Alhaji Lai Mohammed, Minister of Information and Culture

EndSARS report: ‘We are vindicated’– CNN, asks Lai Mohammed to apologise ‘if he has any integrity left’

[By VICTOR NZE]

United States-based Cable News Network (CNN) has said that the report of the Lagos Judicial Panel of Inquiry (JPI) on #EndSARS submitted to the State Government, Monday, has vindicated the organisation on its earlier stand that there was a massacre of peaceful protesters by state security agents on October 20, 2020.

Alhaji Lai Mohammed, Minister of Information and Culture

To this end, the media organization has called on Nigeria’s Minister of Information and Culture, Alhaji Lai Mohammed to put aside his pride and tender an unreserved apology on behalf of the federal Government to it for falsely accusing the news platform of propagating ‘fake news.’

Sequel to the Lekki Toll gate shooting incident in which troops attached to the Nigerian Army reportedly opened fire on peaceful protesters who had converged on the location to demand an end to abuses by operatives of the now-disbanded Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS) of the Nigeria Police, on October 20, last year, Alhaji Mohammed was engaged in a running verbal battle with the CNN over claims by the news group on casualties recorded at the scene of the protest.

Mohammed had insistently claimed that there was no casualty.

In submitting report, the panel set up by the Lagos State Government clearly established that the Nigerian Army personnel fired live ammunition at peaceful protesters at the Lekki Tollgate on October 20, last year.

The panel chaired by Justice Doris Okuwobi submitted two reports to Mr Sanwo-Olu on Monday at the Lagos House, Ikeja.

The two reports submitted by the Panel to Lagos State Government are on investigation on petitions on several abuses and killings by the Nigerian Police, especially the disbanded Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS) and the October 20, 2020 Lekki Toll Gate shootings during the EndSARS protests hijacked by hoodlums.

The panel in its reports also found the security operatives culpable in the shooting incident on account of the ‘deliberate absence of officers of the Nigerian Army who were present at the Lekki Toll Gate and who were summoned by the Panel was a calculated attempt to conceal material evidence from the Panel.’

The panel was inaugurated on October 19, 2020, to look into complaints of citizens against human rights abuses by the police, on the heels of the outrage that trailed the shooting of peaceful protesters who had converged on the Lekki Toll Gate to protest highhanded and professional misconduct of security operatives attached to the now-disbanded Special Anti- Robbery Squad (SARS) Unit of the Nigeria Police.

Terms of Reference of the Panel was expanded to cover that Lekki shooting incident.

The Panel sat for well over one year and took testimonies of petitioners, witnesses, experts and lawyers.

The panel listed 48 names as casualties of the incident.

According to the report, 9 protesters were confirmed dead, while four were presumed dead, even as about 20 sustained gunshot injuries, while 13 others were assaulted by the military.

Reacting to the report legal counsel to United States-based Cable News Network (CNN) in Nigeria, Olumide Babalola, asked Mohammed to apologise to the media platform ‘if he has any integrity left’ for branding it a fake news outfit.

In a statement, Tuesday, Babalola said the Lagos State Judicial Panel of Inquiry on Restitution for Victims of SARS Related Abuses and other matters report had vindicated the CNN’s investigative report, titled, ‘How a bloody night of bullets and brutality quashed a young protest movement’.

“Alhaji Lai Mohammed should eschew his pride and apologise to the CNN if he has any integrity left.

“He has consistently claimed that the CNN’s report of massacre was false, but the panel has vindicated the CNN’s position on the gruesome and wanton killings at the Lekki Tollgate.

“Without necessarily saying more on this, since the same Minister had earlier called on the CNN to apologise for fake news, which has now been quasi-judicially proved to be true, one would think the honourable thing for Alhaji Mohammed to do, as an elder statesman and learned gentleman, is to apologise to the CNN especially.

“However, as we continue to wait on the Minister and the Federal Government’s next move, I sympathise with families of all the victims of Lekki massacre, while we pray for the souls of the departed and hope the government implements the report in full.

“In the light of the report by the judicial panel, Mohammed ought to eat the humble pie and apologise to the CNN,” Babalola said.

Similarly, CNN reporter, Katie Polglase said while the report has vindicated the organization, it has also done the same to the ‘young people of the #EndSARS movement,’ who had been accused of lying and falsifying the facts.

Polglase who took to her verified Twitter handle to react to the news, also accused the Nigerian government for attacking its evidence and calling them fake news, as she noted that their report was mentioned 37 times in the Lagos judicial panel’s report.

“Huge news out of #Nigeria: the judicial panel concluded #Lekkitollgate was indeed a massacre and that authorities covered up. It vindicates not only CNN’s reporting o the massacre but more importantly, the young people of the #EndSARS movement,” her tweet read.

