Former Chairman of the Nigerian Bar Association, Ikeja branch, and lead counsel for #EndSARS protesters/petitioners at the Lagos State Judicial Panel of Inquiry into the Lekki tollgate incident of October 20, 2020, Adesina Ogunlana, talks to EMMANUEL OJO about the controversy surrounding the planned burial of 103 bodies of “#EndSARS victims” by the Lagos State Government.
How did you receive the report of the leaked letter stating that 103 corpses were scheduled for mass burial by the state government? Do you think it is connected with the #EndSARS protest at the Lekki tollgate?
Yes, it has a connection with it. It must have. When you say you want to bury 103 victims of the #EndSARS crisis, definitely, the place of the greatest, vivid capture of the horror of bloodshed, of violent confrontation by gun-wielding military men and policemen, against thousands of unarmed peaceful protesters, and that was electronically recorded and documented, became a subject of a panel of inquiry was at Lekki. So, how could it be that that kind of mass burial would be said to have nothing to do with Lekki (protest)? The government did not set up a panel of inquiry on the shooting at Mushin, Ojota, Ogudu, Agege, and Okokomaiko, where they are now claiming to be the places where they recovered the bodies.
But the Lagos State Government has consistently debunked the claim that anyone died at the Lekki tollgate protest. Why do you disagree with its position on the matter?
I disagree with you on the fact that the Lagos State government has consistently been debunking. You should say that they have consistently been denying not debunking. Debunk what? They are only denying the reality. So, if somebody says red is white, is that debunking? They are only denying that it is not red but they have not shown proof.
The panel which I represented didn’t show that 103 people died. I am talking of the number now and before that panel, all the reports of dead people that were recorded were not limited to the Lekki area. To that extent, the government was partly right but for the government to now say that the panel did not refer to anybody in Lekki and that nobody died there, that is their monumental lie.
What evidence do you have to prove that the claim by the government is false?
That claim is false because I participated in the panel of inquiry and I was a witness to the evidence elicited and adduced before that panel which worked for 18 months and there were three sets of forensic experts, including the one for the former Chief Medical Pathologist of Lagos State, Prof John Obafunwa, who came before the panel to give evidence, explanations on the records of about 90 people, whose records were brought before that panel and was examined by way of cross-examination in which I was one of the lawyers there.
Actually, we had two sets of lawyers. One of the sets was led by Adeyinka Olumide-Fusika, SAN, the other set of lawyers was led by myself and it was Adeyinka Olumide-Fusika that specifically demanded the entirety of the bodies recovered not only in and around Lekki tollgate but all over Lagos State and it was because of that request granted that Prof John Obafunwa came with all the records and the man identified that at least, of the bodies, those that were around that area of Lekki, were dropped at the General Hospital on Lagos Island, and not in the mainland and the ones he spoke about in that area (Lekki), he said at least three of them were perforated by missiles. I was there, so, I’m not too surprised with what the permanent secretary said in that regard because he has to dance to the tune of his employers and not his conscience and the government in Nigeria does not have a reputation for integrity and honesty. So, I’m not too surprised, he was trying to be clever by saying that the bodies are not from the Lekki (tollgate).
Remember that the panel sat and came out with a report emphatically that there was a massacre at the tollgate. It was only the Lagos State Government that came out with a white or yellow paper, trying to rubbish the work of the panel, which it (the government) had set up itself. The panel comprised nine people, who were virtually all lawyers, maybe just one or two were not. Those lawyers are not kids in the profession. It was headed by a very respected lady judge, Justice Doris Okuwobi, and there was no minority report out of the nine of them and they came out emphatically after doing the work they set up to do and it was not that the people they listened to were ghosts. They listened to human beings. About five or seven parties listened to the military, the police, the Lagos State Government, and the Lekki tollgate managers and operators. They also listened to the doctors that treated the victims, they listened to lawyers. All those people were represented by lawyers and a majority of the lawyers were Senior Advocates of Nigeria, for the government and the managers of the tollgate. So, what are they saying? Opinions may be free but facts are sacred.
What were your thoughts on the outcome of the panel? Were you satisfied?
The conclusion is out there in the open space. Emphatically, when you go through what the Permanent Secretary, Olusegun Ogboye, wrote, he said there was no named person massacred in the report but the question I want to ask him is: these 103 people that are to be buried, do they have names? Even when they invited people to come and identify their bodies, they said nobody came up. Does it mean that the 103 people did not exist? They definitely existed; it’s just that there is a climate of terror and heavy distrust of government by the people of Nigeria.
Nobody would dare to come up with such because if they did, they could get into trouble, could be shut out, or even disappear and nobody wants to die. It’s an indictment on the government that a whole 103 people couldn’t have anyone to identify them, not to talk about people in the very heart of the massacre. The way they take us in this country, they don’t see us as citizens, they don’t even see us as subjects. They take us as slaves and they don’t see us as human beings as themselves.
Was it wrong for the government to opt for a mass burial since the bodies were not claimed?
Ordinarily, I cannot fault that. If there were casualties like that, it’s not a new policy. There has been a policy that after some time if some bodies are not claimed after due notice to the public by the relevant agencies of government, they have to just bury them.
There was also an incident of such around 2001 when there was a bomb scare at the Ikeja cantonment and people rushed to their death. Quite a large number of people rushed to their deaths at Oke-Afa, between Isolo and Ejigbo, and they (the government) had to do a mass burial for them at the riverside. In less than a month from the time of the incident, they were buried but this one (#EndSARS protest) is three years of keeping unknown bodies. It’s just like having abandoned vehicles and the government had announced that the owners of such vehicles should come and claim them but nobody showed up, that’s not the problem.
