#EndSARS panels’ reports raise need to tackle impunity, lawlessness

Table of Contents

October 20, 2020 will remain memorable in the minds of Nigerians. On that day, youths in the country came out in their numbers to protest against the Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS).

Tagged #EndSARS protests, everything began as a call to end police brutality and extrajudicial killings that have become endemic in Nigeria: Harassment and unfair treatment by the police are rife, which dates back to the military era when soldiers unlawfully arrested citizens and violated their rights.

Before that episode, since 2017, protests have been building momentum across the country, stemming from online advocacy to street protests. The anger about the unit’s activities culminated in a nationwide protest on the streets of 21 states after a SARS officer allegedly shot a young man in Delta State.

Established in 1992, SARS became synonymous with unlawful killings, torture and extortion. Before that, anti-robbery was the responsibility of the Nigeria Police Force generally, although, from 1984, anti-robbery units existed separately as part of different states’ criminal investigation departments.

Other special units, which went by different names at different times, included the intelligence response team, special tactical squad, counterterrorism unit and force intelligence unit, formed to tackle rising violent crimes following the end of the Nigerian civil war in 1970.

By the early 1990s, armed robbers and bandits were terrorising Lagos and southern Nigeria. Police officer Simeon Danladi Midenda was in charge of the anti-robbery unit of the criminal investigation department in Benin, at the time. He had some success in combatting armed robbery, earning a recommendation from the then Inspector General of Police.

With crime on the rise in Lagos, Midenda was transferred there and tasked with uniting the three existing anti-robbery squads operating in the former federal capital into one unit in a bid to break the stronghold of armed gangs.

As the new sheriff in town, equipped with 15 officers and two station wagons, Midenda formed an amalgamated unit and named it the Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS) in 1992.

In the early days of the unit, combat-ready SARS officers operated undercover in plain clothes and plain vehicles without any security or government insignia and did not carry arms in public. Their main job was to monitor radio communications and facilitate successful arrests of criminals and armed robbers.

For 10 years, SARS only operated in Lagos, but by 2002, it had spread to all 36 states of the federation as well as the Federal Capital Territory, Abuja. It was counted as one of the 14 units under the Nigeria Police Force Criminal Investigation and Intelligence Department.

Its mandate included arrest, investigation and prosecution of suspected armed robbers, murderers, kidnappers, hired assassins and other suspected violent criminals.

Emboldened by its new powers, the unit veered off its main function of carrying out covert operations and began to set up roadblocks, extorting money from citizens. Officers remained in plain clothes but started to carry arms in public.

The formation, no doubt, has led to a regime of brutality on citizens, especially against youths. This unjustified and unjusticiable brutality culminated into a series of mass protests against police with a hashtag #EndSARS.

During the protests, the protesting youths, in their five-point demand, craved compensation for families of victims of police brutality, the release of arrested protesters and an increase in the salaries and allowances of police officers.

Subsequently, the National Economic Council (NEC) directed the immediate establishment of state-based judicial panels of inquiry to investigate complaints of police brutality or related extrajudicial killings with a view to delivering justice for all victims and other police units.

The panels to be set up in all the states, NEC said would include, representatives of youths, students, and civil society organisations and would be chaired by a respected retired State High Court judge.

Following the directive, 28 states set up their panels, with states such as Yobe, Borno, Jigawa, Kano, Kebbi, Sokoto and Zamfara shunning the idea. Out of the 28 states that complied with Federal Government’s directive, Akwa Ibom, Oyo, Enugu, Benue, Osun, and Gombe states have, however, not compensated victims.

While Lagos State has paid N420 million in compensation to #EndSARS victims, Ekiti State has paid N21.25 million and Abuja N429 million. An independent investigative panel was set up in Abuja to collate the report of human rights violation in Abuja. The report received by the panel indicated that a significant number were scared into withdrawing cases against police authorities.

According to fact sheet released by Secretary to the panel, Hilary Ogbonna, out of about 295 cases received, 95 were fully decided, 54 cases withdrawn, 33 struck out and 57 referred to the National Human Right Commission (NHRC) for continuation.

The Independent Investigative Panel report also contained 39 petitions on extrajudicial killings, 30 cases of torture, cruel, inhuman and degrading treatments. Other cases were those of confiscations and seizure of victims’ property, abuse of office and enforced disappearance.

In its recommendation, it found 72 police officers guilty of the allegations leveled against them. Twenty-eight of them were recommended for prosecution, 25 were for dismissal, 15 for disciplinary actions and four for demotion.

During the presentation, the panel chairman, Justice Suleiman Galadima, a retired Justice of the Supreme Court, said the group had entertained over 200 petitions from 29 states since it was inaugurated.

NHRC Executive Secretary, Chief Tony Ojukwu (SAN), said the Commission would not rest on its oars until impunity was completely banished from Nigeria.

