A damning official report into a police and army shooting that implicates officers directly in the deaths of up to 100 people has raised hopes in Nigeria that justice may be done, lawyers and protesters say.
The report by the Panel of Inquiry set up by the Lagos state government contradicts the early official account that the incident never took place at all.
Instead it brands the actions a “massacre”, a step activists say is crucial to achieving justice. Many had expected the government to block the investigation.
The Lekki Toll Gate massacre
The protest at the Lekki toll gate on October 20 last year which ended in the massacre was one of many demonstrations across the country at the time against police brutality. The demonstrators’ anger was particularly focused on the Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS), a notoriously corrupt police unit.
The Nigerian Army and police shot and killed at least 12 people, although activists say the final toll could be as high as 100.
Lagos had witnessed an unprecedented atrocity in the modern history of the country's financial capital, but few expected accountability following the government's early response.
The protest movement, known by the Twitter hashtag #EndSARS, has called for the disbandment of the police unit, which is accused of robbery, and much worse.
The moment security forces opened fire was captured on mobile phones and live streamed on the internet.
The official response — stubborn denial — was considered a slap in the face for grieving families.
After months of frustration, growing impatience and fear that the truth might never be told, the Panel of Inquiry's final report has been a huge boost for the protest movement.
What happens next could determine the future of police and military accountability in Africa’s most populous nation, EndSARS protesters and lawyers tell The National.
A blow for the Nigerian government?
After the Lekki shootings, media organisations were fined by the Nigerian Broadcasting Commission for using online footage of the protests in their news reports, following orders from the federal government.
Nigerians have expressed optimism that security officers responsible for the killings will be brought to justice following the release of the Lagos panel’s report.
Survivors say that official confirmation of the incident has provided some relief from the pain and bitterness they have carried since the shootings.
When the panel was formed in several states across Nigeria last year, many citizens were sceptical, concerned that it was simply the government investigating itself.
But findings from the report have debunked this narrative.
Justin Amuzie, an accountant and EndSARS protester in Abuja, Nigeria’s seat of power, agrees. The report pushes back on what he sees as government attempts to exonerate itself.
But he still sees political motives.
“This report was not done in a hush way, contrary to what many of us expected. Is the governor trying to exonerate himself from the killings ahead of the forthcoming general elections? Because whether we like it or not, in Nigeria every government has their own supporters and influencers on social media.”
“After that report came out, a certain group started pushing narratives that the governor was trying to show that he wasn’t a part of what happened, for him to have allowed the panel to come out with this kind of report.”
Nigerian army pushes back
“The army is still putting up resistance to the report, insisting that it was not handled professionally. But if the government now agrees that people were killed, I think those who killed the peaceful protesters should be arrested and prosecuted. The military will have to provide the officers that pulled the trigger that night, including the commander who gave the order,” Mr Amuzie told The National.
“The Nigerian army will have to publicly accept their atrocity and provide the dead bodies that were taken away and explain why they took those bodies away.”
He said he was surprised at the report but will wait to see if any prosecutions happen when a government White Paper on the massacre is released.
Inibehe Effiong, one of the EndSARS protesters' legal advisers, says the findings of the Lagos panel are not surprising.
“The report is a reflection of what actually transpired at the toll gate, we are all witnesses to history. We saw the protest play out, it’s a sad reminder of the atrocity that was committed by the federal and Lagos state governments through the military and the police against protesters who were entirely peaceful.”
“This is a crime the government has committed against the youths of Nigeria. So, for the panel to confirm that indeed there was a massacre, and that people were injured, some killed, and bodies taken away, is a vindication of the EndSARS protesters.”
But not everyone is happy.
Abiodun Jelili Owonikoko, a Senior Advocate of Nigeria (SAN) — a title given to highly experienced lawyers — has advised the Lagos state government and says it was wrong for the panel to have awarded compensation to the victims of military shootings on the night of October 20 without acknowledging the policemen who also lost their lives when national protests spiralled into chaos.
This has not stopped the report being seen as a watershed moment.
The US government, the United Nations and human rights groups have welcomed the report and recommendations while urging government action against those involved in the killings.
President Muhammadu Buhari has assured US Secretary of State Antony Blinken that his government will allow a wider process of inquiry into police brutality.
Mr Effiong says the report could seriously damage the credibility of the Nigerian army and police force in the eyes of the public. But he doubts that brutality, extortion and abuses will come to an end, even if the white paper recommends prosecutions.
Charting the way forward, Mr Effiong believes that young people should channel their anger and energy into the electoral process, to dislodge politicians who do not represent the interests of the people.
“It would be a good way to respond to the outcome of the report, but the current political system makes it very difficult for progressive young people to assume political positions, we have a lot of ground to cover within the electoral process to get young people to assume positions of influence”, he said.
“You have seen credible young people that have come out to contest elections. But the kind of resistance they have faced in the last polls — politics has been monetised, it has been left for the moneybags. So, a lot of challenges are impeding a true electoral process that should favour the aspirations of the people.”
Nigeria will be going to the polls in 2023 to elect political representatives at different levels to manage the country’s affairs for another four years.
Nigeria signed the #NotTooYoungToRun bill in 2018, a piece of legislation that lowers the minimum age for election candidates. The country saw a handful of young politicians in the last polls in 2019 after the legislation, and if the trend continues it could be a huge boost for the youth-led EndSARS protest movement in an overwhelmingly young country.
Mr Effiong says it is important for young people to organise themselves politically ahead of the forthcoming 2023 general elections, if there is to be any chance of lasting change.