By Terhemba Daka, Nkechi Onyedika-Ugoeze, Ernest Nzor, Ngozi Egenuka and Waliat Musa
• Blinken: We insist on accountability, addressing victims’ grievances
• Nigeria must be redesignated on religious violators’ list, U.S. agency kicks
• FG, Oyebode, Oseni, HURIWA react to removal from religious freedom blacklist
Three days after a leaked report of the Lagos State #EndSARS judicial panel went viral, which indicted the nation’s security forces of opening fire on the assembly of unarmed protesters and killing some citizens, President Muhammadu Buhari, yesterday broke his silence when he told the visiting United States Secretary of State, Antony Blinken, that his government would allow the system to exhaust itself, and will, therefore, wait for pronouncements from state governments, which set up panels to probe police brutality in the country.
The Special Adviser to the President on Media and Publicity, Femi Adesina, disclosed this in a statement, after President Buhari received Blinken at the State House, Abuja.
Up till last month during the one year commemoration of the #EndSARS protest, the Federal Government had insistently denied that unarmed protesters were killed at the tollgate on October 20, 2020, with the Minister of Information, Mr. Lai Mohammed, describing the incident as a “massacre without bodies.”
But speaking yesterday, the President said: “So many state governments are involved, and have given different terms of reference to the probe panels. We at the Federal have to wait for the steps taken by the states, and we have to allow the system to work. We can’t impose ideas on them. Federal Government has to wait for the reaction of the states.”
The Lagos State government, reacting to the controversies that greeted the leaked report, on Wednesday, had called for restrain while a committee it set up develops a White Paper on the report in two weeks to advise government on the next line of action.
On the development of democratic ethos, the President said Nigeria has adopted the American model, “hook, line, and sinker, with its term limits. Those who have attempted to breach it were disappointed, if not disgraced.”
In his remarks, Blinken, who had held a virtual meeting with the President earlier in the year, said jocularly that it was now good to see him “mask to mask, hoping that we will soon see face to face.”
He appreciated the contributions of President Buhari to the protection of the climate, particularly, his presence and contributions at the recent COP26 climate conference held in Glasgow, Scotland.
Blinken said America and Nigeria have diverse challenges, but a common denominator is security, and hoped for better partnerships, “so that the bad guys won’t get the good guys.”
He also described the report of the EndSARS probe panel as “democracy in action,” stressing that America equally had its own police brutality, and hoping that necessary reforms would be made.
Addressing a joint press conference later with the Minister of Foreign Affairs, Geoffrey Onyeama, the US Secretary of State insisted that the responses by Lagos State and the Federal Government regarding the #EndSARS reports must show accountability, while the grievances of victims should also be looked into.
Blinken said: “We are working with Nigeria to address security challenges, including those posed by Boko Haram, ISIS West Africa (ISWAP) and other terrorist and extremist groups.
“In meetings with the President and the Vice President, we discussed the importance of a comprehensive approach that builds effective security forces that addresses the underlying drivers of extremism and respects Nigerians basic human rights.
“The United States is committed to helping Nigeria do that by continuing to invest in our security partnership, and the institutions that strengthen the rule of law, and that hold accountable those who commit human rights abuses, corruption and other acts that harm the Nigerian people. By tackling these issues, we can help to address some of the problems that have been key drivers of insecurity.
“To that end, let me say that we welcome the conclusion of the investigation by the independent inquiry established by the Lagos State government to look into the events that took place at Lekki Tollgate in October 20, 2020, and this, of course, was amidst the #EndSARS protest, including the killings and other alleged abuses by the security forces.
“We anticipate and look to the state and the Federal Government’s response to the findings, and expect those to include steps that ensure accountability and address the grievances of the victims and their families.”
MEANWHILE, a petition by Reno Omokri, on the change.org platform, to have President Buhari and his government prosecuted over alleged killing of unarmed youths at Lekki Toll Gate, Lagos, has received over 50,000 signatures in less than 24 hours.
In a statement, Omokri said: “Recall that the Lagos Judicial Panel of Inquiry indicted the army and police in a report. The petitioners are calling on the International Criminal Court (ICC) to prosecute all those indicted. At 50,000 signatures, the petition is the first petition of Nigerian origin to hit that number in less than a day, showing the support of the Nigerian public to bring justice to those indicted. This petition is, therefore, directed at ICC to set machinery in motion for the trial of those indicted in the same way that former Liberian President, Charles Taylor, was tried and convicted.”