Lagos report
THE Lagos Judicial Panel of Inquiry and Restitution on Lekki Toll Gate Shooting Incident and Cases of Police Brutality as well as human rights violations, indicted the Nigerian Army and the Police of complicity in the death of protesters at the Lekki Toll gate in October 20, 2020.

The 309-page report shows details of how the army and police disregarded their rules of engagement during the protest. In its executive summary, the report found that “on October 20, 2020, at the Lekki Toll Gate, officers of the Nigerian Army shot, injured and killed unarmed, helpless and defenceless protesters without provocation or justification, while they were waving the Nigerian flag and singing the national anthem and the manner of assault and killing could in context be described as a massacre.

It “also found that the conduct of the Nigerian Army was exacerbated by its refusal to allow ambulances render medical assistance to victims who required such assistance. The army was also found not to have adhered to its own rules of engagement.

“The panel found that the Nigeria Police Force deployed its officers to the Lekki Toll Gate on the night of October 20, 2020, and between that night and the morning of October 21, 2020, its officer shot at, assaulted and battered unarmed protesters, which led to injuries and deaths. The police officers also tried to cover up their actions by picking up bullets,” the report said.

The panel also found that LCC (Lekki Concession Company) hampered the panel’s investigation by refusing to turn over some useful and vital information/evidence as requested by the panel and the forensic expert engaged by it, even where such information and evidence was by the company’s admission, available. It manipulated the incomplete CCTV video footage of the Lekki Toll Gate on the night of October 20, 2020, which it tendered before the panel.

The report found there was an invitation of the Nigerian Army by the Lagos State government through the governor “before the hierarchy of the Nigerian Army deployed its soldiers to the Lekki Toll Gate on the night of October 20. The panel found that there was an attempt to cover up the Incident of October 20, by the cleaning of the Lekki Toll Gate and the failure to preserve the scene ahead of potential investigations.”

The panel also made a total of 32 recommendations, which include, “holistic Police Reforms covering welfare, training and proper equipping of policemen and their working environment; sanctioning of the officers of the Nigerian Army and the Nigeria Police Force respectively, who participated in shooting, injuring and killing of unarmed protesters at the Lekki Toll Gate on October 20 and 21, 2020; development of more robust engagement between the Youth and the Government;

“setting up of a Standing Committee/Tribunal to deal with cases of violation of human rights by security agencies and a trust fund to settle compensation awarded by such committee/tribunal; and,

“a public apology to #EndSARS protesters, who were killed, injured and traumatised by the incident of October 20, 2020, and the memorialisation of the Lekki Toll Gate and the October 20, going forward.”

Benue report
THE panel set up by the Benue State government recommended N304,535,095.85 to be paid as compensation to various categories of victims of police brutality in the state.

This was contained in a report submitted by the chairman of the panel and a former Chief Judge of the state, Justice Adam Onum. In the report, the panel recommended to the Attorney-General of the state that various police officers should undergo discreet investigations with a view to prosecuting them for respective crimes and conducts.

Onum disclosed that the panel received 72 petitions, noting that some were dismissed and withdrawn. He observed that in the course of investigations, it discovered different levels of police brutality.

He narrated an instance where some persons were brutally murdered by the police in cold blood, leaving families without respective heads and breadwinners.
Retired Justice Onum said: “There were some persons who died in police custody, owing to complications arising from torture and/or other forms of abuse of police powers, including unwarranted denial of rights to bail.

“Where some persons suffered grievous bodily hurts, or non-grievous bodily hurts, as defined under law, in the hands of the police.

“Where some items of property were destroyed by the police or unjustly seized and confiscated by the police;
“where persons were subjected to intimidation, with the sole aim of extorting money from them; and
“where the police took advantage of privileged position to refuse to obey judicial orders, particularly over breaches of fundamental rights,” he stated.
Receiving the report, the deputy governor said the state government will hand over the report to the Federal Government who had given them the mandate to set up the panel.”

Ogun State
IN Ogun State, the panel set up by Governor Dapo Abiodun recommended that over N218 million be paid as compensation to 42 victims or families. Aside from financial compensation recommended for victims or families of victims of brutality and violation of human rights by police and other security personnel in the State, the Chairman, Justice Solomon Olugbemi, added that the panel also recommended that a thorough investigation be conducted so as to discipline, and where appropriate, prosecute certain personnel to serve as deterrent in the interest of justice.

He revealed that the panel received a total of 106 petitions, 58 of which were treated and the remaining 48 withdrawn, rejected or abandoned wholly or halfway by the petitioners.

According to the chairman, “the 289-page report captured testimonies and evidences of gory details of torture, unjustifiable shootings, inhumane treatment and other forms of human rights abuses leading to brain damage, spinal cord injuries, permanent disability, death, loss of means of livelihood, unlawful seizure of personal properties and various forms of atrocities.”

