LEKKI SHOOTING, SARS BRUTALITY: How victims will get justice — Adegboruwa, Lagos probe panel member

…Says illiterates dominate the police

By Charles Kumolu, Deputy Editor

Human rights activist and member, Lagos State Judicial Panel of Inquiry on activities of disbanded Special Anti-Robbery Squad, SARS, Ebun Adegboruwa, SAN, in this interview, speaks on how judicial panels of inquiry on human rights abuses set up by states can achieve results.

He also looks at the shooting of peaceful protesters and other issues surrounding the latest calls for police reforms.

Some states have inaugurated judicial panels of inquiry on human rights abuses committed by members of defunct SARS and you are a member of the Lagos State panel. Nigerians do not seem to have faith in the panels having seen similar ones that were not fruitful. Is this going to be different?

I believe those expressing pessimism about panels of inquiry set up by government are vindicated by a sense of history. Given our history, they can’t be blamed.

There is a distrust that exists between the citizens and government in terms of previous declarations by government, which have not seen the light of the day. It was in the light of that experience that when this panel was announced, I extracted sufficient commitment from the state governor concerning the autonomy of the panel.

I got those assurances. Since it was not something that was lobbied for, I pleaded with government to allow me to serve on the panel on part-time basis. By that arrangement, I won’t be entitled to remuneration or sitting allowance. It would put one in a position where he can make informed decisions, and take objective views of all matters coming before the panel. I also looked at other members of the panel, especially the Chairman, Justice Okwuobi, retd, who is acknowledged to be a very forthright and steadfast judicial officer.

We have representatives of the National Human Rights Commission, NHRC, and representatives of the civil society and initiator of the #EndSars movement, Segalink. Against that background, I don’t have any doubt that this would be a different panel.

Independent job

So long as government would continue to honour its commitment to allowing us to do an independent job, the panel would be different. As part of the efforts to ensure we do a good job, we demanded and got instruments of appointments under the Tribunal of Inquiry Law of Lagos State, which has given legal backing to the panel. We got letters of appointment also. Against that background, I see some level of seriousness on the part of the governor.

Immediately after the panel was inaugurated last Monday, we commenced mock sitting because the stage had been set. Several social media platforms have been created. There is a telephone help desk and we are ready to hit the ground running but for the events of the #EndSars protests, which has become a little uncontrollable. I believe the panel will do a good job.

In view of the immediate reasons for setting up the panel, which is the demands of #EndSars protesters, don’t you think the six-month period given to the panel is too long?

From the instrument of appointment constituting the panel, the governor gave an initial period of six months. It was stated that the panel is entitled to regulate its proceedings and draw up its rules of engagement. A panel of inquiry is more like a court where normal procedures for due process has to be followed. We are talking about people bringing complaints about brutality, rights violations and abuses. It would involve making allegations against some persons or institutions. Those allegations must be verified, they must be serious so that they can be on oath. It is to ensure they don’t just make frivolous allegations against people that cannot be defended.

As it is normal in the court parlance, we have to create a system whereby those complaints can be interrogated. And before you decide on the fate of the person who complaints have been made against, you need to hear from the person. For instance, if there is an allegation against a police officer, we need to send a summons to the police to make him appear before us. If there is a written complaint, we need to avail him the opportunity to receive the complaint and respond. He must be entitled to confront the person making an allegation against him, either by himself or through his legal representative.

Complaints

I listened to the President of the Nigerian Bar Association, NBA, who said the NBA has appointed lawyers who would assist people to ventilate their complaints before the tribunal. We will listen to their complaints, we would look at the evidence and give a decision about whether to uphold the complaints and if we do, what would be the compensation and the mode of payment. Beyond complaints of brutality against SARS, government also asked us to help set up procedures for an interface between the police and civilians.

READ ALSO: #EndSARS Protest : Southwest govs raise alarm over external infiltration

Also, we were asked to look at how to ensure that henceforth, police procedure accommodates the rights of the people, especially in matters relating to granting bails and investigations of offences. I think that it is not too long a time. It is for us to ensure that if we hear a case today, we would ensure that within the next two or three days, our decision or judgment should be ready. It would also depend on the cooperation between the complainants and respondents on preparedness to proceed with their cases. We are ready. If we can take a case in a day and deliver judgment on the same day, it would be nice doing that.

In the past, people of influence had been summoned by judicial probe panels and they refused to appear. If these panels summon someone, who complains has been laid against if the person decides not to appear, what happens?

Comparison to the Oputa Panel is actually one of the issues that led to the procedures adopted in setting up the various panels across the states. The challenge then was that the then President of Nigeria, Olusegun Obasanjo, set up a truth and reconciliation panel, otherwise called Oputa Panel. And the panel was to take complaints from all over the land. It was sitting in Lagos. When the panel invited former military President, Gen Ibrahim Babangida, retd, his lawyers advised him not to appear.

The lawyers checked and discovered that the President had no power to constitute a tribunal of inquiry beyond matters that happened at the federal level, especially Federal Capital Territory, FCT. They went to court and the court upheld their argument that in a federal republic such as Nigeria, the President cannot set up a panel to investigate affairs in Lagos State.

That is why in this particular instance, governors are the ones setting up the panels. Under the Tribunal of Inquiry Law, any panel set up under it has the right to summon witnesses, and if those witnesses refuse to appear, it would issue a warrant of arrest to the police to arrest the witnesses and bring them to the tribunal. Like the regular court, it has the same power of summoning attendance of persons considered to be important witnesses.

