#EndSARS panels: Victims getting justice, but challenges remain

In response to the near-nationwide #EndSARS protests in the last quarter of 2020, the Federal Government, through the National Economic Council (NEC), directed the establishment of judicial panels of enquiry at state level to investigate allegations of brutality and other forms of right abuses by men of the now renamed Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS) and other units of the Nigeria Police Force (NPF).

Acting on the directive, members of the Nigeria Governors’ Forum (NGF), at their 20th teleconference emergency meeting on October 18, 2020, resolved to implement the protesters’ requests, including constituting panels of enquiry in each state.

In a communique issued at the end of the meeting, members of the NGF particularly resolved to, among others, “activate a judicial panel of enquiry to receive all cases of brutality by officers of the disbanded SARS unit.” Each state was also expected to kickstart a compensation mechanism for victims.

The 36 governors equally resolved to “endorse the call by demonstrators for improved governance predicated on an enforcement regime that takes into cognisance the fundamental human rights and liberties of all citizens in the country.”

The panels were all expected to round off their activities within six months.

It is now about four months into their assignment, there are mixed signals from the states in relation to the activities of the panels.

In some instances, there have been successes, with cases effectively concluded and awards made; there are also cases where the panels have been hobbled by challenges ranging from poor funding and disagreement among members over certain decisions.

Success stories

One of the earliest successes recorded was at the Independent Investigative Panel (IIP) on allegations of human rights violation by the defunct SARS and other units of the NPF, set up by the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC), to hear petitions at the federal level and also coordinate the activities of states’ panels.

On December 3, 2020, the 11-man IIP, headed by Justice Suleiman Galadima (a retired Justice of the Supreme Court) effectively resolved the case brought by an Abuja property owner, Gabriel Ofoma.

Ofoma had, in a petition, claimed that he submitted a title document in respect of a parcel of land – Plot 104, Lugbe Abuja – which he bought earlier, as exhibit in the course of trial in a criminal matter before a Chief Magistrate Court in Wuse Zone 6, Abuja, which ended with the death of the defendant.

The petitioner added that when he returned to the court to retrieve the document, upon an invitation by court officials to that effect, some policemen, led by Inspector Iliya Dangsedi, accosted him on the court premises and forced him to hand the document to them.

Based on Ofoma’s complaint, the panel on November 6, 2020 ordered the police to produce the title document before it.

At its sitting on December 3, 2020, the IPP gave its decision in the case and ordered the police to hand over the document to the petitioner.

Justice Galadima said: “There is an end to every litigation, and the matter has been put to an end and no more.” He commended the police for complying with the panel’s directive to return the document.

An elated Ofoma, on receiving the document, expressed delight and thanked the panel for its efforts.

Police’s lawyer James Idachaba, a Deputy Commissioner of Police (DCP), told the panel that the police were at the panel to assist it and complainants. He said they would continue to cooperate.

Idachaba added that the police were not the owner of the title document and were not disputing the fact of the matter.

On February 10, this year, the IIP equally recorded another success in the case of alleged threat to life and police brutality brought against former Zamfara State Governor, Senator Ahmad Yerima, by a businessman, Alhaji Musa Wapa.

Wapa, a Katsina State-born business man, in his petition, alleged that Yerima mobilised the police to arrest, torture and detain him over a N23 million claim.

He stated that Yerima owed him N25 million for three trailers of corn he supplied to the ex-governor’s farm – Rufai Poultry Nigeria Ltd, while he also owed Yerima N23m from a loan.

He added that while Yerima’s debt was due for payment, the obligation to pay his own debt was not yet due as at June 30, 2020 when the Senator allegedly paid N3 million to some policemen attached to the IGP Intelligence Response Team, comprising Abdullahi and Zakariyya of Area Command Kano State and IGP-IRT Panteka, Kaduna State to torture and detain him for six days.

The petitioner said the policemen apprehended him and his driver in Katsina, took them to Kano and later Kaduna, during which they were allegedly subjected to torture.

He added that his FirstBank account was frozen as a result of his issue with Senator Yerima and the police. Besides, he told the panel that Yerima tricked him to deposit his Certificate of Occupancy in Jaiz Bank, under the pretext that his money would be paid, but that “nothing came out of it.”

Upon hearing the petitioner’s story last December, the panel summoned Yerima, an invitation he honoured on February 10. In the course of the day’s proceedings, parties agreed to resolve the issue amicably.

