Penultimate week, as the #EndSARS protests raged across the country, 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 of the dissolved Special Anti-Robbery Squads (SARS) and other police units. The panels, it noted, should include representatives of youths, students, civil society organisations, and be chaired by a respected retired State High Court Judge This resolution was contained in a statement issued by the Senior Special Assistant to the President on Media and Publicity, Office of the Vice President, Laolu Akande, at the end of the virtual meeting presided over by Vice President Yemi Osinbajo at the Presidential Villa, Abuja.
According to the statement, the panels would have other members selected by the state governor as follows: two representatives of civil society groups, a retired police officer of high repute, one youth representative, one student’s representative, one representative of the state Attorney-General and a representative from the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC). Their terms of reference are to receive and investigate complaints of police brutality or related extrajudicial killings; evaluate the evidence presented/other surrounding circumstances, and draw conclusions as to the validity of the complaints; and recommend compensation and other remedial measures, where appropriate. The NEC directed that each panel’s assignment should be concluded within a maximum of six months unless it shows convincing reasons why the state governor should allow an extension. In addition, it directed that state governors should immediately establish a state-based Special Security and Human Rights Committee to be chaired by them, to supervise the newly formed police tactical units and all other security agencies located in their domains. This, it said, was to ensure that those police formations and other security agencies in the states consistently protect the human rights of citizens.
On his part, President Muhammadu Buhari, last week, reaffirmed his commitment to supporting the state governments to ensure that justice was achieved for all victims of police brutality in the country. He noted that at the last count, no fewer than 13 states had gone ahead to establish the Judicial Panels of Inquiry as resolved by the NEC. The president, speaking through his Special Adviser on Media and Publicity, Mr. Femi Adesina, commended the promptness of what he called the “necessary sub-national actions.” He appealed for understanding and calm across the country, as the implementation of the reforms gathered pace at federal and state levels. He insisted that his administration remained committed to the implementation of lasting police reforms, adding that the immediate dissolution of SARS was only the first step in a set of reform policies that would deliver a police system accountable to the Nigerian people. He did not fail to mention that he had approved full implementation of the report of the 2018-2019 Presidential Panel on Police Reform, which it said the NHRC and the Police Service Commission (PSC) had begun implementing. The states that have set up panels of inquiry so far include Lagos, Kaduna, Delta, Ekiti, Ogun, Anambra, Enugu, Imo, Plateau, Edo, Nasarawa, Ondo and Akwa Ibom.
We commend the setting up of the panels of inquiry and urge state governments to give them a free hand to operate. Of a truth, if reports at formal and informal levels are any indication, the scale and level of brutalities, extortions and barbarities by members of the disbanded outfit are mind-boggling, and it is quite apposite that the Nigerian state has given ample indications of its readiness to seek redress and recompense, and compensation for victims. In a very significant sense, there is hardly any form of compensation that can atone for the barbarities already committed, particularly in the cases of the countless lives lost and the victims maimed for life. But justice can at least help the families of the dead to find closure, and give the living victims something to cheer about, particularly when the government tenders unreserved apology to them.
It is important to realise that the details emanating from the panel sittings across the country will be highly disturbing, and so state governments need to manage the situation in such a way that things do not snowball into another round of violence. No matter how harrowing the details turn out to be, it will be necessary for the protesters and the general public to keep calm, and await the decisions of the panels and their subsequent implementation by the affected state governments. In other words, the panels should be trusted to do a thorough job while the public should bear in mind that the country’s laws afford certain rights and privileges even to accused persons. On their part, members of the panel should bear in mind that they have been saddled with an intricate and onerous national responsibility that might make or mar the country’s democratic climate depending on how it is handled. They must sift through presentations carefully and separate substance from emotion. They must be conscious of the demands of justice, time and conscience. Needless to say, victims should be afforded a free atmosphere for their testimonies.
Ultimately, the goal is better and more responsible policing. The government should make it happen.