(Abuja) – Nigerian authorities have made no effort to ensure justice for the killing of protesters in Lagos state in 2020, six months after a judicial panel implicated security forces in the abuses, Human Rights Watch said today. The authorities should act on the panel’s recommendations and hold those responsible to account.
“The report of the judicial panel of inquiry should not be swept under the rug without any consequences for those responsible for killing and injuring protesters,” said Anietie Ewang, Nigeria researcher at Human Rights Watch. “A failure to act on the panel’s recommendations will send a painful message to victims and risks encouraging more violence by security officers.”
In October 2020, young people across Nigeria took to the streets calling for the disbandment of an abusive police unit known as the Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS) and for an end to brutality, in a movement using the hashtag #EndSARS. Security forces responded with excessive force, including gunfire. One of the worst crackdowns was at the Lekki Toll Gate in Lagos on October 20, when army and police officers opened fire on a crowd of protesters, leaving people dead and wounded.
In response, the Lagos state governor, Babajide Sanwolu, mandated a judicial panel of inquiry to investigate the incident and provide recommendations for justice and accountability.
The panel heard testimony for a year, from victims and representatives of the army, the police, and hospitals that treated victims. It found in November 2021 that the security forces shot, injured, and killed unarmed protesters at the Lekki Toll Gate, corroborating Human Rights Watch findings.
The panel also presented a list of at least 48 casualties, including nine dead, four missing and presumed dead, and 21 wounded by gunshots. The panel recommended appropriate disciplinary measures and dismissals of army officers implicated in the abuses. The panel also recommended prosecuting police officers implicated in indiscriminate shooting and killing of protesters at the toll gate and prompt payment of the compensation that the panel awarded to victims.
The Nigerian police and military authorities have neither taken further steps to independently investigate nor responded to the panel’s findings and recommendations. Nigeria’s federal government, which has oversight of these institutions, rejected the panel’s recommendations. The Lagos state governor, who called for the investigation and gave assurances that victims would get closure, has also been quiet on the issue of accountability.
Nigeria has a poor history with judicial panels of inquiries, whose recommendations have no force of law and are often dependent on the responsible authorities to carry out the recommendations. A lack of political will on justice and accountability has meant that past judicial panels including those set up to investigate mass extrajudicial killings in other contexts made no progress toward ending impunity for security force abuses.
Serah Ibrahim, a coordinator of the EndSARS Survivors’ Group, made up of victims of the Lekki Toll Gate incident and their families, told Human Rights Watch that she and other members of the group including those who are managing serious injuries from the shooting are following up with the Lagos state government officials. She said they want to see justice done and compensation paid but it appears futile because state government officials have told them it is not up to them to determine what happens next.
“They don’t want to fish out [identify] the people who shot at us and they also do not want to pay compensation for what happened because it will be an admission of guilt,” she said. “Sometimes I just want to move on because pursuing justice in Nigeria seems pointless, but I can’t because I know what happened and the impact it has had on the lives of victims and their families.”
Following the submission of the Lagos judicial panel report to Governor Sanwolu, he set up another committee to review the contents and come up with a white paper to chart the way forward. The white paper, released in November 2021, rejected the panel’s key findings, including the death toll of nine, stating that there were substantial inconsistencies and a lack of adequate evidence to back the claim.
But the Lagos state government said it fully or partially accepted all but one of the panel's recommendations that relate to its own authority and indicated that it would forward other recommendations to the appropriate authorities, including the federal government, the Police Service Commission, Nigeria Police Force, and the Nigerian Army.
The federal government, represented by information minister, Lai Mohammed, rejected the findings and recommendations of the panel though, and maintained the position he had taken since the incident occurred that reports of shooting and killing by security forces at the Lekki Toll Gate were “fake news.”
Justice and accountability should not be determined by the views of individual government ministers or officials but should rather be guaranteed for all Nigerians through independent systems and authorities mandated to investigate and act on allegations of abuses, Human Rights Watch said.
Within the Nigeria police force there are several units including the X-Squad Unit of the Force Criminal Investigation Department (FCID) and the Provost Department, which are responsible for investigating offenses by officers and recommending disciplinary actions and criminal prosecution where applicable. The Police Service Commission, which provides external oversight, also has the authority to investigate complaints and to mandate disciplinary actions, including dismissal.
Similarly, the military police can investigate the actions of army officers implicated directly or indirectly in the abuses against protesters. An internal board of inquiry or regimental inquiry can also be set up to uncover the facts around their involvement and a court martial process can be convened to discipline officers who engage in misconduct and ensure accountability.
The executive secretary of Nigeria’s National Human Rights Commission, Tony Ojukwu, told Human Rights Watch that it is because of the failure of the various internal systems for accountability to adequately do their jobs over the years that police and military officers have continued to act with impunity.
“Nigerian authorities have evaded their responsibilities to identify, discipline, and prosecute security officers involved in abuses,” Ewang said. “Unless this changes, violence by security forces against ordinary citizens will continue.”