The panel then further directed that counsel to the panel should monitor the settlement as amicus curiae to ensure amicable settlement between the parties and adjourned till March 5, 2021 for the report of the settlement.

On February 18, the retired Justice Cornelius Akintayo-led panel in Ekiti State also served justice to the family of Sergeant Musiliu Ajayi, an official of SARS, who was murdered by unknown persons sometime in 2019.

The deceased’s wife, Mrs. Ogunleye Ajayi had told the panel that the circumstances of her husband’s death remained a mystery to her and other family members. She said her husband left for work on his motorcycle around 6:30 am (on the day he was killed), only for her to receive a call around 8:30 am that her husband was dead.

She told the panel that the marks she saw on her husband’s remains revealed that he was gruesomely murdered by unknown persons. The mother of four, a petty trader, pleaded for the sponsorship of her children’s education, claiming that her late husband was the breadwinner of the family.

When asked if she reported the incident to the police authority, she said she was not in a stable condition to report when the incident happened.

In its decision on February 18, the panel, among others, recommended payment of N500,000 to the widow as compensation.

Justice Akintayo said the panel established the facts of the case and made appropriate recommendations based on the oral and documentary evidence of the complainants, produced through exhibits tendered as well as visits to the scene of the murder.

He said the recommendation from the panel was just for the upkeep of the late officer’s wife and children.

The panel then ordered the police to investigate the circumstances that led to the death of the late officer and that the police authority should compensate the wife adequately.

Earlier in January, the Ekiti panel recommended the award of N895,000 to Bade-Gboyega over trauma and injuries sustained from gunshot during #ENDSARS protests.

In yet another case, the Justice Akin Oladimeji-led panel in Osun State summoned two officials of the of Nigeria Security and Civil Defence Corps(NSCDC) – Jimi Awoniyi and Togun Babatunde – for allegedly chasing a young man, Idris Ajibola to death.

Idris was allegedly chased to death by men of the Osun State Joint Task Force (JTF) after he went to Osun Mall with two friends in a car on September 15, 2020.

At the hearing of the petition by the deceased’s family, Adedayo Adeleke, one of the occupants of the car in which Ajibola rode, told the panel that the patrol vehicle of JTF chased their vehicle to the point it had an accident that resulted in the death.

The distraught mother of the deceased, Mrs. Titilayo Ajibola, demanded N5 billion as compensation while giving evidence before the panel.

At its sitting on February 19, the panel ordered that the two officers should be served a summons notice and must be at the sitting on March 5, for their defence.

In Lagos, the retired Justice Doris Okuwobi-led panel, on February 18, gave its first financial award since its inauguration on October 19, 2020.

It awarded N10 million as compensation to the family of the late Mrs. Kudirat Adebayo Abayomi, who was killed by a police stray bullet in April 2017. It also awarded scholarships for the education of her children.

The panel further recommended the prosecution of the police officers responsible for her death and ordered police authorities to write a letter of apology to the deceased’s family.

“The panel finds that the late Mrs. Kudirat Adebayo was extrajudicially killed by officers of the Nigerian Police which is a clear infringement of her right to life as guaranteed by section 33, Constitution of Federal Republic of Nigeria, 1999 as amended.

“There was no evidence of any attempt to offer first aid to the deceased after she was shot. There was poor engagement with the family of the deceased by the Nigerian Police Force.

“The panel finds evidence of systemic error and ineptitude on the part of officers of the Nigerian Police,” Mrs. Okuwobi said.

In another case, the Lagos State panel equally awarded N10 million to a 35-year-old hairdresser, Hannah Olugbode, who has been on crutches since her left leg was shattered by a stray bullet fired by a SARS officer around the Ijeshatedo area of Lagos.

The incident happened on June 6, 2018, while the SARS officers were trying to arrest a suspected internet fraudster at Ijesha, Lagos.

The panel said the award was to assuage the stress and anxiety she suffered and to help her undergo further treatment.

In Rivers State, the retired Justice Chukwunenye Uriri-led panel submitted its report to the Governor, Nyesom Wike, last week.

Justice Uriri said, in all, the panel heard 187 petitions, from which it struck out 76 for lack of merit.

