Emmanuel Addeh, Kingsley Nwezeh in Abuja, Nume Ekeghe and Wale Igbintade in Lagos in Lagos
President Muhammadu Buhari, yesterday, said the federal government would not take any action to block or anticipate the outcomes of the various panels set up by state governments to investigate last year’s #EndSARS protests.
Rather, Buhari said his government would wait to see the steps the governors would take before considering any action on the outcomes of the inquiries.
The nationwide protests in October last year had resulted in loss of lives and wanton destruction of property.
Buhari, who spoke during a meeting with United States Secretary of State, Antony Blinken,in Abuja, said his administration was inclined to allow the system work, and that the state governments would be required to take steps to address the issues raised in the panels’ reports before the federal government would step in.
But the United States government, which has since shown interest in the #EndSARS matter, said it would like to see that both the federal and the Lagos State governments ensured that the report of the panel received due accountability and attention.
However, counsel to the Lagos State government on the #EndSARS panel, Mr. Abiodun Owonikoko (SAN), has rejected the findings of the panel, which were leaked on Monday. Owonikoko also disputed the casualty figures recorded by the panel.
He claimed the leaked document was fraught with discrepancies and should not be in the public domain or be taken as an accurate document, especially, as one of the signatories to the document, Mr. Ebun-Olu Adegboruwa (SAN), was absent for the most part of the hearing.
Meanwhile, sources close to Alausa, the seat of the Lagos State government, said the government spent N800 million to fund the #EndSARS inquiry, which lasted 13 months.
Buhari was quoted as saying in a statement by his spokesman, Femi Adesina, that, “So many state governments are involved, and have given different terms of reference to the probe panels.
“We at the federal have to wait for the steps taken by the states, and we have to allow the system to work. We can’t impose ideas on them. The federal government has to wait for the reaction of the states.”
The president told the US Secretary of State that his administration remained committed to freedom of worship, adding, “No one is discriminated against on the basis of his or her faith.”
He expressed his appreciation to the US for the sale of weapons to Nigeria to fight insecurity.
“It’s helping us to stabilise the situation in the North-east, and we’ve made a lot of progress since 2015,” Buhari said.
But Blinken, who spoke at a joint press conference with the Minister of Foreign Affairs, Geoffrey Onyeama, at the State House, Abuja, charged the governments to see to it that the grievances of victims of security agents’ brutality were attended.
Blinken, who had held separate meetings with Buhari, Vice President Yemi Osinbajo (SAN), and Onyeama, during which some agreements were signed, also noted that his country was working with Nigeria to address its security challenges.
“We’re working with Nigeria to address security challenges, including those posed by Boko Haram, ISIS West Africa and other terrorist and extremist groups. In meetings with the President, with the Vice President, with the foreign minister, we discussed the importance of a comprehensive approach that builds effective security forces, addresses the underlying drivers of extremism, and respects Nigerians’ basic human rights.
“The United States is committed to helping Nigeria do that by continuing to invest in our security partnership, and the institutions that strengthen the rule of law, and that hold accountable those, who commit human rights abuses, corruption and other acts that harm the Nigerian people. By tackling these issues, we can help to address some of the problems that have been key drivers of insecurity.
“To that end, let me say that we welcome the conclusion of the investigation by the independent inquiry established by the Lagos State government to look into the events that took place at Lekki Tollgate in Lagos, in October of 2020, and this, of course, was amidst the #EndSARS protest, including the killings and other alleged abuses by the security forces.
“We anticipate and look to the state and the federal government’s response to the findings, and expect those to include steps that ensure accountability and address the grievances of the victims and their families.
“We’re also working closely with Nigeria to help the populations most affected by conflict and violence in the country, particularly in the Northeast, where the United States is providing vital humanitarian aid to approximately 2.2 million internally displaced Nigerians. United States continues to build the capacity, together with Nigeria, of the military, including through the recent delivery of 12 A29 Super Tucano aircrafts, but capacity building goes much deeper than delivering military hardware, something that we talked about as well.
“We’re also providing more human rights and rule of law training, because military and civilian security forces are more effective, when they act in accordance with these values. And because it’s crucial that Nigeria holds accountable members of the military, who commit abuses,” he said.
He went on to charge government to ensure the safety and wellbeing of groups involved in human rights advocacy, such as journalists, rights crusaders and others.
“Journalists, human rights defenders and others, Nigeria’s very vibrant civil society are playing a vital role in shining a spotlight on these and other issues. Their ability to exercise freedom of expression and other basic human rights is crucial to advocating for individuals and communities and strengthening this country’s vibrant democracy as we’ve seen in the successful efforts to promote electoral reform, and lower the age at which Nigerians can run for office.
