I bet I was not the only one who feared that the work of the Lagos State Judicial Panel of Enquiry on Restitution for Victims of SARS Related Abuses and other matters would suffer one of two familiar injuries or both. One, it would be inconclusive. The panel would speak from both sides of the mouth and serve the public with a mountain of official verbiage suffused with the usual official ambivalence of searching for the truth, unearthing the truth but ditching the truth to make everyone look good.
The panel would blame no one and all those who had a hand in the October 20, 2020, brutal suppression by the Nigerian state of a peaceful protest by youths trying to make a case for how the country should be policed and governed would have talcum powder on their faces and smell like a bunch of roses.
Two, if, in the unlikelihood the panel submits its report, government would sit on it and, given its generous posterior, deny it the light of day. Those looking for it would have to engage themselves in the unproductive labour of looking under the carpets, the burial ground of suppressed truths in our country.
It turned out I needed not have feared. I have not read the full report yet. My comments are based on some of its highlights in the newspapers. From them, I drew the conclusion that we do not lack courageous men and women in our country who are committed to the truth and will always speak the truth. The truth of that statement was evident two days ago, as of this writing, when the panel headed by Justice Doris Okuwobi, submitted its report to the governor of Lagos State, Babajide Sanwo-Olu.
The governor promptly released it to the public. He knew that given the public hunger for it, it would do him no good to lock it up and follow the traditional route of issuing a government white paper on it much later. The white paper, in the normal cause of government image, would white wash the report and deny the public the facts and the truth established by the panel. His decision was right, sensible and in keeping with his concept, I think, of an open, democratic government.
From what I have read so far of its report, the panel did not shirk its responsibility to unearth the truth, the shattering truth, about what the Nigerian Army and the Nigeria Police did to the youths that day; it did not speak from both sides of the mouth; it spoke truth to power in a manner that few public enquiries of this nature had done before in our country; it sided with the undefended against the might of the Nigerian state. Its report is an important development in a country where the tendency to bend the truth has wormed its way into our governance tradition.
The chairman and the members of the panel deserve our commendation and gratitude. There is no prize for guessing the reaction of the federal government, the army high command and the Nigeria Police to the report. They will fully exercise their God-given right to disagree with it and offer us some alternative truths. That is only to be expected. It won’t matter because it will not affect the findings of the panel and its conclusions. The good thing is that Okuwobi and her team refused to side with government to bend the truth; instead, they sided with the truth and buried the lie. It is a small step but the right step for Nigeria.
The panel had the rather tough task of, to quote myself, “sifting the truth from the welter of accusations, allegations, dissembling, half-truths, varnished truth and naked lies. It has never been easy for anyone to find the needle in a haystack.”
But the panel did find that needle and arrived at some inconvenient truths that the government cannot pretend to live down or ascribe to its enemies found where there are no enemies. Luckily for them, we place no premium on the integrity of our leaders. The manner the peaceful protest was suppressed was, and remains, a national tragedy. It was our Black Tuesday, October 20, 2020.
The report made that quite clear. It said: “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 panel established the number of the dead, the injured and the missing at the Toll Gate. This has been a bone of contention between the army and the protesters. We now know, thanks to the panel, that there were 48 cases from the shooting at the toll gate; 11 confirmed dead, four missing and presumed dead while many others suffered gunshot injury and severe assault. The police stepped in when the soldiers left and continued to kill.
The panel said that “The evidence before the panel shows that after the Nigerian Army left, the Nigeria Police followed up with the killing of the protesters, shooting directly at protesters fleeing into the shanties and the Lagoon at the Lekki Phase…”
After all, this was their war because the protests were against the brutality and the extra-judicial killings by the police anti-robbery square known as SARS. The youth wanted the unit disbanded, hence the hashtag: #ENDSARS.
The panel also found that the army turned back ambulances called in to take the injured to the hospital. It said, rightly, that “The denial of ambulances by the soldiers, which could have assisted in the prompt and effective treatment of injured protesters, was cruel and inhuman and it contributed immensely to the large number of deaths and casualties on the part of the protesters, especially those from the Lekki Toll Gate.”
This could not be stated more strongly. I have often argued in this column that the conflation of the constitutional duties of the army and the police is a monumental national disaster and a cynical misuse of the powers of the state against its own citizens. I am glad the panel made the point that involving the army in purely police duty such as crowd control and peaceful protests is a clear invitation to death and destruction. As the panel put it, “…the ineffectiveness of the police cannot be a justification for the invitation of the army to Lagos State and the deployment of the army to Lekki Toll Gate on October 20th 2020. Given the number of people gathered at the Lekki Toll Gate, an invitation of the army to Lagos State and deployment of the army to disperse such peaceful gathering should not be an option for a government that had already opened up dialogue with the protesters.”
Well, the #EndSARS judicial panel in Lagos State has spoken. It found the Nigerian state and its security agencies culpable in the needless national shame. It turning its lethal guns against young people who set out to peacefully protest the brutal way we are policed. The federal government over-reacted to a peaceful protest whose organisers were not motivated by ill-will towards it. It is always dangerous when a government panics, thinking that the flapping of the wings of a fly is a bullet in flight.
The panel wants the federal government to apologise to the youth. Of course, the government will do no such thing. It is not in the character of our governments, federal and state, to blatantly wrong the people and have the grace to own up and say, sorry. It raises a fundamental issue about how we are governed. In a democracy, the people expect the government to be accountable to them. It is a sacred obligation that forges a bond of trust between the government and the governed. It is an elementary democratic tradition that cannot be treated as an irritation without doing some grievous injury to the concept of the people as the owners of a government instituted by them.
Let us hear the federal government for once own up its mistake and apologise for it. It would not be, as Buhari would say, a sign of weakness. It would be a sign of strength; it would be a sign of responsible governance and it would be a sign that we have reached a point we must accept that the bond between the government and the governed can be forged only on the anvil of mutual respect, mutual understanding and a mutual sense of purpose. The government cannot save itself from the people. It is its duty to be of the people so that the ideals of the government of the people, by the people and for the people will grow in the protective environment of the strength of the state undergirded by mutuality of trust.
I am not baying for blood but the zealous agents of government who abused their uniform and have blood on their hands from the Lekki Toll Gate must not be allowed to get away with the unprovoked killing of Nigerian youths whose voices of dissent pleaded the cause of the voiceless. Let us say never again and commit to it. The obvious temptation on the part of the federal government and its minions to treat the report with disdain as the handwork of those who do not wish President Buhari well must be resisted. The strength of the government does not lie in its capacity to deploy brute and lethal force against the people; it lies in its empathy, grace and its humanity.