With David Ibanga’s eyes shut and visage covered in blood, as reported by The Washington Post, Ndifreke Ibanga’s last sighting of his lifeless body was in a photo on social media after the #EndSARS protest at the Lekki Toll Gate.” All I want is for my son to be buried,” she was quoted as saying.
Ndifreke’s worry echoes the frustration of distraught Nigerians who suffer the double tragedy of losing their loved ones and denial by state actors and All Progressives Congress, APC, sympathisers. But the gory images of EndSARS protests flooded memories again when the Lagos State Judicial Panel of Inquiry and Restitution for Victims of SARS Related Abuses submitted its 309-page report on November 15,2021.
Like what the protests originally sought to correct, it exhumed the ghosts of agitations for justice and a better policed Nigeria. For many Nigerians, the panel only made official what they already knew from the outset. Of course, there are doubting-Thomases who ask for bodies of those killed at the toll gate, as if thousands of lifeless bodies buried in a sea of blood will convince their partisan eyes. What politics has joined together, let no compassion put asunder.
Prominent among the group of doubters is the Minister of Information, Lai Mohammed, who dismissed the incident as mere ‘massacre without bodies’. But the panel set up by the Lagos State government put the lie to Lai’s claims in the eyes of many. According to its findings, there was indeed a ‘massacre in context’ at the Lekki Toll Gate. It further revealed that soldiers and policemen pointed their guns at the same unarmed citizens they are expected to protect and gunned them down like a hunter would do when an animal good enough for ‘bushmeat’ is sighted in a forest. The panel noted:” The soldiers actually shot blank and live bullets directly and pointedly into the midst of the protesters at the Lekki Toll Gate, with the deliberate intention to assault, maim and kill.”
More heart-rending is the revelation in another section of the panel’s report 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.”
In a statement dated October 21,2020,the company managing the toll gate, Lekki Concession Company, LCC, had condemned what it called the unscrupulous acts meted out to unarmed protesters by military personnel. The statement read in part: ”Lekki Concession Company strongly condemns the shooting of peaceful protesters at the Admiralty Circle Toll Plaza on October 20,2020. LCC would never support or condone such unscrupulous acts meted out to unarmed protesters.” Who should Nigerians now believe? The managers of the toll gate or an Abuja-based minister or other observers from afar? Well, right-thinking Nigerians know where to invest their trust.
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Of course, like the sun rising in the east and setting in the west, the reaction of Nigeria’s Minister of Information to the report of the Lagos panel is predictable. In the wisdom of the septuagenarian, the panel only sat for over a year to recycle fake news. Now, we can’t crucify Lai for simply doing his job in the Buhari regime, but there are sufficient grounds to worry about the minister twisting facts, even in the face of incontrovertible evidence.
Right was Winston Churchill when he quipped:” Truth is incontrovertible. Panic may resent it. Ignorance may deride it. Malice may distort it. But there it is.”
Truth is, denying the truth about EndSARS protests does not change the facts. That’s exactly what purveyors of falsehood have struggled to do since October last year to when soldiers and policemen, according to the Lagos Judicial Panel of Inquiry, sentenced young people to early graves for daring to protest against injustice, leaving them drenched in their blood.
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Before the Lekki shooting incident, Nigeria had witnessed the massacre of its own by military personnel- and the spilled blood of innocent Nigerians still cry for justice. Who will forget the Zaki-Biam massacre in Benue State in 2001? Or the Odi massacre in Bayelsa State in 1999? Of note is the widely reported gruesome murder of Shia Muslims by military personnel in Kaduna State in 2015. Specifically, a report by Amnesty International had revealed that military shot and burned members of the Islamic Movement in Nigeria and secretly buried the bodies!
Amnesty International’s Africa Research and Advocacy Director, Netsanet Belay, had said: “Our research, based on witness testimonies and analysis of satellite images, has located one possible mass grave. It is time now for the military to come clean and admit where it secretly buried hundreds of bodies.”
Worthy of mention is the fact that a judicial panel of inquiry set up by the governor of Kaduna State, Nasir el- Rufai, corroborated Amnesty International’s report. The panel had indicted the Nigerian Army for killing at least 347 Shia Muslims, who, according to a representative of the Kaduna State government, were handed over by the army for a secret mass burial.
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With the gnawing revelations from the Kaduna judicial panel of inquiry on the massacre of Shia Muslims, the report of the Doris Okuwobi-led panel, stating that a number of unidentified bodies were removed by security agencies and the Lagos State Environmental Health Monitoring Unit, LASEHMU, at the Lekki Toll Gate and deposited at various hospital mortuaries in Lagos State to conceal evidence, cannot just be taken with a pinch of salt.
While it is concerning but not shocking that the Lagos State government attempted to tear to shreds the report of its own judicial panel of inquiry, it is apposite to state that the White Paper committee it set up is neither an Appeal Court nor the Supreme Court. It, therefore, remains to be seen where it derived the powers to overrule the report of a panel known to the Nigerian law.
How, for instance, do we reconcile the changing narratives of Governor Sanwo-Olu who initially claimed nobody died at the Lekki Toll Gate despite trending videos showing casualties but would later admit that he saw only two dead bodies in a CNN interview with that of the White Paper committee that claimed only one person died?
With the rejection of the judicial panel of inquiry report on the matter by the Federal Government and the Lagos State government, a damper is already put on the hope of concerned Nigerians who expect consequences for the officers indicted by the Lagos panel. But impunity without consequences can only yield more impunity. It explains why indicted officers should be prosecuted and made to feel the weight of the law. Anything short of this will further widen the gap of distrust between the youth and the government.