Thirty months after its tragic climax, the #EndSARS youth protest movement and its aftermath continue to reverberate and ruffle the conscience of a country that serially betrays its youth. In the latest peep into the thick official cover wrapped around the mass protest’s aftermath, a leaked memo revealed how the Lagos State Government awarded a N61.2 million contract to a private company to arrange the mass burial of 103 victims killed during the 2020 youth demonstrations. The storm this generated and the official explanations reinforce the need to unearth all the facts to achieve closure.
The five-paragraph memo, dated July 19, 2023, captured steps for the processing of funds to facilitate the mass internment of 103 bodies “recovered during the #EndSARS” protests. This was a remarkable twist in the saga since the state government, like the Federal Government, had previously consistently denied mass deaths arising from the riots that followed the violent break-up of peaceful protests at the Lekki Expressway tollgate.
Democracy thrives on openness and the institutional capacity to peacefully resolve disputes and ensure the dispassionate dispensation of justice. For state officials, try as they might, the events of October 20, 2022, will not go away. Better that the federal and the Lagos State governments understand this and commit themselves to a full exposition.
That there was a peaceful sit-in at the Lekki toll gate, later violently broken up by soldiers and the police is no longer disputed. Divergent narratives however persist over whether persons died at the scene, the number of casualties, and casualties in other parts of the state.
Having made a slip by the memo acknowledging what it had previously denied, the state government in a statement it released following the accompanying outrage explained that the 103 corpses were picked up from across the state following the riots. It stuck to its discredited story that no single death was recorded at the tollgate.
This resolves nothing. Eyewitnesses at the scene, civil organisations, and local and international media organisations, insist that killings really occurred there after army troops opened fire on peaceful protesters, some of whom were waving Nigeria’s national flag. Police also moved in later to finish what the soldiers had started.
Killings also took place in other parts of the state as police clashed with hoodlums who had hijacked the peaceful protests and unleashed mayhem across the state.
Some lawyers and activists have asked the LASG to stop the planned mass burial until autopsies are conducted and more efforts made to identify the corpses and their relatives. Amnesty International called for an independent investigation. The 103 corpses are human; it is important to know the cause(s) of their demise. It is also important to identify them and their relatives.
Then, the truth ought to be unravelled on what happened at the Lekki tollgate and around Lagos on October 20, 2020.
To recap: to protest persistent police harassment, including detentions, arbitrary arrests, extortion, torture, and extrajudicial killings, especially by the Special Anti-Robbery Squad officers, Nigerian youths staged several weeks of peaceful protests across the country in October 2020.
The #EndSARS protests attracted global attention and climaxed with the shootings at the Lekki Tollgate Plaza, Lagos. Thereafter, hoodlums and thugs, some allegedly hired by political actors, took over and laid waste to public and private property.
Nigerian Army troops and armed police officers assaulted peaceful youths massed at the toll plaza, firing teargas and bullets. When the smoke cleared, insist activists, several persons lay dead, and many others injured. Witnesses said the army immediately evacuated the corpses. Riots broke out in other parts of the state.
While activists and rights groups allege a massacre, the state and federal governments have equally insisted that no one died at the toll plaza, and challenged the activists to produce corpses to prove the bloodbath allegation.
Initial denials by state actors included that the army was not at the scene; they recanted when footage emerged of trucks loaded with troops leaving the nearby Dodan Barracks. Claims that only blank bullets were used were also later recanted after the presentation of spent live bullet casings, and contradictory testimony by military witnesses at a public inquiry.
Then, Governor Babajide Sanwo-Olu and other officials initially said that only two persons died elsewhere.
Figures of the Lekki casualties remain controversial. While eyewitnesses and major global media gave figures ranging from 11 to 30 dead, the Lagos judicial panel said nine persons died out of 46 unarmed protesters shot. But even this was disputed by the state government, which insisted that no one died at Lekki. Its White Paper on the report accepted only 11 of 32 recommendations of the panel.
The admission via the mass burial memo that indeed, 103 corpses arose from the events however explodes the government’s myth that very few persons died state-wide.
To resolve the issue, there should be another independent inquiry since the state government has refused to accept the findings of its own judicial panel. Lagos-based Financial Derivatives Company put the economic losses at N1.5 trillion, approximately 1.03 per cent of national GDP, or 11.47 per cent of the 2021 national budget.
In October 2022, a proposed peaceful March by youths in remembrance of the 2020 Lekki tollgate shooting was met with massive deployment of police and military might in violation of the citizens’ constitutional rights to freedom of expression and of assembly.
The vengeful harassment of some of the prominent #EndSARS voices by freezing their accounts and seizing their passports, and the continued harassment of citizens by police officers suggest that no lessons have been learnt. The police officers, soldiers, and other security personnel identified as the culprits in these abuses should be prosecuted.
Civil society, youth organisations and the families of victims should not relent until justice is done. The Lagos government should come clean and seek reconciliation.