Federal High Court Adjourns for Hearing MRA’s Suit Against Police Commissioner over the Killing of Journalist

Mr. Charles Musa, Member of MRA’s Network of Lawyers

A Federal High Court in Lagos presided over by Justice Ayokunle Olayinka Faji has adjourned hearing to May 13, 2024, in a suit filed by Media Rights Agenda (MRA) against the Lagos State Commissioner of Police (COP) over the killing of Mr. Pelumi Onifade, a reporter with Gboah TV, an online television channel, while covering the #ENDSARS protests in October 2020.

The lawsuit arose from the death 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. He was serving 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. After being shot, he was arrested and taken away while bleeding. He was later found dead in police custody on October 30, 2020. His family later located his body at the Ikorodu General Hospital morgue in Lagos after they were informed by the police of a corpse deposited at the morgue.

As a result, MRA filed a lawsuit in the Federal High Court requesting an order for the Lagos State Government and police authorities to conduct a thorough, unbiased, and independent investigation into the events surrounding the death of Mr. Pelumi Onifade. The suit also seeks to compel them to identify and prosecute the individuals accountable for his death.

Initiating the legal action on behalf of MRA against the Lagos State Commissioner of Police (COP), the Inspector-General of Police (IGP), and the Attorney-General of Lagos State, Lagos-based lawyer, Mr. Charles Musa, brought several constitutional and legal violations surrounding the tragic events leading to Mr. Pelumi Onifade’s death to light. These include the unconstitutional shooting and arrest of Mr. Onifade during his journalistic duties in Oko Oba, Agege Local Government Area of Lagos State, on October 24, 2020.

Mr. Musa noted that such action is a gross violations of Mr. Onifade’s fundamental rights to freedom of expression, as guaranteed by sections 33, 35, and 39 of the 1999 Constitution (as amended), as well as Articles 4, 5, and 9 of the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights (Ratification and Enforcement) Act (Cap A9) Laws of the Federation of Nigeria, 2004.

Furthermore, he asserted that Mr. Onifade’s death while in police custody constitutes extrajudicial killing and an unlawful infringement of his fundamental rights, as protected by the aforementioned legal provisions.

The suit therefore seeks to get the court to determine whether, in accordance with the Constitution and the African Charter, the police have a duty 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 Sections 33 and 39 of the Constitution, Articles 4 and 9 of the African Charter, and Sections 15, 18, and 21 of the Coroner System Law of Lagos State, to conduct a coroner’s inquest procedure to establish the cause of Mr. Onifade’s death. Additionally, he urged the court, in light of 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 Commissioner and the IGP.

MRA contends that should the court rule in their favor, as an organization dedicated to promoting freedom of expression, press freedom, and access to information in Nigeria, 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, deposed to a 25-paragraph affidavit. He stated that at the time of Mr. Onifade’s encounter with the Police, he was visibly identified as a journalist and was accompanied by his colleague, Mr. Jimi Michael, who was also covering the scene. Mr. Gbadamosi described how the journalists were caught in the chaos of a confrontation between the police and individuals attempting to loot palliatives. Despite Mr. Onifade’s injury, he was arrested by the police taskforce and taken away bleeding in a police van. Mr. Gbadamosi further explained 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 the proceedings on March 13, 2024, MRA was represented by Mr. Kingsley Kenechukwu, Esq., while Mr. Aderemi Amu, Esq. represented the Attorney-General of Lagos State. The Court directed Mr. Kenechukwu to serve a hearing notice on the Lagos State Commissioner of Police and the Inspector-General of Police, who were absent and had no legal representation in Court.

The Court subsequently fixed May 13, 2024, for the hearing and adoption of the filed processes in the suit.