REACTING to the recent removal of Nigeria from the watchlist of countries violating religious freedom, which Blinken said was “based on facts,” President Buhari expressed the country’s appreciation, noting that there was freedom of worship in Nigeria, and no one is discriminated against based on his or her faith.
The President equally appreciated the United States for allowing Nigeria to procure military hardware to fight terrorism in the country, and for the training given to the Nigerian military.
“It is helping us to stabilise the situation in the Northeast, and we have made a lot of progress since 2015. We are doing a lot on security, and the people involved appreciate our efforts,” he said.
Also, in a statement yesterday, the Minister of Information and Culture, Alhaji Lai Mohammed, commended the United States for removing Nigeria from its list of countries with religious freedom concerns, calling the decision fair and just as the country does not engage in any religious freedom violation.
Countries on the blacklist are Burma, China, Eritrea, Iran, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, Pakistan, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Tajikistan, and Turkmenistan. They are categorised as Countries of Particular Concern (CPC) for having engaged in or tolerated “systematic, ongoing, and egregious violations of religious freedom.”
But the US Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) has said it finds it unexplainable that the US Department of State did not re-designate Nigeria as CPC and treated it as a country with no severe religious freedom violations. Recall that the U.S. had in 2020 placed Nigeria and six other countries on its special watch list of states that had engaged in or tolerated the severe violation of religious freedom.
According to USCIRF, the US State Department treated Nigeria as a country with no severe religious freedom violations, a development the agency kicked against.
“USCIRF is disappointed that the State Department did not adopt our recommendations in designating the countries that are the worst violators of religious freedom.
“While the State Department took steps forward on some designations, USCIRF is especially displeased with the removal of Nigeria from its CPC designation, where it was rightfully placed last year, as well as the omission of India, Syria, and Vietnam. We urge the State Department to reconsider its designations based on facts presented in its own reporting,” said USCIRF Chair, Nadine Maenza.
PROFESSOR of International Law and Jurisprudence, Akin Oyebode, said Blinken’s visit underscores the second order position occupied by Africa and Nigeria in the scheme of things globally in the thinking of the Americans. He pointed out that President Biden would have been a better person to visit Nigeria or Africa, if he had regarded the bilateral relationship between the U.S. and Africa highly.
He said: “It is bad enough that President Biden has not thought it fit to come over himself and dispatching the Secretary of State to engage African Heads of State bespeaks the asymmetrical relationship between the U.S. and Africa.”
Head of Department, Politics and International Relations, Lead City University, Dr. Tunde Oseni, noted that the move to delist Nigeria from countries of religious violations is a diplomatic scorecard for the nation as the action was as a result of Nigeria ticking the boxes in U.S. list of criteria. He, however, said there is the possibility that the news may be met with surprise and resistance by citizens due to lingering signs of terrorism and insecurity in the country.
According to him, Nigeria is not a terrorist country but a terrorised one. “There is a difference. A country that supports terrorism is a terrorist country, a country that suffers from terrorism by non-state actors like Boko Haram can only be characterised as a terrorised country.
“The government of Nigeria does not officially support terrorism. I think Nigeria still has a level of freedom in terms of the religions practiced because its citizens are not boxed into a corner,” Oseni said.
On Blinken’s visit, he stated that there are always advantageous reasons behind such visits, especially because the U.S. is one of the most powerful nations in the world. He called on the government to have a prepared list to contribute adequately to the outcome of the visit.
For international affairs lecturer, Prof. Alaba Ogunsanwo, the U.S. visit would be used to promote America’s interest in Africa. The Human Rights Writers Association of Nigeria (HURIWA) has carpeted the U.S. for delisting Nigeria. HURIWA, in a statement issued in Abuja by its National Coordinator, Comrade Emmanuel Onwubiko, said President Buhari has concentrated the powers of internal security to only members of Hausa/Fulani Muslims even when Nigeria is a plural democracy with multiplicity of ethnicities and religions.
HURIWA said it was wrong for United States to adopt this provocative decision even when hundreds of thousands of Christians in Northern Nigeria are still facing genocides by Muslim Fulani armed militia supported by officials working inside the administration. The rights group asked the U.S. to change the decision immediately.