May 6, 2021

AfricaTopForum

AfricaTopForum – News Around Africa

Army’s Lekki burden

5 min read
estate

By Femi Macaulay

 

About six months after the controversial Lekki tollgate shooting in Lagos, on October 20, 2020, it is still unclear what happened.  Claims that soldiers had massacred peaceful protesters against police brutality remain unproved. But that does not disprove the massacre allegation.

The Lekki incident continues to generate widespread interest because of its human rights and accountability angles.   A 2020 Country Report on Human Rights Practices, released by the US government on March 30, further drew attention to the lack of clarity, and the need for clarity, concerning the shooting.

“Accurate information on fatalities resulting from the shooting was not available at year’s end,” the report said, adding, “Amnesty International reported 10 persons died during the event, but the government disputed Amnesty’s report, and no other organization was able to verify the claim.”

The use of the word “massacre” by anti-government narrators to describe the alleged killings on the evening of that day has been faulted by pro-government defenders who insist that it is a tendentious exaggeration.

According to the report, now in its 45th edition, “The government reported two deaths connected to the event. One body from the toll gate showed signs of blunt force trauma. A second body from another location in Lagos State had bullet wounds. The government acknowledged that soldiers armed with live ammunition were present at the Lekki Toll Gate.”

The Lagos State Judicial Panel on Restitution for Victims of SARS-related Abuses and Other Matters, set up by Governor Babajide Sanwo-Olu, is expected to find out what actually happened.  But it remains to be seen if the panel will be able to clarify what happened.

The panel, inaugurated in October 2020, had a deadline of April 19, 2021, to conclude its investigation. Significantly, the release of the US report coincided with the extension of the Lagos panel’s work for three months, till July 19.

It is suspicious that the Nigerian Army, which is at the centre of the panel’s investigation into the alleged Lekki killings, stopped cooperating with the investigators under the former army boss, Lt. Gen. Tukur Buratai, who was replaced in January.

New Chief of Army Staff Lt. Gen. Ibrahim Attahiru is expected to concentrate on tackling escalating insecurity in the country. But the Lekki incident is a hot issue that also demands his attention.  Yet again, on March 20, the army failed to honour the panel’s invitation. This was a negative beginning for Lt. Gen. Attahiru.

Did soldiers indeed “massacre” civilians engaged in a peaceful protest against abuse of power by the Federal Special Anti-Robbery Squad of the Nigeria Police Force, known as SARS?  The Lekki protesters were the focal point of the nationwide #EndSARS protests.

Under Lt. Gen. Buratai, there were indications that the army was uncooperative; giving the impression that it didn’t consider the investigation important. On more than one occasion, the General Officer Commanding 81 Division, Maj. Gen. Godwin Umelo, and the Commanding Officer, 65 Battalion, Bonny Camp, Victoria Island, Lagos, Lt. Col. S.O. Bello, had shunned the panel’s invitation. In particular, Lt. Col. Bello is a person of interest because he led the battalion involved in the Lekki shooting under investigation.

The Commander of 81 Division, Brig. Gen. Ibrahim Taiwo, had testified before the panel, denying claims that soldiers shot #EndSARS protesters with live bullets during the operation. However, the panel had summoned Maj. Gen. Umelo and Lt. Col. Bello because Brig. Gen. Taiwo’s testimony was inadequate.

It is unclear why the two officers had failed to appear before the panel. But there is no justification for their failure to honour its invitation. They were expected to appear before the panel not only to clarify the issue but also to exculpate the army. Their non-cooperation was bad for the army’s image. The army is supposed to operate under the law in a democracy.

There is a need for clarity. The army initially claimed its personnel were not at the toll gate when the incident happened, then later admitted it had deployed soldiers to the place with live and blank bullets, maintaining that soldiers shot into the air and did not kill any protester.

The panel’s chairman, retired Justice Doris Okuwobi, had ordered that fresh summons be issued to the officers who had shunned its invitation. “Service shall also be made to the Office of the Chief of Army Staff…,” she had said.  Lt. Gen. Buratai was still the boss at the time.

Lt. Gen. Attahiru should demonstrate that he truly represents a new era. He should ensure that the army cooperates with the panel. Anything less than that is suspicious.

The army’s defenders ask: If there was a “massacre” at Lekki, where are the bodies?  They also counter the claim that the army had got rid of the bodies, arguing that there have been no announcements of missing persons by relations of those allegedly massacred and disposed of.

Notably, in December 2015, the Nigerian Army was accused of carrying out a massacre in a clash with members of the Islamic Movement of Nigeria (IMN) in Zaria, Kaduna State. The army claimed members of the group had tried to assassinate Lt. Gen. Buratai, the army chief at the time.

In response to the incident, known as the Zaria massacre, the Kaduna State government set up a judicial commission of inquiry that found out that the army had gunned down at least 348 civilians, and had secretly buried 347 bodies in a mass grave. The commission called for the prosecution of those involved in the massacre. The incident is regarded as a “notable human rights violation.”

With this kind of damning record, the army needs to prove that nothing like the Zaria massacre happened at Lekki. In January, after the army stopped cooperating with the panel, the panel’s chairman was reported saying the army’s failure to honour lawful summonses meant that it could not justifiably complain of a denial of fair hearing after the panel had presented its findings to the government.

The army’s refusal to further cooperate with the panel is unacceptable.  If the army has nothing to hide, it should cooperate with the investigators.