The chairman disclosed that most of the police officers that the panel came across were found to be grossly deficient in knowledge and professional training required for efficiency in the Police Force, urging the government to put machinery in place to address the situation.

THE panel set up by Governor Simon Lalong recommended N152 million as compensation for the families of petitioners. The panel chairman said careful implementation of their recommendations, especially payment of damages to victims, is crucial in dousing tensions.

In Adamawa State, Chairman of the 13-member Panel of Enquiry, Retired Justice Adamu Hobon, received 13 submissions from the general public and compiled the report in three volumes consisting of recommendations, submissions and exhibits.

A lawyer, Ekengba Felix, said the reports all reflect a need for urgent reforms of security agencies not just the police in the area of arrest and investigation of crimes, and also, for them, to abide by rules of engagement and observe human rights of citizens.

The police authorities have not done enough to address the agitation of #EndSARS protesters till date with some of the indicted officers promoted by the police.

RESPONDING to the panel reports, Christian Oti, a lawyer based in Abuja, said the most significant is the recommendation of disciplinary action against officers.

“That, itself, would show to other officers that the long arm of the law would catch up with them, no matter how long it may take,” he noted. “However, the role of the NHRC cannot be overemphasised; it brought that special attention to the causes of the petitioners. In doing so, it reduced the burden and incidences of full-blown litigation out of the courts.”

According to him, NHRC efforts also provided ordinary Nigerians with the avenue to table their cause, without the rigours of financial and technical challenges that normally restrain not a few from seeking redress from courts.

On the backdrop of the report of the #EndSARS panel submitted to the government, the Executive Secretary of the Commission, Ojukwu, said, “every state is on its own, every state governor has the mandate to dictate things that happen in their state. Why won’t they pay them compensation? Why are they waiting for the Federal Government?”

Ojukwu is quoted to have said, “even if the police is a federal institution, the police was serving the state government and they committed those violations against the states, which the governor is supposed to protect. So, why will the governors wait for the Federal Government to pay compensation to indigenes of the state whose rights have been violated?”

On his part, Ogbonna said to ensure justice for victims of #EndSARS, the Commission has embarked on collection of reports from across the states, especially, those who have not made compensation.

According to him, “already reports of 15 states have been collected by the Commission. The aim is to prevail on partners and the Federal Government on need to intervene since the state governors are not forthcoming on compensation.”

He said when the reports are fully collated; it would be forwarded to the relevant agencies and organisations such as NEC, National Assembly (NASS), ministries and even civil societies.

Ogbonna told The Guardian that the Commission could, at the end of collection of reports, embark on an aggressive campaign to sensitise on the need to compensate the affected victims to avert future occurrence.

For Ojukwu, “it’s within the limit of the Police Service Commission and the Inspector-General of Police to speak with them. Violations were carried out, and the process of protecting the very law and order in the state is under the purview of the state governor. What states have done after investigation of the SARS component was that they sent everything to the National Economic Council, which is headed by the Vice President (Yemi Osinbajo).

“But this is something the state and the Federal Government should sort out. Some states have paid compensation.” An Abuja based lawyer, Jerry Aondo, said there would be a need for the government to reopen such panels so as to allow more time for other victims to air their grievances.

At the end of their investigation, various recommendations were made, ranging from restructuring of the police unit, better welfare, and compensation to victims of police brutality.

He said this is because only a few states like Lagos, Ogun and the FCT actually paid compensation to victims. However, many victims were not compensated. Some because they didn’t trust that the process was going to achieve any results; so they didn’t come out. Others, because of the short time allotted and still because of lack of funds by the government.

He revealed that due to lack of trust in the administration of justice, it is very difficult to come out with fair recommendations, get a lot of victims and family members to appear before the panel. Majority of them couldn’t show up also because they felt their loved ones were actually involved in the offenses, which led to their extra judicial execution without trial in court.

According to Aondo, the number of petitions and cases attended to by the panel is less than the victims who are constantly crying for justice in the grave. He said the monies paid for compensation are not commensurate with lives lost and also feared that victims may be bullied and harassed from freely telling their stories.

Another lawyer, Frank Tietie, said the whole process was an attempt to save face by the Federal Government of Nigeria in the area of human rights violations.
He said ordinarily, those human rights complaints should be brought before the Commission to investigate adjudication for compensation based on the act that set it up.

He, however, hailed the conduct of the Commission during the panel’s sitting but agreed that some victims of violation could have been excluded due to location and other factors during the sitting. “I am aware that so many people wrote petitions that were not considered by the panel because so many of those options came late, “ he said.

Source: Guardian Nigeria

Want to keep up with our blog?

Get our most valuable tips right inside your inbox, once per month!