The panel in Kwara State announced on January 27, that it kad concluded its public hearings on all the 25 petitions brought before it and would proceed to deliberate on the cases reported and collate its final submissions in a report for the state government.

In Edo State, the state government has extended its sitting duration by some weeks following its inability to conclude sitting within the time earlier allocated.

As at January 15, the retired Justice Ada Ehigiamuose-led panel announced its conclusion of hearing in over 80 of the 100 petitions received.

Instances of challenges

While some panels are doing well, some have encountered challenges that delayed their activities. Such challenges were recorded in Lagos, Anambra and Abuja at the IIP, among others.

In November, the panel in Lagos suspended sitting for some days due to the withdrawal of its two youth members following the freezing of the accounts of some perceived promoters of the #EndSARS protests.

Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN) Governor Godwin Emefiele had, through his lawyer and former Attorney-General of the Federation (AGF), Michael Aondoakaa (SAN), obtained an order from Justice Ahmed Mohammed of the Federal High Court, Abuja, freezing the accounts of 19 individuals, including a member of the Lagos panel and a firm, claiming to be investigating the accounts for terrorism-related activities.

The panel in Lagos again shut down briefly this year when some members protested its recommendation for the reopening of the Lekki Toll Gate by the Lagos Concession Company (LCC).

In Abuja, the IIP could not resume as promised after New Year holidays owing to the non-payment of members’ allowances as at when due.

The panel lost all of January and a week in February before it resumed sitting on February 8.

The most troubled of all the panels is that of Anambra State, which, though commenced sitting late, has been unable to reconvene two months into the new year.

On December 11, the retired Justice Veronica Umeh-led panel in Anambra State prayed for more time to hear the remaining 287 petitions pending before it.

Justice Umeh said the panel concluded 23 petitions during its 11 sittings, out of the 310 petitions received. She added that the panel applied for 24 more sittings after exhausting the 12 earlier allocated to it.

Last week, five youth members of the panel in Anambra resigned their membership owing to their claim that the state government was unable to provide the necessary logistics for the panel to function.

The youths are Chijioke Ifediora, Henry Ugwu, Osonwa Chukwuka, Ebelechukwu Ngini, and Kas Obiwuzie.

In the letter to the Governor, Willie Obiano, read to journalists by Ifediora on February 14, the youth regretted that the panel was unable to reconvene since it went for the New Year about six weeks ago.

They said the panel’s sittings last year were characterised by inefficiency and poor organisation due to the failure of the state government to provide needed logistics.

Make panels permanent?

Lawyers, including Abadullahi Jomoh and Gabriel Danjuma, are of the view that the states should look at the possibility of having a permanent arrangement in the form of replicating the NHRC in each state, to be saddled with the responsibilities being addressed by the ad-hoc judicial panels.

Five ex-SARS operatives get comeuppance

Advocates of justice for victims of SARS brutality got a boost on February 14, when a High Court in Benin City, Edo State, sentenced a police constable, Joseph Omotosho, to death for conspiring with four other constables, said to be at large, to kill a car dealer in 2015.

The slain car dealer, Benson Obodeh, was suspected by the police to belong to a criminal gang.

Mr. Omotosho, who was dismissed from the police after the incident, served with the SARS.

The four other dismissed constables were also convicted but not sentenced because they were not present in the court.

They were identified as Adeleke Adedeji, Abena John, Oniyo Musa, and Henry Shobowole.

The four were said to have escaped while on trial from one of the Medium Security Correctional Centres in Benin City during last October’s jailbreaks.

The judge, Ohimai Ovbiagele, found all the accused persons guilty on an eight-count charge, which included conspiracy to steal and murder.

From the court proceedings, the slain Mr. Obodeh, 26, a Benin-based car dealer, was listed as a member of a criminal gang who allegedly stole a Peugeot car in Lagos.

He was said to have been arrested at his home in Benin City on May 21, 2015 and tortured to death the same day by the five police officers.

The presidency commended the court ruling.

Mr. Laolu Akande, the Senior Special Assistant to the President on Media and Publicity, Office of the Vice President, conveyed this in a tweet last Tuesday in Abuja.

“Welcome this important court ruling where five dismissed SARS officers were convicted and one already sentenced to death.

“We expect more of such because indeed justice is the first condition of humanity.

“We commend police authorities for earlier dismissing the convicts. Progress,’’ he said.

<<The Nation>>