The Nigerian Army has withdrawn participation from the Lagos State Judicial Panel of Enquiry and Restitution for Victims of SARS related abuses and the October 20 Lekki Toll Gate ‘shootings’.
A former member of its team of counsel to the panel, Mr S.N Agweh, said the Army had disbanded the team.
The team was headed by a Senior Advocate of Nigeria (SAN), Mr Akinlolu Kehinde.
The Army, after making a few appearances, has shunned repeated summons for several of its officers, including summons sent by the panel through former Chief of Army Staff (COAS), Gen Tukur Buratai.
The officers are a Lieutenant Colonel of the 81 Division, S.O Bello, who was the Commanding Officer of the 65 Batallion, which was at the Lekki Toll Gate on October 20, and Godwin Umelo, the General Officer Commanding (GOC) of 81 Division.
Their invitation followed the testimony of the Commander of 81 Division, Major-General Ibrahim Taiwo, debunking claims that soldiers shot #EndSARS protesters with live bullets during the operation.
Petitioners at the tribunal have alleged that soldiers fired live bullets at peaceful protesters, killing and injuring several, contrary to the Army’s claim that only blanks were fired in the air to disperse stone throwers.
The hearing of proceedings involving the Army have been stalled as neither the officers nor their counsel were present.
The last hearing on January 23 was the third time in a row, and the panel chairman, Judge emeritus Dorris Okuwobi warned of the consequences of the military’s failure to honour the summons.
Justice Okuwobi said the army would not be able to complain of fair hearing denial after the panel submits its findings to the government.
She said: “The difficulties the panel now experiences is having Mr Kehinde explain to the panel why those summoned by the panel are not attending proceeding; this is creating undue delay in the investigation of the Lekki event of October 20, 2020.
“In that respect, it is hereby ordered that the counsel for the panel shall issue a letter to learned Silk, Mr A.T Kehinde, Senior Advocate of Nigeria, to appear before the panel at the next adjourned date to explain why he would not conclude the case of the Nigerian Army.”
Mrs. Okuwobi said it behoved on Kehinde to assist the panel in achieving the task of investigating the Lekki shooting incident to avoid issues of denial of fair hearing that might arise when the panel’s report is submitted to the government.
But appearing on the SANs’ behalf, Agweh said Kehinde had already written to the panel to explain why he was no longer appearing at the panel.
He spoke just after a petition involving Reddington Hospital’s role in providing medical care for injured #EndSARS protesters was called.
Agweh said: “The letter written by Kehinde, dated 20th January, which was already sent to this panel, explains it all, that the team of legal practitioners led by Kehinde, SAN, who represented the Nigerian Army on this panel, based on the summons issued by this panel on the 28th day of October, 2020, that team has been disbanded by the Nigerian Army.
“Our job finished; I think, on 21st of November, and so, we do not have any further mandate to represent the Army in any subsequent proceedings.
“So, it is not a matter of disrespect that that team is no longer appearing here. In short, when this case was called, I didn’t even know the Nigerian Army was involved in it, because as at that time, these cases were not before this tribunal. We had finished our business before these cases came up.”
Following arguments by counsel, panel chair Justice Doris Okuwobi ruled that all five petitions slated for Saturday involving the Army be adjourned till February 27, and fresh summons be sent to officers named as respondents in the cases.