“I look very much forward to meeting several of these leaders tomorrow (today), including faith leaders, who are defusing communal tensions, and promoting peace. And we look forward to Nigeria, Africa’s largest democracy joining the summit for democracy next month. All participants from government, civil society will make commitments to improve and strengthen democracy in our respective countries and strengthen the partnership among democratic nations.
“The range of issues that we’re working on together is vast, but given the interests we share, and the challenges we have in common, delivering for our people demands that we find ways to deepen our existing ties and partnerships even further. That’s ultimately what this visit and the work that we’re doing every single day, between our governments between our people is,that’s what it’s all about,” he said.
Talking about partnering in various areas, he said besides the 7.6 million doses of COVID-19 vaccines recently delivered at no cost to Nigeria, more would be delivered before the end of the year, citing other areas of collaboration between the two countries.
“First of all, working together to beat back COVID-19 and to build back better as we address the devastating impact that it’s had on all of us, on our communities, on our economies. The United States has delivered 7.6 million doses of safe, effective vaccines to Nigeria, and we expect to send another significant number of doses by the end of the year.
“Donated with no strings attached. And we’re providing significant aid to save lives right now. From the more than 150 testing labs that we have to set up nationwide to helping tackle food security crisis that was worsened by the pandemic. We have teamed up for a long time to confront epidemics and to improve public health. In that sense, this is not new.
“The United States and others work with Nigeria toward eliminating a wild polio virus, supporting vaccination campaigns, aiding surveillance to detect and isolate cases. That collaboration was key to the country being certified free of the virus in August of 2020. That’s a huge achievement. Reckon assistance is helping to bring treatment to more than one and a half million people in Nigeria living with HIV AIDS, and we’re on track for epidemic control by 2023.
“Our support for primary health care helps provide vital services to more than 60 million Nigerians. These other and efforts have helped create a robust infrastructure for Nigeria’s COVID-19 response and broader efforts to strengthen public health security, which are essential to detect and prevent the next pandemic.
“Second, we’re working with Nigeria to build back better from the pandemic by fostering inclusive sustainable economic growth. That’s the goal of the 2 billion development agreement that Jeffrey and I just signed, and which will make I think, significant investments in improving access to quality education, public health and other services and tools that Nigeria’s rising generations are looking for, and need to thrive here at home and in the global economy. And we’re committed to working with the government as it pursues economic reforms, for example, to create a more stable regulatory environment to attract more foreign investment.
“Third, working together to address the global climate crisis. Foreign Minister and I were both just at COP 26, where President Buhari made significant new commitments to join the global methane pledge and build on the progress that Nigeria has made in solar power.
“This is crucial as more and more Germans feel the impact of the crisis, something the President, I must say, talked about very eloquently, when we were together a short while ago, and displaced people, who have lost connections with their livelihoods as a result of climate change among other disruptions.
“Our work together also demonstrates how tackling this crisis represents an opportunity, our once in a generation opportunity to create good paying jobs and expand renewable energy access.
“The USAID has a five-year $110 million project, the Nigeria power sector programme, and that’s supporting key initiatives like the solar power major, which will bring solar energy to 25 million Nigerians, who are off the electric grid and lack access to power.
“That, in turn, is expected to create as many as 250,000 new jobs in the energy sector, spur local industry, generate 18 and a half million dollars in annual tax revenues. So, it will have practical, meaningful effects,” he explained.
He also expressed the United States’ displeasure at the turn of events in Sudan, saying, “Let me just say one brief word about yesterday’s events in Sudan. The United States is deeply concerned by the violence used by the Sudanese military against people engaged in peaceful protest, which reportedly killed more than a dozen civilians and wounded scores more.
“The military must respect the rights of civilians to assemble peacefully and express their views. And we continue to support the demand of the Sudanese people for the restoration of the civilian-led transition, and including the return of Prime Minister, Abdala Hamdok, back to office and the immediate release of all those detained since October 25,” he said.
However, Owonikoko, who spoke on the ARISE News Morning Show, a breakfast programme yesterday, stated that from the evidence gathered, there was no record of a single death.
“I am totally shocked about what I read to be in the report, particularly, the findings with regard to 48 victims some of whom are described as deceased and missing,” he maintained.
He explained that it was unacceptable for a member of the panel to publicly disclose the contents of the panel’s report, insisting that the panellists took an oath of fidelity with respect to impartiality and confidentiality.
According to Owonikoko, “If anybody, who was a panel member has gone out as of today to speak to what has happened, that person has breached not only the oath he took to be a member, he has also breached the duty imposed on him not to discuss or divulge the contents to anybody. What we should be discussing, and this is very important, will be the government’s own outcome. That outcome can be criticised.”
He added that the panel comprised mostly people with no legal background, and this accounted for most of the alleged breaches of the law by members.
