From Thursday, October 8, 2020 Nigerian youths took to the streets to protest against police brutality especially by the Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS).
The peaceful protest tagged #EndSARS called for the disbandment of the squad, bringing to book its officers who perpetrated diverse acts of abuse, brutality and extrajudicial killings, compensation for the victims and a holistic reform of the police.
Although the Federal Government announced that it accepted the demands, the youths insisted on leaving the streets until the authorities showed genuine commitment to their demands.
On Tuesday, October 20, 2020 at about 6.45pm, news broke that there were soldiers shooting at unarmed protesters at Lekki Tollgate in Lagos.
The shootings were captured on videos and live-streamed by some of those present at the scene.
Perhaps the most poignant images of the macabre incident were the pictures of youths who, prior to the shooting, had wrapped themselves with the Nigerian flag in a show of their patriotic zeal for a better country.
Were it not so tragic, the incident would have qualified as a comedy of errors. There were reports that from about 3.45pm on that day, suspicious actions began to take place at the tollgate plaza.
The macabre incident raises questions: who ordered the power disconnection and why were the cameras removed?
On whose orders or at whose invitation did the military come to the protest ground?
Why would soldiers shoot at unarmed citizens in breach of international standards on military engagement with civilians?
How many people died? Why has there been a cover-up of the shootings with government officials telling shameless lies?
First, Governor Babajide Sanwo-Olu of Lagos State denied that there were casualties. He then retracted and claimed there was only one casualty.
He later admitted that there were two deaths. Next, he denied that he knew how soldiers came to the scene.
He again retracted and averred that the soldiers were on the scene at the instance of “powers over which he had no control.”
The military authorities claimed they were invited by the governor.
As the clamour for accountability became strident and probably to assuage public discomfiture at the fact that he did not even acknowledge the Lekki shootings in his address to the nation on Thursday, 20th October 2020, President Muhammadu Buhari assured Nigerians that the victims would get justice.
This statement, coupled with the public announcement that the Lagos State Judicial Panel of Inquiry, which had been set up to receive petitions on SARS brutality, would also investigate the Lekki shootings gave some hope that the truth would be elicited and victims would get justice.
However, subsequent events have cast a shadow on the sincerity of the federal government. Why has the Federal Government not taken responsibility for investigating the actions of the military at Lekki Tollgate?
The military is a federal institution which cannot move without the knowledge of the President and Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces.
If, however, the federal government chooses to delegate this responsibility to Lagos State, it must offer assurances of its commitment to the process and its outcomes in unequivocal terms.
Unfortunately, while the panel is sitting, military authorities have claimed that the videos and pictures of the scene which showed personnel in battle fatigues shooting at the crowd were “photoshopped.”
The Attorney-General for the Federation and Minister of Justice (AGF) has insinuated that the persons in battle fatigues who shot at unarmed protesters were hoodlums in military uniforms.
What are Nigerians to make of these contradictory public statements? Are they not pre-emptive of the findings of the judicial panel?
Has the military under the federal government undertaken its own investigation and arrived at a conclusion?
Added to these is the news report that military authorities at Bonny Camp initially declined the judicial panel access to its facilities where corpses are allegedly deposited. Clearly, these developments belie the promise of the President that victims will get justice.
We, therefore, call on the President to direct full cooperation of the military with the Lagos State panel and reassure Nigerians of his commitment to eliciting the truth by bringing to book all those responsible for the unlawful action.
But it is not only the government that must act if the victims are to get justice.
Between narratives and counter-narratives of what happened on that day lies the truth.
The survivors of the Lekki Tollgate shooting must find the strength and zeal to ‘soro-soke’ (testify) before the panel which, in turn, must be bold to dig out the truth in the quest for justice.
Finally, the panel must restore hope for the masses and instill in the youths the belief that justice is possible in Nigeria.
The only way to guarantee this is to ensure justice for the martyrs of the Lekki Toll Gate shootings.