By Suyi Ayodele
Prolific writer, John Harris, was a sailor, an airman, a journalist, a travel courier, a cartoonist and a history teacher. He wrote 35 books using his real name, had 27 under ‘Mark Hebden’ and additional 10, mostly on military escapades, under the name, ‘Max Hennessy’. In his “Music Set to Death”, Hebden created a murder victim, whose dead body was found in an elegant room in a salon, with a piano playing an Italian Rigoletto, one of the three by Guiseppe Verdi, and the jalousie closed. To unravel the mystery, Inspector Pel was called in. That was the first time the author featured him in his thrillers. Though no one among the apparent suspects was ready to own up, another familiar murder turned up and that fired the instinct of Inspector Pel, who at the end, ensured that no murder case went unresolved.
When the report of the Lagos State Judicial Panel of Inquiry on Restitution for Victims of #EndSARS Related Abuses and Other Matters, otherwise known as “Lagos #EndSARS Panel Report”, hit the newsstands, the image that immediately crept to my mind is that of the fictional inimitable French detective, Inspector Evariste Clovis Désiré Pel. Inspector Pel, for short, the fictional creation of the 1961 Yorkshire born John Harris, who, while writing the 1979 blockbuster novel, “Music Set to Death”, adopted the pseudonym, ‘Mark Hebden’.
The October 20, 2020 massacre of Nigerian “children”, in the voice of “our Daddy”, Desmond Elliot, the Nollywood actor turned politician, found its equivalent in Mark Hebden’s “Music set to Death”. That black Tuesday was the day harmless Nigerians were murdered in cold blood by Nigerian Military men in Army uniform, who opened live bullets on protesters, who were merely singing the National Anthem and waving the Nigerian flags; some of them sitting on the ground, thinking and believing that the sight of the National Flags and the melodious rendition of the National Anthem, would make the soldiers come to “attention”. How eternally wrong they were. Hours before the arrival of the military, the management of the Lekki Tollgate, the Lekki Concession Company, LCC, caused all the CCTV cameras in the facility to be dismantled. And moments before the soldiers summarily executed some of the protesters, some dare-devil individuals at LCC switched off the street lights around Lekki Tollgate and provided the cover of darkness for the sanguivorous soldiers to kill and “pack” the corpses of the dead. To make sure that the injured had no route of escape, the mauling soldiers and their accomplices, policemen, blocked both ends of the Lekki Expressway.
The deluge of condemnations that greeted that barbaric act in the Nigerian 21st century was enough to drown the aquatic city itself. In response to the condemnations, Governor Babajide Sanwo-Olu of Lagos State, the Nigerian Army and the LCC, on whose premises the mass murder took place, all denied that anyone was shot, not to talk of being killed. Initially, Governor Sanwolu-Olu denied that he ever invited the Army. When that lie could not stand, he agreed that he called in the soldiers to help to curtail the protest. The Nigerian Army on its own, first denied ever firing at the protesters. When that was punctured, it agreed that it fired “blank bullets”. With that also falling like a pack of badly arranged cards, the Army said its officers and men only fired live bullets above the protesters. Later, the Lagos State governor admitted that about three people died and even visited some of the injured in the hospitals.
While the denials and acceptances were going on, the international news media, especially the CNN, kept relaying the news and video clips of the mass murder, to the embarrassment of the Federal Government. Expectedly, the President Muhammadu Buhari led government vuvuzela, Alhaji Lai Mohammed, took on the CNN and, in utter display of ignorance of the operation of non terrestrial networks, tinkered with the idea of banning CNN in Nigeria. On a personal level, while those dramas were going on, I personally lost hope that anything would be done about those killed or maimed in that incident. My only consolation then was that the government could tell itself all the lies in the book, I would never join the league of “nobody died in Lekki” because I knew and I believed that “many people died”.
Such was my personal state of hopelessness until Governor Sanwo-Olu, exactly a month later, set up the Justice Doris Okuwobi-led panel to look into the issue and make its own findings and recommendations. While I confess here that I know little or nothing about the other six members of the panel, my confidence that the panel would do a thorough job and would be objective was rekindled by the inclusion of Ebun-Olu Adegboruwa, SAN. I knew “Big Sam” as a schoolmate at Obafemi Awolowo University, Ile-Ife. He was the SUG Public Relations Officer, PRO, and SUG President during our stay at OAU. For those of us who were at Ife in the late 80s and mid 90s, next to Adeola Akeem Soetan, “Baba Sho”, in student activism, was Big Sam. His inclusion gave hope and the panel did not disappoint.
