By Kene Obiezu
AFTER a year of heart-wrenching hearings, the Lagos State Judicial Panel of Inquiry on Restitution for victims of SARS-related abuses and other matters which also investigated the Lekki Toll Gate shootings put its signature to a scorching 309-page report that has caught the Nigerian Army, the Nigeria Police and the Lekki Concession Company cold.
On the night of October 20, 2020, while protesters sat peacefully at the Lekki Toll Gate, waving the Nigerian flag and singing the Nigerian National Anthem, a protest that aggregated the voices of many Nigerians home and abroad against police brutality was brutally and fatally broken up by state actors. As the Judicial Panel of Inquiry has found out, at least nine persons were killed.
In the aftermath of one of Nigeria‘s bloodiest nights, the different state actors fingered in the killings scampered to deflect blame for a national tragedy of cyclopean proportions. When eyewitnesses and the media, including foreign media, recounted what they saw, the Nigerian government and the Nigerian Army typically spat fire and brimstone. At some point, the Nigerian government went for the jugular of the Cable News Network, CNN, which it accused of spreading fake news.
When in an opinion piece of October 25, 2021, TheEconomist broadly but savagely impugned the operations of the Nigeria Army, the Army tore into the newspaper, putting up in the process a robust defence of its modus operandi. But what does it have to say now? Nigerians roundly laud and applaud the sacrifices made by young Nigerian soldiers on the frontlines to keep the country from falling into the hands of savage criminals. But in the face of this historic indictment, what does the Nigerian Army have to say about the actions of some of its men at the Lekki Toll Gate on the night of October 20, 2020?
Everyday, in the trenches of a heartbreaking war against terrorism and banditry, Nigerian soldiers, many of them barely in their twenties, pay the supreme sacrifice to keep the country safe.
Everyday, young Nigerian soldiers are felled by the bullets of Boko Haram or ISWAP terrorists to preserve the sovereignty of the country. Whenever this happens, Nigerians grieve as a collective. However, the Lekki Toll Gate massacre bit differently – it broke afresh and asunder the heart of a long-suffering country.
For many years now, Nigeria has been facing an insecurity nightmare. With savage terrorists fanning the embers of terrorism in the North-East, other criminals emboldened by the surprising successes of Boko Haram and ISWAP have scurried out of their hiding places to turn Nigeria into a hotbed of insecurity. Thousands have been slaughtered and entire communities sacked. Innumerable buildings have been razed and livelihoods lost. Countless remain in unaccountable captivity.
In the face of a ceaseless barrage of terroristic fire, the Nigeria Army has shown heroic courage. It is no exaggeration to say that without the gallantry of the soldiers, the country would have been overrun by terrorists.
In gratitude for their many sacrifices, Nigerians have always reacted with fury whenever it appears the Nigerian Army is shortchanged no matter how slightly. It is hard not to feel the national anger that always greets allegations of diversion of money meant for arms, or alleged poor welfare of the soldiers at the frontlines.
But the Nigerian Army now has questions to answer. Have Nigerian soldiers now become killers of innocent Nigerians? The conduct of some of its men at the Lekki Toll Gate on October 20, 2020 leaves a sour taste. What was the need for the disproportionately lethal force used on the protesters?
Was there no other way? In a country already turned into a river of innocent blood by the monumental folly of a few, did soldiers have to cut down young men and women whose only crime was protesting against institutionalised brutality?
Each of the bullets fired by Nigerian soldiers to cut down innocent protesters on the night of October 20, 2021 triggered a cascade of painful memories. Nigerians remember the ignominious role the Nigerian Army played to truncate the country‘s democratic journey in 1966 and subsequently to exacerbate its many problems.
Nigerians remember how much of the country‘s wealth has been plundered by military dictators. Nigerians remember the prominent roles played by military men in contributing to the Nigerian civil war. Nigerians remember Dele Giwa, Ken Saro-Wiwa and all others brutally killed under the watch of military dictators.
In a country of extremely weak institutions with many all-powerful Ogas who are ogres of heavy-handedness and corruption, the Nigerian Army betrayed disturbing bloodlust on the night of October 20, 2021. All over the country, there are allegations of extra-judicial killings of innocent Nigerians by Nigerian soldiers.
A country scarred by countless needless deaths is not about to forget. As for the ignominious role played in the massacre by the Nigeria Police, there is only very little surprise. Can the leopard change its spots?
The protest which packed the Lekki Toll Gate full with protesters on that fateful night was against police brutality and true to its baleful reputation, the Police deployed bloodthirsty brutes to crush the protest.
It is doubtful that there will ever be found in the ranks of the Nigeria Police Force the supreme professionalism that necessarily underpins effective law enforcement. It is highly doubtful that the Nigeria Police Force will ever cast away its signature operational tools of torture and extortion.
Widespread corruption counts many Nigerian institutions among its global champions. The reason is obvious. The Lagos State Government set up the Judicial Panel of Inquiry which has found out that the soldiers who murdered innocent protesters in cold-blood at the Lekki Toll Gate were there on the invitation of the state government. It can only be scandalous that on one of Nigeria‘s most momentous nights, the politics of preservation was put above the sanctity of human lives
As for the Lekki Concession Company, the report has shown them up as businessmen without morals, experts in the darkest arts of business, and practitioners of what the immortal Mahatma Gandhi aptly called ‘commerce without morality.’ What happened to the lights on that night?
As young Nigerians cried out on that eternal night against police brutality, why did the Lekki Concession Company turn off the lights to enable the killers of Nigerian dreams move in and plunge an entire country into stygian darkness?
The Judicial Panel of Inquiry found that the Lekki Concession Company deliberately tampered with the cameras and tried to conceal evidence. For putting perverse profiteering above the pain of innocent Nigerians, the Lekki Concession Company will go down as an accomplice in the brutal murder of innocent Nigerians by state actors. The Judicial Panel of Inquiry made some far-reaching recommendations but it is no rocket science to tell that the sanctions will not go far.
But whatever happens, light and sound have been given to a night many wanted to wrap in eternal darkness and silence. The blood of all those killed by police brutality before the night of October 20, 2020 and those massacred on that bloodiest of nights will continue to stain the image of Nigeria, and especially the consciences of those complicit in the mindless slaughter. They will never know peace. History will never be kind to them.
Obiezu, a social commentator, wrote via [email protected]