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#EndSars Protest: US send powerful message to Nigeria government

The US has once again warned that if Nigeria fails to defend human rights, it will stop providing military aid to the country.

When the white paper on the Lagos State Judicial Panel of Inquiry on Restitution for Victims of SARS Related Abuses and Other Matters is ready, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken, who issued the warning, also urged the federal and Lagos State governments to sanction any individuals found to have violated human rights during the #EndSARS protests in October 2020, when the white paper on the Lagos State Judicial Panel of Inquiry on Restitution for Victims of SARS Related Abuses

He warned that if the rights violations continued, the US government would invoke the Leahy Law to deny Nigeria access to hardware, including as arms and other military equipment, needed to combat terrorism and other crimes.

On Monday, an eight-member panel chaired by retired Justice Doris Okuwobi delivered a 309-page report to Lagos State Governor Babajide Sanwo-Olu, accusing troops and police of killing peaceful protestors at the Lekki toll gate on October 20, 2020.

The panel report called the Lekki toll gate incident a massacre, claiming that at least nine people were killed by security agents on the spot and that 48 people were injured, including 22 demonstrators who were shot and 15 others who were allegedly beaten by military and police.

Blinken said America was anticipating the response of the federal and Lagos state governments to the panel’s conclusions during a meeting with President Muhammadu Buhari (retd.) on Thursday in Aso Rock, Abuja.

Blinken visited with civil society representatives in Abuja on Friday, emphasizing the US desire for justice.

Blinken encouraged Nigeria to bring individuals accused by the panel report to justice in an interview with CNN, the transcript of which was made available by the US Department of State.

He stated that if Nigeria fails to defend human rights, the US may invoke the Leahy Law, which prohibits the US from providing military aid to the country.

The Leahy Law is an American human rights law that forbids the US government from providing military aid to foreign security forces who commit human rights violations without repercussions.

When asked if the US had altered its mind in light of the panel’s assessment during the CNN interview, Blinken stated he was waiting for the entire report to be released by the Lagos State Government.

He, on the other hand, argued that the most essential thing was to ensure that those found guilty were subjected to the full force of the law.

He said, “But a couple of things are really important. As I said, the report itself, done by the state government, but then once it’s out, for there to actually be action on the basis of the report, action as necessary by the states, action by the Federal Government, and action in the sense of two things.

“First, making sure that based on what is documented to have happened, it won’t happen again – so there may be reforms that are necessary – and building or rebuilding trust between the citizens and the security services, between citizens and the state. That is an obligation of both the state government and the Federal Government.

“Second is accountability. If there are individuals that – as it emerges from this report – who are responsible for committing abuses, there has to be accountability in terms of those individuals. That too is vital to rebuilding trust between citizens and the state and the security services.”

On what the US would do if human rights abuses continued, he responded, “And, of course, we also have laws in place – the Leahy laws, for example – that make sure that if there are units that have committed abuses, we’re not going to provide equipment to those units.”

When asked pointedly if the Leahy law would be imposed on Nigeria, the Secretary of State responded, “Well, we look in any instance if – and if there are credible allegations that prove, that we believe meet the standard of the law, yes, of course, we’ll apply the law.”

A petition signed by rights organizations such as Amnesty International led the US Congress to call for a halt to arms supplies to Nigeria.

When asked by CNN if the US government will give in to congressional pressure to put an arms embargo on Nigeria in the wake of repeated allegations of human rights violations, Blinken answered it would depend on Nigeria’s response.

Blinken stated, “If there is genuine transparency, accountability and change that follows from these incidents and from these abuses, I think that’s very important not only to our administration, it’s important to Congress in making judgments about continuing to provide assistance to the security forces.”

He explained that the assistance being given to the Nigerian military was not only hardware but training to tackle terrorism and criminal activities.

Blinken said, “But the assistance itself is not just the hardware that we might provide – airplanes or helicopters – it’s the software, the human software. Because one of the things that we’re doing is making sure that as we’re providing equipment to deal with profound security challenges that are faced here in Nigeria – terrorism, criminal activity, other violence – that those who will be using the equipment are trained in a way that makes sure that they are doing it to avoid hurting the good guys even as they’re going after the bad guys, to make sure that the laws of armed conflict are fully in mind. And that if they make mistakes, they’re corrected and they’re brought to light immediately. All of that’s very important. And, of course, we also have laws in place – the Leahy laws, for example – that make sure that if there are units that are – that have committed abuses, we’re not going to provide equipment to those units.”

In its report, the judicial panel chastised the state government for inviting the army to disperse peaceful #EndSARS demonstrators on October 20, 2020, at the Lekki toll gate.

The panel noted that the violence seen in other parts of the state did not occur at the Lekki toll gate, and that the government had no reason to be concerned about sending soldiers armed with lethal weapons to disperse peaceful demonstrators at the toll gate.

The report stated, “The panel finds that although the army gave copious evidence of general commotion, violence and mayhem in other locations in Lagos State other than Lekki toll gate, there is no justification behind the deployment of its soldiers and officers to Lekki toll gate in particular, when there was no violence reported there instead of the other critical areas (for example in places like Orile, Mushin etc), which indeed escalated the violence. The deployment of the army to Lekki toll gate on 20/10/2020, in the absence of any reported violence, was totally unwarranted.”

Brig.-Gen. A. I. Taiwo, Commander, 81 Military Intelligence Brigade, Nigerian Army, Victoria Island, confirmed that the governor called the Chief of Army Staff and the GOC 81 Division to request assistance because the police were overwhelmed.

The panel did emphasize, however, that the police’s ineffectiveness could not be used to justify the army’s invitation and deployment at the Lekki toll gate on that date, especially since the government had already begun a dialogue with the protesters.

Meanwhile, Mr Babatunde Fashanu, a Senior Advocate of Nigeria, has expressed his delight that the panel has produced a report that reveals the truth regarding the Lekki toll gate event.

Abiodun Owonikoko (SAN), counsel for the Lagos State Government before the panel, had criticized the panel’s findings, claiming that it had at least 40 inconsistencies.

However, Fashanu, who spoke with one of our correspondents, said the panel deserved praise for being brave rather than hiding the truth.

The SAN said, “My expectations, and indeed, those of many, from antecedents, were that the panel, having been set up by the government to whom it would submit its report, would be a conduit for a cover-up of the government’s atrocities at the Lekki Toll Gate.

“But no, the panel, headed by retired Justice Doris Okuwobi, has shown through this report that it is unbiased and worked as an independent body. It deserves kudos and accolades for that especially in the climate of sycophancy and impunity that presently pervades the country. Recognising that there was a ‘massacre’ at the Lekki Toll Gate on October 20, 2020, listing out the names of victims, including many that were killed or missing, presumed dead, and laying the blame at the feet of the army and police who shot at unarmed peaceful and unarmed protesters while removing corpses of the killed and cleaning up evidence goes in the direct opposite of accounts of the incident by the government especially the Federal Government through its mouthpiece, Minister of Information, Lai Mohammed.”

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