Court Sets July 8 for Judgment in MRA’s Suit Against Police Commissioner over Killing of Journalist

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Mr. Charles Musa, MRA’s Counsel

A Federal High Court in Lagos presided over by Justice Ayokunle Olayinka Faji has fixed July 8, 2024, for judgment in a legal action initiated by Media Rights Agenda (MRA) against the Lagos State Commissioner of Police (COP) over the death of Mr. Pelumi Onifade, a reporter with Gboah TV, an online television channel, during his coverage of the #ENDSARS protests in October 2020.

The legal action stemmed from the tragic demise of Mr. Onifade, a 20-year-old second-year student in the Department of History at Tai Solarin University of Education in Ijebu-Ode, Ogun State, who served as an intern reporter with Gboah TV, a privately owned television station.

While covering the #ENDSARS protests in Lagos on October 24, 2020, he was shot by policemen from the Lagos State Task Force on Environmental and Other Special Offences. Subsequently, he was apprehended while bleeding and later found dead in police custody on October 30, 2020. His family eventually located his body at the Ikorodu General Hospital morgue in Lagos following notification by the police of a deceased individual deposited there.

Consequently, MRA initiated legal proceedings at the Federal High Court seeking an order for the Lagos State Government and police authorities to conduct an unbiased and independent investigation into the circumstances surrounding Mr. Onifade’s demise. The lawsuit also aims to compel the identification and prosecution of those responsible for his death.

Mr. Charles Musa, a Lagos-based lawyer, initiated the legal action against the Lagos State Commissioner of Police (COP), the Inspector-General of Police (IGP), and the Attorney-General of Lagos State on behalf of MRA. He highlighted several constitutional and legal infringements related to the tragic events leading to Mr. Onifade’s death, including his unconstitutional shooting and arrest during his journalistic duties in Oko Oba, Agege Local Government Area of Lagos State, on October 24, 2020.

Mr. Musa emphasized that such actions constituted gross violations of Mr. Onifade’s fundamental rights to freedom of expression guaranteed by the 1999 Constitution and the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights. He further asserted that Mr. Onifade’s demise while in police custody amounted to extrajudicial killing and an unlawful infringement of his fundamental rights, as protected by the aforementioned legal instruments.

The lawsuit seeks the court to determine whether, in line with the Constitution and the African Charter, the police are obligated to investigate Mr. Onifade’s death, considering his role as a journalist exercising his right to freedom of expression.

According to MRA, the Lagos State Government is obligated, under relevant legal provisions, to conduct a coroner’s inquest procedure to establish the cause of Mr. Onifade’s death. Additionally, Mr. Musa urged the court, based on relevant legal provisions, to direct both the Police and the Lagos State Government to investigate the harassment, shooting, arrest, and subsequent death of Mr. Onifade while in the custody of the Police Commissioner and the IGP.

MRA asserts that if the court rules in its favour, as an organization dedicated to promoting freedom of expression, press freedom, and access to information in Nigeria, then it is entitled to various orders directing the Police and the Lagos State Government to conduct a transparent, impartial, and independent investigation into the circumstances surrounding Mr. Onifade’s death. This includes conducting a coroner’s inquest to determine the cause of death and prosecuting those responsible.

In support of the application, Mr. John Gbadamosi, MRA’s Programme Officer, submitted a 25-paragraph affidavit in which he recounted that at the time of Mr. Onifade’s encounter with the Police, he was visibly identified as a journalist and accompanied by his colleague, Mr. Jimi Michael, who was also covering the scene. Mr. Gbadamosi detailed how the journalists were caught in the chaos of a confrontation between the police and individuals attempting to loot palliatives. He stated that despite Mr. Onifade’s injury, he was arrested by the police taskforce and taken away bleeding in a police van. Mr. Gbadamosi further described the efforts made by Mr. Onifade’s family and colleagues to locate him, including interactions with the police, social media announcements, and ultimately the discovery of his body at the mortuary in Ikorodu.

During proceedings on May 13, 2024, Mr. Kingsley Kenechukwu represented MRA, while Mr. Aderemi Amu represented the Attorney-General of Lagos State. However, the Lagos State COP and the IGP were not only absent but had no legal representation in Court.

When the session convened for hearing, Mr. Kenechukwu reported that, as instructed by the court during the last adjournment, hearing notices had been duly served on the Lagos State COP and the IGP respectively. Mr. Kenechukwu then argued and adopted the Originating Summons dated August 2, 2021. Mr. Amu in opposition referred to and relied on the Counter affidavit dated March 20, 2023 which he adopted and argued. However, Mr. Amu informed the Court that, in accordance with the reliefs sought by MRA, the Attorney-General of Lagos State had agreed to conduct a coroner’s inquest to ascertain the cause of Pelumi Onifade’s death.

Following arguments from both sides, the Court adjourned the suit to July 8, 2024, for judgment.