Owonikoko alleged that there were at least 40 discrepancies in the report released by the panel, concluding that the members did not do a thorough job.
He stated, “A number of them were not lawyers. And that, to me, actually, is the crux of the problem we have with this report. From the evidence that we were able to gather at the hearing, there was not a single death that was established.
“The mistake I have observed is that the government made it in such a way that it should have been a different panel entirely to look into the Lekki incidents. The panel that was considered originally was meant to address victims of abuse of police brutality and SARS. So, from the very beginning, that panel lacked the judicial competency to determine these issues.”
Owonikoko stated that Adegboruwa, who was the representative of the civil society on the panel, had recused himself long before the report came out and had not been in most of the panel meetings. He urged that the report should not be considered valid.
Owonikoko stated, “That report is already tainted and I would not expect the government not to be cautious in implementing that kind of report. I want to know how that gentleman (Adegboruwa) was able to sign off on this report as an objective and neutral report of facts that you are trying to find. He ought not to participate, because in this report, for almost 15 sittings, he did not come.”
Insisting that the report was not against the Lagos State government as such, Owonikoko stated that the only part that concerned the government was whether it ordered the deployment of soldiers. He also pointed out that during the entire proceedings of the panel, there was no evidence that the army was deployed by the governor, noting that ordinarily, the report would be subjected to a judicial review.
The lawyer explained that part of the discrepancies in the report was that even someone, who allegedly testified before the panel, was declared dead in the report. He said the discrepancies did not project the panel as having done a thorough job, expressing shock that such report should be released in the public space.
Owonikoko explained, “I have read the report. Since you now confirm that it is supposed to be authentic, I have identified almost 40 discrepancies, very material discrepancies in that report, including awarding damages to people, who are claimed to have died.
“People, who never died, who have even come out to say they did not die, including awarding damages to somebody they claim died but who actually was a witness to testify as to his brother’s death not even at Lekki toll gate.
“Does that not show you that there was no thorough job done? How do you make that kind of serious mistake, to award millions and millions to somebody claiming that he died when actually he was even a witness before you?
“In the report itself, you will find where the witness was there and they recorded his evidence, and in the list they posted, they said he died and awarded him N15 million. What kind of report is that? That alone, any report that has that fundamental error will be crushed.”
Drawing a convergence between the Justice Oputa panel and the Okuwobi panel, Owonikoko argued that even if a white paper was released on the matter, it was not binding on anybody.
He stated, “You are entitled to subject it to the judicial review in a court of law. An instance that you may readily recall was the Oputa panel. One of the reasons a number of the recommendations did not see the light of day was that it was challenged in court and the Supreme Court held that some of the matters that the panel looked into, as much as the public was interested in knowing the truth about them, were beyond the remit of the federal government to constitute a panel to look into.
“I am not speaking on a report that is validly published and which can be authenticated as the outcome of that judicial inquiry. Nevertheless, I can’t pretend not to be aware that certain documents have been circulating in the social media and have been subject of comments and responses.”
He pointed out that the report released to the public was even unsigned, adding that it might well be a minority report.
Emphasising that he had issues with Adegboruwa, whom he said was consistently absent during Saturday sittings on the Lekki incident, Owonikoko noted that the civil society representative lacked the moral right to have signed the document.
“This same gentleman (Olu-Adegboruwa) had no legal or moral right to sign the report but he did,” Owonikoko said.
The Lagos State counsel further said there was no place in the report that mention was made of an attempt to attack a traditional ruler and raze down Oriental Hotel at Lekki by hoodlums during the protest.
The leaked report had noted that there was an “atrocious maiming and killing of unarmed, helpless and unresisting #EndSARS protesters, while sitting on the floor, waving the Nigerian flags, and singing the National Anthem, and therefore concluded that it amounted to a ‘massacre’.”
It said the security forces killed some 11 protesters while over 40 were injured, contrary to claims by the army and the Lagos State government that protesters were not killed.
“The soldiers actually shot blank and live bullets directly and pointedly into the midst of the protesters at the Lekki tollgate, with the deliberate intention to assault, maim and kill. The soldiers turned back ambulances that were invited to render first aid and assistance to the wounded protesters,” the report read.
The leaked report further stated that there were attempts to cover-up the killings, including soldiers picking up bullet shells on the night of October 20, 2020 and policemen following up in the morning of October 21 to pick bullet shells. It added that that LCC officials manipulated the CCTV cameras.
But the army had claimed that soldiers deployed to the Lekki tollgate only shot blank bullets into the air and operated within the rules of engagement. Lagos State Government is yet to officially react to the report, but it said the state governor, Mr. Babajide Sanwo-Olu, invited soldiers to the scene.