Only an Inspector Pel-like panel could have done what the Justice Okuwobi panel did on the Lekki massacre of October 20, 2021. The findings, submissions and recommendations of the panel are archival materials in themselves. It does not matter how long the list of “faults” in the panel report as being orchestrated by the government and its agents, the truth is that the seven wise men and women, who sat on that panel, have written their names in GOLD in the minds of men of good conscience and good Nigerians who knew and still know till day, that armless Nigerians were summarily executed at Lekki Tollgate. Anybody can fault the report, the mere fact that the panelists rose above mundane sentiments to arrive at their findings are encouraging enough. That the panel could turn out a report, indicting the very government that set it up is enough consolation. White Paper or Black Paper, truth has a universal meaning- “the quality or state of being true in accordance with fact or reality”.
Arriving at its findings, the panel admitted the testimony of the Commander, 81 Military Intelligence Brigade, General A.I.Taiwo that “both blank and live bullets were fired by the Nigerian Army at the Lekki Toll Gate on October 20, 2020”. It admitted the evidence that the “Army left its base with vehicles, rifles and guns, which contained both live and blank bullets”. It stated that when it visited the Lekki Tollgate on October 30, 2020, the panel “was still able to recover two bullet shells which were duly analyzed by the forensic expert hired by the Panel, Sentinel, who is very familiar with weapons used by the Nigerian Army. These bullet shells were said to be the same as or similar to the ones normally used by the Nigerian Army and they were expended shells, meaning they were fired live at the Lekki Toll Gate”. Anyone who wants to interrogate this aspect of the report should kindly tell us if those bullets were fired at antelopes in a gaming session.
Among other things, “the Panel finds as credible, the case of the EndSARS protesters that soldiers shot directly at protesters at the Lekki Toll Gate on October 20, 2020 as confirmed by Lagos State Ballistic Expert, Willie-Harry on page 244 that some video evidence indicates … instances where troops were seen to be re-arming their weapons before either discharging them to the air or purposely in the direction of the protesters …”
It went further to assert that “the deliberate absence of officers of the Nigerian Army who were present at the Lekki Toll Gate and who were summoned by the Panel was a calculated attempt to conceal material evidence from the Panel and verily believes that their presence would have damaged the case of the Nigerian Army”; and dismissed the report of the “Ballistic Expert” engaged by Lagos State as “too general and unrelated to the specific evidence before the Panel on the Lekki Toll Gate incident. The said report was based largely on extraneous materials that were not produced or tendered before the Panel in order to determine their source or relevance”. It affirmed the “testimony of Dr Babajide Lawson of Reddington Hospital as to the nature of treatment offered victims of the Lekki Toll Gate incident in relation to gunshot wounds which were high velocity ‘entry and exit’, all indicate injuries from military weapons, consistent with the bullet shells recovered by the Panel during its visit and the witnesses that testified before the Panel”.
Justice Okuwobi panel also faulted the attitude of the Lagos State Government in not providing “timely and adequate funding to conduct DNA tests as was done in the cases of DANA Air crash and Synagogue Church building collapse”, submitting that such deliberate attitude made it difficult to properly identify the identities of the dead bodies in the state hospital morgues. It rejected the claims that “a large number of the corpses tagged unknown were from the riot in Ikoyi Correctional Centre, being an institution with proper records to identify such corpses and that these may be part of the Lekki Toll Gate casualties”
The panel particularly endorsed General Taiwo’s admittance of knowing Major Osoba Olaniyi, who, on behalf of the Nigerian Army admitted that the Army was present at the Lekki Toll Gate and they shot “but not at the protesters”. These are findings that are typical of Inspector Pel.
The Justice Okuwobi panel, in indicting LCC, submitted that the company hampered investigation “by refusing to turn over some useful and vital information/evidence as requested by the Panel and the Forensic Expert engaged by the panel, even where such information and evidence was by the company’s admission, available. It manipulated the incomplete CCTV Video footage of the Lekki Toll Gate on the night of the 20th of October 2020, which it tendered before the Panel”.
While the panel listed nine Nigerians as “dead” after the massacre and four others “presumed dead” because they are missing, I make bold to submit here that the real “dead” are the individuals, who are still in self denial of the massacre. Those who said nobody died in the Lekki Tollgate shooting of October 20, 2020 are the very dead and missing victims of their inhumanity. A man must be truly dead, but not yet buried, to believe that after soldiers fired live bullets at national Anthem -singing and flag waving harmless Nigerians, everybody went home and like the Israelites told Moses in Numbers 31:49: “Your servants have counted the men of war who are under our command, and there is not a man missing from us”. Lie can travel as fast it can and as long as it likes, it takes a split second for truth to overtake it.