The Lagos State Judicial Panel probing the Lekki Toll Gate incident of last October 20, Saturday warned the army of the consequences of its continued failure to honour summons compelling its appearance.
Panel chairman Justice Doris Okuwobi said the army would not be able to complain of fair hearing denial after the panel submits its findings to the government.
The judge emeritus gave the advice following the third time in a row that the army’s 81 Division would fail to make an appearance through its officers or through a counsel that once represented it, Mr Akinlolu Kehinde SAN.
At the last two sittings on December 12 and January 8, further hearing in the case involving the army’s role at the Lekki shootings was stalled following the absence of two key military officers.
Justice Okuwobi issued fresh summons to the concerned officers on January 12, copied the Chief of Army Staff (COAS) General Tukur Buratai, and adjourned further proceedings till yesterday.
The officers are a Lieutenant Colonel of the 81 Division, S.O Bello, who led the battalion involved in the Lekki shooting, and Godwin Umelo, the General Officer Commanding (GOC) of 81 Division.
Their invitation followed the testimony of the Commander of 81 Division, Brigadier-General Ibrahim Taiwo, debunking claims that soldiers shot #EndSARS protesters with live bullets during the operation.
Bello was the Commanding Officer of the 65 Batallion, which was at the toll gate on the evening of October 20.
Petitioners at the tribunal have alleged that soldiers fired live bullets at peaceful protesters, killing and injuring several, contrary to the army and the federal government’s claim that only blanks were fired in the air to disperse stone throwers.
At the commencement of Saturday’s proceedings, the army’s case was first on the cause list, but neither the summoned officers nor their counsel were available.
The panel’s counsel, Jonathan Ogunsanya, gave an update on the status of the summons to the officers. He said Bello and Omelo had been served via courier.
He said: “We sent it to Godwin Umelo, at the General Office, 81 Division, Lagos and Ogun State of the Nigerian Army, Victoria Island. it was sent by way of DHL.
“We also spoke to the lead counsel on record for the Nigerian Army, A.T. Kehinde SAN, informing the learned Silk of the proceedings and he said we should serve the Army directly which we did,” he said.
Counsel to some of the alleged victims of Lekki, Adeshina Ogunlana, urged the panel to invite the army’s counsel to explain the military’s absence.
“It behoves on counsel (Mr Kehinde) to come and explain before this honourable court or give explanation of the situation of the failure of his clients to responding to the summons of the panel.
“If the Military is dodging, the gentleman lawyer must not be allowed to dodge. He should come back before this panel and give explanation,” Ogunlana said.
Another counsel, Olumide Fusika, SAN, aligned himself with Mr Ogunlana that a summons should be served on Mr Kehinde. He further observed that apart from the Lekki Toll Gate petition, Kehinde was also counsel in other petitions.
He advised that all petitions against the Army should be compiled and served on the military and when the petitions come up, the officers are expected to appear.
Olumide-Fusika said: “Mr Kehinde already filed witness statement before the panel, maybe three or four. When Colonel Taiwo gave his evidence, he then decided that he was not going to call the other persons he filed for. Apparently because he feels this is a court.
He is entitled to say he doesn’t want to call them, but the tribunal is entitled to. We need this person to come, even though you are not interested, we need them to come to the tribunal.
Olukayode Enitan, the counsel holding brief for the Lagos State Government also aligned himself with the positions of Olumide-Fusika and Adesina.
Ruling on their submissions, Mrs Okuwobi lamented that the army’s non-appearance was delaying for the panel’s proceeding.
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.
“I must reiterate and state that this is a fact-finding panel and not a regular court where counsels can decide the choice of witnesses they want to present in their case.”
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.
“The Nigerian Army has been magnanimous in appearing before the panel, they should be encouraged to fulfill all righteousness by presenting their version of the incident of October 20 to refute the claims now made against them,” she said.
She warned that if the Army does not present its defence, the cases of the petitioners will be uncontested.
The judge adjourned till January 30 for the appearance of the Army and their legal counsel.