The problem for us, Radical Agenda Movement in the Nigerian Bar Association, which was the platform we used as lawyers to go and defend those people (protesters) at the #EndSARS panel, is: how can the government again because they want to do mass burial of degraded bodies, want to spend N61m? What for? Are they putting the bodies in a mausoleum? Are they burying them in special vaults like Ikoyi Gardens? There is nothing special. It’s just like the way the military does a mass burial when there are many casualties in war. It’s something that the Ministry of Health was supposed to handle but they are even contracting it out. Are they buying land? They are not. N61m is more than outrageous. It’s proof of theft, looting, tangible proof of irresponsible, unaccountable spending, diversion, and conversion of taxpayers’ money by the government acting very recklessly.
Considering the number of bodies involved, are you saying that the state government did enough to allow members of the public searching for their loved ones to identify the bodies before opting for a mass burial?
In my honest view, I will not fault them for that. There is no need for fault finding when there is no fault. They published it in major newspapers and I read it and it was twice or so. I don’t know if there were notices on the television or radio but it wasn’t hidden. It was publicised but I knew that people would not come out.
Why I said so was out of experience and I have mentioned it before. I said there was a cloud of terror and an environment of terror by the government in the wake of the #EndSARS crisis. What they did was that when they set up the panels, for us to even get the people to talk was not easy. They (protesters and victims of the crisis) were scared, many of them ran away and even outside the country and DJ Switch, who is a celebrity, is one of them. Many people were really attacked and wounded. The relatives of the poor people, the masses, and the ones that survived, didn’t want to release them and we went the extra mile to get them. Anybody that followed the #EndSARS panel will realise that it was only three ladies that first showed up; it was their courage. I still remember their names. It was after the three of them showed up that other people started showing up before the panel. In my batch, we had only 24 people and we had some in other batches.
Meanwhile, the people that were affected were more than a thousand but they were scared, traumatised, and terrified, even we lawyers were threatened. You know the way our people regard the government and the way the government has been conducting itself.
Also, when you are talking about the government, you are referring to security agencies. Who will go and voluntarily make a report to the police? It will return to the person’s head. If you help an accident victim, you will be called the killer. When you give information to the police, they will leak the information. There is no reputation the government has.
Is autopsy an option that could have been explored to identify corpses?
Which autopsy? Why are you talking as if you are not a Nigerian? Have you been to the mortuary before? They are stinking mortuaries and as I have learned recently at a government teaching hospital in Lagos, out of 10 pathological scientists, only one is left now. The rest have japa (relocated), and the one that is left is overworked, and I hope he does not drop dead in the hospital one day because of overwork.
In burying 103 degraded bodies, they cannot spend more than N1m, or N2m maximum but they want to spend N61m. This is how they have been sucking away the oxygen of our people and they are saying let the masses breathe. How will they breathe when the oxygen has been taken away? These are wicked, selfish individuals. It’s either they are not human beings or they have refused to see us as human beings.
You noted that you were threatened. What kind of threats did you get?
There was an instance when we went to inspect the Lekki tollgate in the company of the panel members. While we were there, a certain policeman came to my car, was filming me and taking pictures of me and I took pictures of him too and we made a report of that. In another instance, maybe like two to three months later, while we were there, one of the days we had a very lengthy period, we went on a break and someone met one of our colleagues and said to him, “Gentleman, we can’t approach that your lead counsel, but tell him to be very careful.” Is that not a threat?
It’s always said that the judiciary is the hope of the common man. Being a legal practitioner and an activist, do you see it that way?
I will just say it’s a mixed bag. When they say the judiciary is the hope of the common man, philosophically speaking, I don’t believe it.
The judiciary is one of the bastions of the establishment of the elite. The judiciary is an elite organisation. In theory, the laws that it is implementing are good laws and all that, but anyone who studies political philosophy very well will know that those laws that the judiciary is supposed to be implementing are the laws as approved and in consonance with the desire of the ruling elite of any community. So, you find out that the judiciary in a post-colonial pseudo-capitalist country like Nigeria is more or less tied to the apron strings of the executives.
Do you agree that the protest would have been less catastrophic if it had not gone and turned violent?
The protest didn’t go out of bounds. It was the government that was feeling frustrated. Let me explain this to you because I participated not just as a lawyer but as a protester too. All along, it was peaceful but you find out that the government is not tolerant of opposition or opposing views. After some time, I think about the eighth day, they started sending thugs in Abuja and Lagos to come and break up that protest. If you recall, in Ikeja, some people on Lagos State buses were seen carrying machetes. There are records and pictures of it and it was reported in Abuja and Lagos. There were Department of State Services vehicles chasing people about. They had to stop it in one way or the other and that was what led to the shootings at the Lekki tollgate. It was the recording there that brought about the outrage in the nation about the Nigerian Army opening fire on protesters on Nigerian soil. Before that time, there was nothing like that, those guys (protesters) just had an organised peaceful protest.
If anybody says protests do not solve anything, that was what brought about the Fourth Republic. A lot of people died but they had it. The military didn’t want to go but they had to go. Consistently, there was progress. We are not talking of rioting, we are talking of protests. It’s a constitutional right, the right to say no. All we are doing is to make people sensible. If not, if this kind of situation continues, a much worse bloody revolution will come up in this country.