete evidences and discard sentiment for posterity,” he argued. In the meantime, the Lagos State Government has called for caution and patience among members of the public.
The Commissioner for Information and Strategy, Mr Gbenga Omotoso, said: “There have been arguments in the public space over the report. There is a 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.” Meanwhile, the state government has set up a four-member committee led by the Attorney-General and Commissioner for Justice, Moyosore Onigbanjo (SAN), to work on the report before it issues a White Paper on it. Other members of the committee are the Commissioner for Youths and Social Development, Segun Dawodu; Special Adviser to the Governor on Works and Infrastructure, Engr. Aramide Adeyoye and Permanent Secretary, Cabinet Office, Tolani Oshodi.