The proceedings at the Lagos Judicial Panel of Inquiry degenerated into a shouting match Saturday after panel members and lawyers disagreed loudly over the reopening of the Lekki Toll plaza.
Doris Okuwobi, the panel chairperson, accompanied by other four members of the panel sat on Saturday to rule over an application for the repossession of the Lekki Toll plaza by the Lekki Concession Company.
The company, on four different occasions, made an application before the panel to allow it repossess the toll plaza in order to evaluate damages caused during the #EndSARS protest and make insurance claims.
During one of the applications on January 5, Mrs Okuwobi said the government has paid a forensic expert to examine the scene of the Lekki shooting and LCC needs to await to the report of the forensic examination.
“Forensic evidence is most needed in this inquiry,” Mrs Okuwobi said.
The matter was adjourned till February 6 as the forensic report was to be ready on February 2.
Journalists, lawyers, civil society groups, and observers were in attendance on Saturday to hear the report of the forensic examination on the Lekki shooting incident.
The LCC was also on the list to proceed with the application to repossess the toll plaza.
The judge made no comment on the forensic report, while the LCC was allowed to proceed with its application.
Making the application, Rotimi Seriki, the counsel for the LCC said the application to repossess the toll plaza has been pending before the panel and it is necessary to reopen for repairs and insurance claims.
The application generated arguments from other counsels, with Adeshina Ogunlana, counsel to some of the #EndSARS protesters, vehemently opposing the application to reopen the Lekki Tollgate.
Mr Ogunlana said the panel should be in control of the Lekki Tollgate until all matters relating to the Lekki shooting incident of October 20, 2020, are completed at the panel.
Giving her ruling on the matter, Mrs Okuwobi, a retired judge, said the forensic report is ready and the panel is satisfied “but would not wait till the termination of the petitions before it hands over control of Lekki to LCC”.
“To put the record straight, it is the jurisdiction of this panel to investigate the incident of October 2020 and make recommendations is the premise by which the panel must comply with jurisdiction to look into the Lekki case.
“The Lekki toll plaza is considered the seat of event of that day. This panel has given ample opportunity to all petitioners to access the toll plaza with the view to considering the investigation.”
Mrs Okuwobi said the panel and several other counsels visited the panel and counsels in their arguments was that the control of the plaza be under the panel until it concluded its assignment.
“The panel in its ruling had decided that it will not take that ground and will only maintain control until its forensic expert concludes his report.
“The report is ready as the panel has been satisfied and the assurances from the forensic team that it will no longer require any visit to the plaza. The panel has decided that it will not await the termination of the petitioners before it hands over control of Lekki to LCC.
“To say that its wreckage be preserved as evidence beats my imagination. Whatever evidence any interested person decides to have must have been taken before now as the petitioners do not have any review before the panel to restrain the use of the toll plaza,” the judge said.
Mrs Okuwobi said “justice is a double-edged sword both for the petitioners and the LCC and the company was unfortunate to have its place of business vandalised during the protest.”.
“It will be foolhardy for any reasonable petitioner to say the toll plaza be closed for the lifetime of the assignment of the panel. The hearing of petitions of victims is not be seen to be tied to the closure of the plaza indefinitely. It is unheard off that a crime scene of this nature would be closed.
“We see a lot of sentiments going on in this whole matter of repossession of the tollgate 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,” she said.
Mrs Okuwobi said the LCC has every right to repossess the toll plaza, their place of business, as they have interest in that place.
“The speculations that the doctors that testified from Reddington of bullets removed from victims would not take any party back to the toll plaza. We should all be good citizens of the state and not for any consideration take a short route to justice.
“Upon all said, I thereby give an order for LCC to repossess the tollgate which has been under the control of the panel upon indication given that the forensic analysis of the said toll plaza are to be concluded. The order made for repossession is for evaluation of the plaza by LCC insurers, renovation and total control.”
Panel members kick
After the panel’s chair ruling, a drama ensued with Ebun Adegboruwa, a Senior Advocate of Nigeria (SAN) and member of the panel, led three other members to oppose the ruling of the judge.
Mr Adegboruwa, Patience Udoh (lawyer and human rights activist) and the two representatives of the youth, Rinuola Oduola and Temitope Majekodunmi, said the decision of the judge and other members of the panel does not represent theirs.
The group, taking an opposite stance from the majority, questioned the decision of the judge to reopen the tollgate, which has not been operational since October 20, last year, when armed soldiers opened fire on peaceful protesters at the toll plaza.
Giving his dissenting view, Mr Adegboruwa said the takeover of the plaza at this time “is hasty, premature and will overreach the work and eventual recommendations of the panel.”
“Investigation by the panel over the Lekki Tollgate incident is still ongoing, it will therefore be premature to hand over the plaza that is still subject of panel’s investigation and proceedings, to LCC,” he said.
Mr Adegboruwa said a takeover of the plazas by LCC will be prejudicial to the ultimate findings of the panel.
“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 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,” he said.
The senior lawyer added that the panel is yet to receive the full details of the forensic report, which is the basis of LCC’s case.
“The final report of the Ppnel will lose credibility, if ever before it is submitted the subject matter of its investigation and proceedings, is already compromised,” he submitted.
Ms Udoh, another member of the dissenting group, said the issue of the reopening of Lekki Toll plaza should await the final report of the forensic expert.
‘Our position not reflected’
Presenting their dissenting ruling on reopening, the youth representatives, Messrs Oduala and Majekodunmi, in a statement, said the Lekki Toll plaza should remain shut and under the purview of the panel until full investigations and hearings are concluded.
“As indicated by the provisions of the Panel’s Rules 2020 – Rule 6(1&2), every member of the Panel has a legal duty to provide written contributions to any report to be issued in response to any application or matter brought before the Ppnel.
“We have made efforts to communicate our position on the application by LCC to take repossession of the Lekki Toll Gate to the Chairlady as required by the Rules of the Panel but our dissent was not reflected in the ruling,” the statement partly reads.
The representatives further said, “it is important to ensure there is a full and thorough investigation into the Lekki Tollgate incidence to ensure justice for all victims and every one found culpable is recommended for appropriate action under the law.”
Saturday proceedings ended with a rowdy session as counsels continued to shout at each other without giving room for dialogue.
The federal government later mandated state governments to set up panels of enquiry across the states to take petitions against alleged police brutality.
The Lagos panel is currently investigating not only police brutality but the shooting.
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