#EndSars: How can the accused be the judge. The irony?
As an aftermath of the #endsars movement, which was a protest against police brutality, the Nigerian government conceded in October for state governments to set up Judicial panels of inquiry to look into cases of alleged violations of human rights by the Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS) and other police units.
This raises the ironic question: how can the government who has been accused by its citizens of being involved in the Lekki shooting in one way or the other, be the same body investigating itself by approving and overseeing the judicial process, which is meant to right the wrongs of victims violated by police brutality?
Such scenario is synonymous to a robber being accused of theft but having the wherewithal and power to be in charge of witnesses, and undoubtedly capable of influencing the decision process due to possible biased interests.
Just like people can electronically sign petitions to vote against things that they consider unjust, Nigerians should likewise be able to unanimously and digitally vote a judicial or legal panel that they believe in, to right the wrongs that are being dished out to the accused.
Some persons have randomly suggested in close-knitted discussions that it seems the best way forward to ensure justice against police brutality in Nigeria is for international bodies to ban government officials from traveling, freeze their suspicious assets, and block access to foreign medical facilities and other privileges.
This might constrain the government to probably admit its wrongdoings, be more committed to lending its ears to the people’s needs, and most importantly, caution the government moving forward from letting innocent civilians die under its watch, rather than twisting the narrative to suit armed men in uniform.
However, on what grounds will such foreign interference be justified, especially given that every democratic country should be free from unfounded external influences?
This question is also in light of the President’s speech on October 22 2020 when he clearly warned foreign bodies to get their facts right and mind their own business.
Since the nod from government, about 26 states have set up judicial panels and commenced their hearings. This includes Bauchi and Imo (17 members); Ekiti, Osun and Edo (12 persons); Katsina, Anambra, Gombe and Adamawa (11-man panel); Kogi, Kwara, Taraba and Abia (10-man panel); Benue, Rivers (9 members), Ogun, Ondo, Delta, Plateau, Enugu, Ebonyi and Akwa Ibom (8 members), Lagos, Cross River (7-man panel), Bayelsa (5 members) as well as Nasarawa and Ondo states.
These judicial panels of inquiry mostly comprised gender-based representatives from civil societies, students, Human Rights Commission representatives; the Police, Department of State Services (DSS), Nigeria Security and Civil Defence Corps (NSCDC), Ministry of Justice, Nigerian Bar Association (NBA) and the Office of Police Community Relations Committee (PDCRC).
Specifically, the Lagos state governor stated that N200 million fund has been set aside “for compensation to families and individuals who have been victimized by officers of the disbanded SARS”.
The Lagos state panel was headed by Dorris Okuwobi, a retired judge and consisted of two youth representatives: Bolatito Olorunrinu and Temitope Majekodunmi, among others.
The panel was slated to commence on October 19 2020 but had its first hearing on Tuesday, 27 October in the Lagos Arbitration Court in Lekki and has reportedly been late to their hearings, fueling doubts surrounding questions of their non-bias.
On Friday, 30 October 2020, after swearing in the Lekki Concession Company (LCC) representatives who mainly emphasized the destruction of properties over the loss of lives, the Panel visited the toll gate.
After learning from a discreet source that the Military Hospital at Ikoyi might be housing information that could help the investigation, the Judicial Panel made an impromptu visit, only to be blocked by soldiers from entering the premises. But 30 minutes later, the soldiers allowed them in after discussing among themselves. The panel discovered that the morgue at the military hospital has not been used since October 2019, and this marked the end of the Friday hearing.
October 31 witnessed the story of Ndubuisi Obechina who was illegally detained and had her life threatened by the police in Ikeja. According to her, her family had two encounters with SARS officers in 2017, and both times she was pregnant but lost both pregnancies due to the trauma, as her requests to see a doctor led to even more torture and threats.
In the first instance, on June 2 2017, Obechina claimed that she was in the classroom with a fellow teacher when the police called her phone number pretending to be delivery men from DHL who had a package for her. However, upon going out to receive the package, she was accused of being a kidnapper and an armed robber. She had to pay N400 thousand to be set free. At the Judicial panel hearing, she demanded N2 million.
That same day, an elderly man by the name of Olajide Fowotade was the second victim to testify to being beaten in the middle of the street by one sergeant Ayo on March 11 2017, leaving him with two broken teeth, a broken leg and a wounded eye. Despite receiving media attention four days later and the case being brought by the then DPO, he never gained justice and spent nearly N1 million treating SARS-related injuries. According to him, the head of the panel of investigation showed up in uniform, which made witnesses scared of testifying,
In response, a youth representative asked Fowotade if he wanted justice against the police or for his health. Out of fear, Fowotade refused justice against the police, making the Panel to overlook the power imbalance between the police and its brutalized victims, and giving way for bias.
These are just a few stories that have been shared nationwide by people who have been victims of police brutality, talk less of those afraid to share their stories due to fear of losing their lives and loved ones.
On the 4th panel hearing, the CCTV footage was submitted by the Managing Director of Lekki Concession Company (LCC), Abayomi Omomuwansa, to the Lagos judicial panel and the 4-hour long video was viewed on Friday, November 6 2020. The complete details of this footage remain vague as Omomuwansa stated that the camera stopped recording at 8pm.
Afterwards, the counsel to the protesters, Mr. Adeshina Ogunlana, petitioned for further viewing of the footage but this was opposed by Abiodun Owonikoko, legal counsel to the FG, which was eventually overruled by Justice Okwuobi.
The next day, on Saturday, November 7 2020, the Lagos panel which was to hear the testimony of the Nigerian army had to suspend its proceedings till November 14 given the freezing of Miss Olorunrinu’s account and 19 others for their participation in the #EndSARS protest, that inadvertently leading to the withdrawal of two youth representatives from the panel.
This came after reports that the Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN) obtained a court judgement to freeze the accounts of 19 individuals and a corporate organisation for their active participation in the #EndSARS protest.
A week later, when the two youth representatives returned, on November 14, the Brigadier General Ahmed Ibrahim Taiwo of the Nigerian Army expressed his displeasure in the Lagos state government for denying that they invited the army to the scene.
He then proceeded to state that it was the protesters who first started throwing stones at them and the army only shot blank bullets, adding that water was shared to unarmed protesters after the so-called ‘hoodlums’ were dispersed.
Meanwhile, the Nasarawa panel of inquiry has reportedly received 16 petitions so far from individuals and organisations. Although, the panel extended its submission of memoranda to 31 November 2020, most of the current cases were postponed till November 26.
And like that, one month down the lane, it is quite difficult to lay hold of any tangible achievement that has resulted from the judicial panels set up across the Nigerian states.
Nonetheless, since the Lekki shootings on October 20 2020 till now, the #EndSARS protests has garnered a plethora of international coverage including decisions of the UK parliament, and the trending video evidence of in-depth investigation on the events surrounding Black Tuesday as released by Cable News Network (CNN).