It would be recalled that while reacting to the shooting incident of October 20, 2020, CNN had debunked Federal Government’s  denial of casualties, with a series of verified footage from numerous sources including a satellite, and it released the testimonies of survivors from the shooting of that night as well as accounts from family members of victims.

“What happened on October 20, and into the early hours of October 21, at the eight-lane Lekki toll gate — a key piece of Lagos’ road network — has stunned the country.

“The protesters who were present have told CNN it was a ‘massacre’ with multiple people killed and dozens wounded. But local authorities have downplayed that account.

“Lagos State Governor Babajide Sanwo-Olu admitted to CNN that footage showed uniformed soldiers firing on peaceful protesters but claimed only two demonstrators were killed. But, he then said there was ‘not a scratch of blood’ at the toll gate when he visited. The governor said no families had approached authorities saying they were missing relatives.

“In the immediate aftermath of the shooting, the army denied any involvement, describing reports of the incident as ‘fake news,’ before backtracking and saying that soldiers were present but fired their weapons in the air and used blanks, not live rounds.

“CNN’s calls to the Nigerian army have not been returned. But on November 14, during a judicial inquiry into the shooting, army representative Brigadier Ahmed Taiwo said: “There’s no way officers and men will kill their brothers and sisters. I repeat no way. We have those who constantly seek to drive a wedge between us and between the citizens of Nigeria…”

“The army also said at the hearing that it was the governor who called soldiers to the scene because the police were overrun. The governor has denied this, saying he does not have the authority to call in the army. The army has continued to restate that they did not fire live rounds.

“But an investigation by CNN into the disputed events has cast doubt on authorities’ shifting and changing statements.

“Evidence of bullet casings from the scene matched those used by the Nigerian army when shooting live rounds, according to current and former Nigerian military officials. Verified video footage — using timestamps and data from the video files — shows soldiers who appear to be shooting in the direction of protesters. And accounts from eyewitnesses establish that after the army withdrew, a second round of shooting happened later in the evening,” the CNN report read.

However, Minister of Information and Culture, Alhaji Lai Mohammed, thereafter, threatened to sanction the CNN, even as he maintained that Federal Government stands on its earlier position that no lives were lost in the shooting incident at the Lekki Toll Gate when soldiers confronted peaceful protesters who were demanding an end to the activities of the Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS) of the Nigeria police.

However, a CNN report detailed evidence pointing to the contrary which showed victims recounting their experiences on the evening of Tuesday, October 20, 2020, in addition to showing pictures of dead protesters killed by live ammunition fired by the soldiers.

Mohammed dismissed the CNN investigation as ‘fake news and misinformation,’ as he repeatedly denied the military used live rounds against protesters.

“Like everyone else, I watched the CNN report. I must tell you that it reinforces the disinformation that is going around, and it is blatantly irresponsible and a poor piece of journalistic work by a reputable international news organization,” Mohammed said.

“This is very serious and CNN should be sanctioned for that. The military did not shoot at the protesters at the toll gate but fired blank ammunitions into the air,’ Mohammed insisted, as he blamed looters for the violence which broke out on the night of October 20.

“Six soldiers and 37 policemen were killed all over the country during the crisis.

“As I said earlier, what started as a peaceful protest against police brutality quickly degenerated into incredible violence despite an immediate response to the demands by the government.

“While we await the Judicial Panel in Lagos to unravel what transpired at the Lekki toll gate, what we can say, based on testimonies available in the public space, is that the world may have just witnessed, for the very first time ever, a massacre without bodies,” he added.

However, responding to the minister’s claims, CNN said it stands by its investigation.

“Our reporting was carefully and meticulously researched, and we stand by it,” the spokesperson said via email.

“The report was based on testimony from dozens of witnesses, and photos and video obtained and geolocated by CNN. It painted a picture of how members of the Nigerian army and the police shot at the crowd, killing at least one person and wounding dozens more,” a company spokesperson said.

“CNN verified photos and videos acquired from multiple eyewitnesses and protesters using timestamps and other data from the video files. Video footage shows soldiers who appear to be shooting in the direction of protesters. And accounts from eyewitnesses established that after the army withdrew, a second round of shooting happened later in the evening.

“Prior to publishing the report, CNN tried multiple times to elicit comment from the Nigerian army and police. A Lagos State police spokesman declined to comment because of an ongoing investigation. While a statement from the Lagos State government said that there would be no comment while a judicial tribunal was underway.

“CNN also included comments from army representative Brigadier Ahmed Taiwo, testifying before the tribunal. He denied that soldiers would shoot at Nigerian citizens.

“The investigation was broadcast and published on Wednesday (November) and cast doubt on Nigerian authorities’ shifting and changing statements over what happened at the protest at the Lekki toll gate in Lagos.

“Nigerian authorities claimed that CNN relied heavily on unreliable and possibly doctored videos as well as information sources from questionable sources to reach these conclusions. He did not provide any evidence the videos were doctored,” the statement by the media group said.

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