VALENTINE EVE AT LEKKI TOLL GATE: FOR THE SAKE OF LOVE AND JUSTICE

On 6 February 2021, the presiding Chairperson of the Lagos Judicial Panel of Inquiry and Restitution for Victims of Special Anti Robbery Squad Related Abuses (“Lagos Judicial Panel of Inquiry” or “the Panel”) appeared to have opened a wound struggling to heal, and rubbed iodine on it. This was by making an order handing over the Lekki Toll Gate to the Lagos State Government through the Lekki Concession Company (LCC) – owners/operators of the Lekki Toll Gate – to reopen business. The LCC had applied to the Panel for permission to repossess the Lekki Toll Gate in order to evaluate damage resulting from the activities of hoodlums who hijacked the peaceful #EndSARS protest and possibly make insurance claims. The decision to hand over the Toll Gate to LCC did not go down well with many Nigerians. Interestingly, even some other members of the Panel had dissented.

Flashback

Recall that in October 2020, Nigerians, mostly youths, led the famous protest to end police brutality and other police related atrocities in Nigeria. The disbanded Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS) was the major target at the time. The climax of the protest was the gunshots fired by men of the Nigerian Army on the invitation by the Governor of Lagos on 20 October 2020 at the Lekki Toll Gate, which was one of the top locations for the protest. The Lagos State Government and the Nigerian Army have been on parallel lines in the heat of the tragedy. This development struck deep into the trust base of the Government and the Army, leaving them exposed to strong criticisms from around the world.

It has been argued elsewhere that the inquiry into the killings at the Lekki Toll Gate appears to be a walk in the dark to a city of nowhere. The current decision of the Panel to hand over the Toll Gate to LCC seems to lay further credence to the argument.

Reasons for handing over Lekki Toll Gate to LCC

The Chairperson of the Lagos Jucial Panel, Hon. Justice Okuwobi (Rtd), gave a number of reasons for the decision to hand over the Toll Gate to LCC. His Lordship was of the view that the report of the forensic experts was ready and that the Panel has been satisfied from the assurances given by the forensic team that it will no longer require any visit to the Toll Gate. Also, it was noted that the petitioners have been given ample time to extract or retrieve any evidence they desire from the Toll Gate.

Justice Okuwobi also reasoned that “It will be foolhardy for any reasonable petitioner to say the toll plaza be closed for the lifetime of the assignment of the Panel.” Also, that “The order made for repossession is for evaluation of the plaza by LCC insurers, renovation and total control.” Justice Okuwobi believes that there is no sense in refusing to grant LCC control. According to his Lordship, “We see a lot of sentiments going on in this whole matter of repossession of the toll gate by the LCC; a place people were alleged to have died or ‘massacred’. These are statements of no truth. In that case, the panel has find no tangible evidence with this allegation. They are mere speculations and the panel will not speculate and sentiments have no place in law.”

Are the reasons reasonable?

A careful look at the position of the Chairperson of the Panel will reveal that it appears to be a total waste of time to further engage with the activities of the Panel regarding its consideration of the incident at the Lekki Toll Gate. The Chairperson of the Panel seems to have used the opportunity presented by the issue of handing over the Toll Gate to LCC to determine the substance of the matter. The Panel has made it clear that the allegations of death at the Toll Gate are baseless and hold no truth.

Ironically, the Panel did not appear to find anything substantial in the disposition of LCC and the role it played during the protest. Even a mind that is poor in logic could reasonably smell some foul play on the part of LCC, which calls for more critical appraisal of the issues. Yet, instead of critically examining these circumstances, the Panel appear to be sympathizing with LCC (and the Lagos State Government) for its loss of business and revenue from a Toll Gate that should have ordinarily ceased to exist long ago. It is believable that the LCC, Lagos State Government and other private entities might have recouped whatever investment that was made in constructing the road for over 10 years.

The Chairperson of the Panel appear to think that the business of the Panel of Inquiry is purely judicial, like in a court of law. This is evident in his Lordship’s use of words. A Panel of Inquiry has the obligation to consider all the issues, both legal and sentimental, in order to enable it make reasonable recommendations at the end of its assignment. It is not strictly reason that fuel violence and war. Sentiments or emotions often play active roles. It is perhaps the failure to realise this that made the Panel to apply the rigid disposition of the courts in dealing with the all-important issue and to arrive at what appears to be a highly insensitive decision.

The LCC has been accused of tampering with evidence associated with the incident at the Toll Gate. Although the Toll Gate is already open to motorists, there is no valid reason why the Panel should not conclude its assignment with regard to the incident at the Toll Gate before handing over control to LCC. It is least expected of the Panel to appear to make known its position on the Lekki Toll Gate incident prematurely.

Interestingly, other members of the Panel dissented along these lines when they distanced themselves from the decision of the Chairperson of the Panel. For instance, one of the Panel members, Mr. Adegboruwa SAN, was of the view that ““It will overreach whatever decisions the panel may reach and foist a situation of complete helplessness and a fait accompli, on members of the Panel, in respect of any recommendation that it may make, on the general operations of the plazas.” The Learned Senior Counsel further explained that “The Panel is yet to ascertain the claims and counter-claims of fatalities and massacre of citizens on 20th October 2020. If indeed such is established eventually, taking over the Toll Plaza at this time, upon the blood of the innocent citizens, will be insensitive, callous and totally uncharitable to the memories of those who might have died…”

Perhaps, the smartest thing to have been done was for the Panel to conclude its inquiry regarding the Lekki Toll Gate incident which was only one of the items in its terms of reference. Upon conclusion, a recommendation would be made which might include a directive, handing over the Toll Gate to LCC. In that way, the level of displeasure brewed by the premature decision would have been avoided or better managed.

Valentine Eve Protest

The natural consequence of the insensitivity of the Panel is the planned protest by Nigerians scheduled to hold on 13 February 2021, for the sake of love, justice, and true peace – Love and justice for those who lost their lives and were grievously maimed during the protest; Justice for Nigerians and Lagosians who suffered emotional torture by the inconsistent narratives of the Governor of Lagos and the Nigerian Army.

Protests seem to be the only convincing way the masses all over the world express their dissatisfaction and grievances over any given situation of public importance. Now that the Panel failed to reckon with the consequences of its decision, it must now have to deal with it, as it will go down as one of the forces that propelled civil unrest instead of fostering peace.

From the eve of Valentine, the Government appear to be going on a date with the masses. It is hoped that the Government will be nice and accommodating for the love story to continue on a new chapter without bloodshed.

Nevertheless, the protest is not desirable. A reversal of the decision handing over the Toll Gate should be considered. The Panel is not a court of law whose decisions are mostly irreversable except by an appellate Court. 



Stephen Azubuike
Author: Stephen Azubuike
Stephen is a lawyer with expertise in Commercial Dispute Resolution and Technology Law practice. He is a Partner at Infusion Lawyers. He has successfully argued cases from the High Courts of various jurisdictions to the Appellate Courts on behalf of financial institutions, other corporate bodies and multinationals. He has worked with a number of startup tech companies. He tweets @siazubuike.
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