Lagos State has faltered in a moment of opportunity to serve as a beacon of hope for democracy and freedom in Nigeria, by watering down the outcome of its own judicial panel on #EndSARS.
Bowing to pressure from the centre, what was to be a white paper turned out to be a whitewash and a black paper.
Citizens in Lagos, other states and across the world had a small window of hope for justice, just two weeks, after which their joy was shut with a counter offer by the state government.
It had taken one year after the #EndSARS protests for the panel of inquiry to submit a report that challenged the Federal Government, the military and the police with evidence that the administration had massacred protesters.
The Lagos State Judicial Panel of Inquiry on Restitution for Victims of SARS-Related Abuses and Other Matters released fireworks when it concluded that the army killed at least 11 civilians during the October 20, 2020, protests, while four other missing persons were “presumed dead.”
The government’s position until that point had been that no lives were lost because the army only fired blanks into the crowd of protesters when it intervened on orders from Abuja.
The judicial panel’s report was a rebuke.
It gave multiple evidence showing that soldiers “actually shot blank and live bullets directly and pointedly into the midst of protesters at the Lekki Toll Gate, with the deliberate intention to assault, maim, and kill.”
It further asserted that soldiers turned back ambulances and Good Samaritans who could have saved lives, while some government officials were deployed to the scene to mop up or destroy evidence.
The nation was all agog after the explosive revelations that had put the Buhari administration on the defensive.
It was a rare verdict by an official panel, in a nation where political arrangements are the norm.
Nigerians were excited that some truth was coming out about the debacle that the Federal Government of Nigeria was desperate to cover.
Outside of the country, the mood was similar. The United States was quick to send its Foreign Secretary to express its pleasure and ask for the outcome to be respected.
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken met President Muhammadu Buhari in Abuja, after which he demanded that Nigeria should “hold accountable any of those responsible for human rights abuses, and to do that again in full transparency.”
CNN, the largest news network in the world, was being vindicated over its reporting that people died when the Nigerian Army sent troops to quell the protests. It looked forward to a formal admission of its correctness.
The Federal Government was put on the spot.
Information Minister, Mr. Lai Mohammed, was uncharacteristically inaudible.
It was a dicey situation, since both the federal and Lagos State governments are run by the same political party, APC, and were joined by the umbilical cord of powerbroker, Mr. Bola Tinubu.
Anyone assuming that the outcome would follow the trajectory of the findings would be naive about Nigeria’s political reality.
In the tense aftermath, the Lagos State Government started to buckle, releasing a statement that it had not endorsed the panel’s report and that its official position would be contained in a white paper.
Of course, the political class went into the backroom in the end, and the Lagos Government completely rewrote the panel’s report by the time it released the “white paper.”
Apparently succumbing to political pressure within the APC superstructure that tied him to the apron strings of the administration at the center, the Lagos State Governor watered down the report so much it was a meaningless paper.
The white paper, designed to explain the details of the panel’s position, lessons learned and provide the next steps for resolution, was a standalone paper covered in black for the families and friends of those who perished for protesting police corruption and brutality.
In the so-called white paper, the Lagos State rejected the panel’s reporting on deaths, citing “fundamental inconsistencies” not supported by evidence, although it could not on its own say that those said to have died did not die.
Alas, the state’s report was a mere face-saving escape for the APC-led Federal Government.
The army did not cooperate with the panel to start with.
After three appearances, it chose to withdraw. Part of the government’s argument was that the panel could not probe the army.
In spite of ample visual evidence on the Internet, the government had continued to claim there was no massacre at the scene of the protests in Lekki Toll Gate, Lagos. Lai Mohammed insisted the only massacre was that on social media, asking CNN and Amnesty International to apologize for claims that people died.
In response, the judicial panel wrote: “Evidence from the Forensics experts (Sentinel Forensics Ltd) engaged by the panel confirmed that multiple muzzle flashes consistent with the discharge of ammunition were observed.
From the totality of the evidence adduced, it can be safely concluded that there were the use and discharge of live ammunitions at the Lekki Toll Gate on 20th October, 2020 which resulted in injuries and deaths.”
The panel sat for a year, treating 235 petitions. But it took Lagos State only two weeks to dismiss its work in a hurriedly-arranged rebuttal of its own judicial panel of inquiry.
We could easily have predicted that Aso Rock and the army would not have accepted the panel’s report. What was a bit disappointing was that Lagos State could join in the creation of virtual reality by authoring a white paper that is a sham and a cover-up.
Nigerians know who to believe, and it won’t be the Lagos State Government.
Lagos Governor, Mr. Babajide Sanwo-Olu’s Walk for Peace, meant to further whitewash the panel’s report, was not halted by coronavirus as he claimed. It was stopped by shame, fear and rejection. A lot of students, youths, civil society and similar organizations had turned their back on the walk.
The controversy the white paper generated had become a public relations disaster. A counter-walk could easily have become an #EndSARS second edition.
Members of the judicial panel, led by Justice Doris Okuwobi, should hold their heads high, assured that history will be kind to them. They have done a courageous work. Nigerians are proud of them.
The panel has put the truth in the public space, and it will never be erased by falsehood. By siding with the truth, it has given a glimmer of hope that Nigeria can be redeemed – we still have people of integrity in our midst.
Most people believe the panel when it stated that “the atrocious maiming and killing of unarmed, helpless and unresisting protesters, while sitting on the floor and waving their Nigerian flag, while singing the National Anthem can be equated to a ‘massacre’ in context.”
The government may not be happy and it may have had its way, but the truth stands. And the truth cannot be massacred.