It is to reach a correct decision by the panel. I think the reason the National Economic Council, NEC, got involved is because of the federal institutions that the panel would relate with, especially the police and the Prisons. We are working on that to ensure there is synergy, which would lead us to achieve results.

What is the scope of the panel‘s job?

We are trying as much as possible to accommodate everybody that has genuine complaints from their experiences with the notorious SARS. To that extent, I think we have to look at it from the period SARS was established. And from our evidence, SARS was established in 1991. Since the immediate protests are about ending SARS, we cannot take complaints of incidents that happened before SARS was established. Necessarily, we would be dealing with matters relating to police and SARS right from the year SARS was established.

But that is not to say that if we have any compelling case in which there is substantial injustice or brutality, we won’t attend to it. There is no restriction in terms of time or scope but we are just looking at it in terms of the reality of how we can prosecute the cases. When you bring a case involving police brutality, spanning over 20 years, it may be that the person has retired from the force, passed on or that evidence has been compromised because of the length of time. We want to deal with matters that we can get sufficient evidence to reach a decision that would be pleasing to the complainant and the society. For now, there is no time frame.

The demand for better policing necessitated the setting up of the panel. And when the panel concludes its job, it’s expected that some recommendations would form part of the ingredients for the reforms. What are the key reforms the police need?

Two things are involved in the challenges we have with the police. The first is the regular absence of qualification and manpower. The entry point of enlistment into the police is primary school certificate. And that has thrown a challenge because the people who do the major work in the Police are the rank and file. They include the sergeants, corporals and constables. They are the ones that interact with the public most often.

Because of their level of education, the only way they have learnt to relate with civilians is to impose force and use their position to intimidate, harass and subjugate suspects. The first step of reform is to ensure that the entry requirement is increased in such a way that we can be considering OND or some kind of educational background that would put the person in a position to appreciate the rights suspects have. The second thing is funding. Over the years, the police as an institution have been neglected.

I believe the funds going into the Police Trust Fund, which is a percentage of the profit of all companies in Nigeria, should be enough to reform the police if there is willpower to do so. I believe that one of the challenges is transferred aggression from the police to civilians. It stems from the frustration they go through in the hands of their superiors. If you want to reform the police, they should be given improved welfare. When that is done, they would have no cause to extort Nigerians as a means of sustaining their livelihood.

The shooting of Lekki protesters has added more work to the tribunal’s work…

The events that happened at Lekki Toll Gate would increase the scope of our work. And I have stated in various statements I issued on the matter that we would take the shooting of protesters as part of the incidents to investigate.

And we will give it a serious priority. Watching the video clips on social media was quite horrific and one was heartbroken seeing the bloodshed and the wickedness unleashed on peaceful protesters. It gladdens the heart that the governor of Lagos State has already given a directive for an investigation.

We would combine the outcome of the investigation with the evidence we have on social media to determine the culpability of anyone that may have been involved in using live bullets against protesters at Lekki Toll Gate. My personal pain is that the centre has been the most peaceful, the most coordinated and the most enlightened. There was no reason whatsoever to have cut down the lives of anyone there. We are going to work with government and if there is any cause to indict anyone, we would not shy away from doing it.

Some argued that the chaotic dimension the protests took could have been avoided if government was given a chance to make real its promise…

I think there is a problem when a protest is organised without leadership. That is what this protest has suffered. We have seen video clips where people who looked like plainclothes security men used vehicles to convey thugs to attack protesters. We can’t confirm it yet, but if it is true, it means people mobilised thugs to cause mayhem, discredit the protest and give room for the premeditated attack on the protesters.

The youths having seen that, should have been able to gather themselves together and probably make a tactical withdrawal or suspend the protest. It could have been done as a way of trying to avoid miscreants and fifth columnists that are being reportedly sponsored to discredit the process at the time. Much as we condemn those who used live bullets on them, we also need to encourage the youths to appreciate the need to embrace dialogue. Now that a curfew has been imposed by the authorities, we need to show some form of restraints and our capacity to follow due process and obey the rule of law.

To that extent, I am urging all the youths to vacate the streets and allow the machineries put in place by government to be fully exhausted. For instance, the governor of Lagos State said he has gone to the hospitals and mortuaries and could not find any corpse from the attack at Lekki. I am challenging the youths or anyone who was a victim of the Lekki violence to come up with evidence of fatality or brutality to the panel. We can be able to look into it and call a spade a spade. I just believe the lesson we have learnt from this is that we don’t organize protests without leadership otherwise it would lead to confusion. Nonetheless, I must commend the youths for doing what we, their elders were afraid of doing when the call came upon us in the past. To that extent, I commend their courage and the way they have conducted the protests peacefully so far. I hope that going forward the issues they have raised would be properly addressed dispassionately.

What about government’s penchant for using the army to perform the duty of the police as was seen in Lekki and other places…

We have some kind of paradox on our hands. The demand of the protesters is #EndSars. Generally, I think at a particular time, the regular police found themselves in a difficult situation. That does not justify asking the military to disperse peaceful protesters. I participated in several protests in the 1993 campaign for revalidation of June 12 presidential election. I don’t think we had cause to embark on anything that would look like we were trying to loot property or cause mayhem other than asking that the late Chief MKO Abiola be made the President.

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