The Nigerian Army shot and killed at least 11 unarmed, peaceful protesters and wounded dozens of others during a demonstration last year, in an incident that can be labeled a massacre, a government panel has found.
Four others were missing and now “presumed dead,” according to the panel’s report on the Oct. 20, 2020, shooting at a tollgate in Lekki, an upscale suburb of Lagos, in southwestern Nigeria.
The “atrocious maiming and killing of unarmed, helpless and unresisting protesters, while sitting on the floor and waving their Nigerian flags, while singing the national anthem can be equated to a ‘massacre’ in context,” said the report by the Lagos State Judicial Panel of Inquiry on Restitution for Victims of SARS-Related Abuses and Other Matters.
The protest at the Lekki tollgate was one of many demonstrations across the country at the time against police brutality. The demonstrators’ anger was particularly trained on the Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS), a notoriously corrupt police unit.
The panel’s report, which was submitted to Gov. Babajide Sanwo-Olu of Lagos State, was leaked to the news media on Monday and a copy was obtained by The New York Times. It listed 48 people as shooting victims.
The job of the panel, headed by Doris Okuwobi, a retired judge, was to put to rest the controversy as to whether what transpired on the night of Oct. 20 qualified as a “massacre.”
The army had maintained that it fired blanks to disperse protesters. But the judicial panel reported evidence that soldiers “actually shot blank and live bullets directly and pointedly into the midst of protesters at the Lekki Toll Gate, with the deliberate intention to assault, maim, and kill.” It also noted that the soldiers turned back ambulances that arrived to help wounded protesters.
The panel found the army’s response unwarranted, saying that “the mayhem and violence recorded in other parts of Lagos State did not happen at the Lekki Toll Gate, so there was no need for any apprehension on the part of the government or the security agencies to seek to dispel that peaceful assembly, with soldiers bearing lethal weapons.”
When the panel convened last year, a representative of the Nigerian Army, Brig. Gen. A.I. Taiwo, insisted that the troops at the tollgate “strictly followed” the army’s rules of engagement for internal security. He said the army used nonviolent means to bring the situation under control.
But the panel concluded that since the deployment of the army was not justified, the question of whether troops adhered to any rule of engagement was immaterial. It also noted that General Taiwo’s evidence was “hearsay” since he was not present at the time of the incident. The general claimed he monitored the events “on the internet.”
After a few appearances before the panel, the army stopped cooperating with its inquiry.
Though the Nigerian government and several pro-government activists had maintained that no massacre occurred, some social media users, including the Nigerian songwriter and musician, Obianuju Catherine Udeh, who goes by DJ Switch, live-streamed the demonstration. People, scared and scarred, in the video could be heard screaming “they are shooting” as they ran in different directions seeking cover.
On the first anniversary of the protest, last month, Nigeria’s Information and Culture Minister, Lai Mohammed, demanded an apology from the trio of Amnesty International, CNN, and DJ Switch “for misleading the world.”
“The military did not shoot at protesters at the Lekki Toll Gate on Oct. 20, 2020, and there was no massacre at the toll gate,” Mr. Mohammed told journalists during a news conference in Abuja, Nigeria’s capital. “The only massacre recorded was in the social media.”
The panel’s report, however, stated that several protesters were hit by bullets when the army started shooting and when the police returned, hours later, to disperse what was left of the gathering.
“Evidence from the Forensics experts (Sentinel Forensics Ltd) engaged by the panel confirmed that multiple muzzle flashes consistent with the discharge of ammunition were observed,” stated the report.
“From the totality of the evidence adduced, it can be safely concluded that there were the use and discharge of live ammunitions at the Lekki Toll Gate on 20th October, 2020 which resulted in injuries and deaths.”
In the aftermath of the protest, DJ Switch was attacked by government supporters, who accused her of spreading lies about the protest.
On Monday night, after the panel’s report was leaked, she wrote on Twitter: “Shattered so many lives, tried to destroy mine. Only for what you desperately tried to hide to be made public… by you! The truth needs no defense! #EndSARS”