END-SARS PROTESTS AND THE JUDICIAL PANELS OF INQUIRY

It is heart-warming to observe that the killings, maiming and destruction to property that characterized the recent #EndSars Protests have gradually given way to some peace and normalcy following calls by well-meaning Nigerians for at-least an immediate suspension to the protests. The hiatus has paved way for the setting up of Judicial Panels of Inquiry as earlier directed by the Vice President at the Federal Executive Council meeting that held on Thursday, the 15th day of October 2020. At the last count, more than 12 out of the 36 states of the Federation and the Federal Capital Territory (FCT) have constituted the panels. It was reported that Lagos State has inaugurated its own Panel and same would begin public hearings on Tuesday, the 27th day of October, 2020. So far, the Term of Reference (ToR) that is common to these Judicial Panels is to receipt and investigation of complaints of police brutality against the people of Nigeria.

As more states constitute and even inaugurate the Judicial Panels of Inquiry to entertain and investigate complaints against police brutality, it is crucial that members of the panels are selected to demonstrate competence and reflect the complexity of interests giving rise to the protests. Certainly, a retired judicial officer not below the rank of a High Court Judge will chair the various Panels. It will be a good idea to also have representatives of the youths, the Nigerian Bar Association, Civil Society Organizations (CSO’s), and the National Human Rights Commission. It is the least expectation that these panels shall go about their work in a manner that is fair to all parties. Justice in these cases must not only be done but must be clearly seen to be done. The panels must be courageous enough to recommend appropriate disciplinary measures against erring police and other security personnel. Another important consideration in the success of the whole exercise is the period covered by the investigations. It will be an exercise in futility not to include complaints of violations during the protests in the scope of work of the Panels. Indeed, the Panels cannot rightly ignore allegations of grave human rights abuses and even deaths of innocent people in violence that characterized recent protests.

Of course, a direct implication of extending the scope of work of the Panels to cover the period of protests would mean that the Terms of Reference will have to be expanded to include allegations of violations that do not only involve the personnel of the Nigeria Police Force, but also those involving the officers of other security agencies. The alleged involvement of military personnel in the Lekki Toll Gate incidents and other similar ones across the country point to the need to have the scope of work of these Panels extended to cover the field. Yet, it is needless to say that the Panels must be independent and free of the usual government interferences. Each panellist need to be aware that he/she is accountable to the people and not the government. The saying that ‘he who pays the piper calls the tune’ must not be allowed to play any part here. The issue of speed too must be given adequate consideration as a good balance needs to be struck. Although, ‘justice delayed is certainly justice denied;’ a hastily taken decision may spell doom. The earlier the various Panels sit to consider the complaints brought before them, the better as it has become more urgent to have tensions doused now than ever.  

Above all, the Federal Government must demonstrate rare political will and willingness to implement the reports/recommendations of the Panels. The experience of the past, where similar reports have been forgotten in the book shelves must not be allowed to rear its ugly head at this time. We must remember that the initial reluctance by the protesting youths to have the protests suspended to enable governments meet their demands is not unconnected to lack of trust occasioned by years of demonstrated insincerity on the part of various governments. It remains that the Judicial Panels can only be as successful as the governments will allow them to be. No doubt, there is so much on the shoulders of the Federal Government who principally owns and finances the current Nigeria Police Force. The concerns and pessimism already expressed in some quarters over the wisdom in state governments setting up these Panels to investigate a Force that they never own and control is a legitimate one as the cooperation of the President, the Ministry of Police Affairs, the Ministry of Defence and much more the Police Service Commission (PSC) would be required for any overall achievements. Indeed, it will be better if these Panels were not set up than doing so and not implementing their reports/recommendations. In that case, the scarce public funds would have been frittered away, the time of the panellists and other support staff would have been wasted and the high hopes of Nigerians dashed once again. God forbids that this happens! We cannot afford to squander this one more opportunity to right the wrongs of the past years.

At this point, it is good news that a state like Lagos has announced the setting aside of a certain amount of money as compensation for those who are eventually found to have suffered any police brutality or a violation of rights. There is no amount of healing that can be achieved if victims of brutalities are not offered monetary compensation. Although, it is true that no amount of monetary awards can adequately compensate for the loss of a loved one, for instance, there is no doubt that this will still go a long way to providing succour for the dependants of those who have been rendered temporarily or permanently incapacitated or have even lost their lives in circumstances that cannot be permitted in a democratic society. It will amount to good preparation if all the other State and Federal governments in the country take a cue from what the Lagos counterpart has done by setting aside a chunk of their resources in anticipation of awards that the various Panels are likely to make in the course of their investigations. This is the least expectation.

In conclusion, Lawyers Alert encourages everyone who has any complaints involving police brutalities or any human rights violations that are captured by the ToR of the Panels to brace up for the challenge ahead and be ready to ventilate his grievance before the Panels. Human rights activists and CSO’s are also encouraged to make their services available to victims that may want to appear before the various Panels. This is the time for us all to live up to and even surpass the expectation of the public on our Pro bono (free of charge)  services. There can never be a better time to demonstrate out readiness than now.

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