The directive by the National Economic Council (NEC) that state governments set up judicial panel of enquiry over complaints against the disbanded Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS) has been heeded by many states. The Rivers State government which initially demurred, contending that similar findings in the past against the organisation by a state panel, yielded no result, went on to set up one. We agree on the need for a judicial panel to unearth the truth about the alleged abuses perpetrated by the squad.
But we are concerned about the efficacy of the state panels investigating a Federal Government agency, like the police or the army, with regards to the Lagos State panel. For instance, we wonder what will happen if a subpoena issued by the state panel against the police or army is disobeyed, or if there should be the need to enforce it against any of the personnel. In cases where a police or army officer ignores an invitation by the panels, would the panels be able to sanction such a deviant? If in any case a panel recommends payment of damages, or such other remedy as it deems fit, will the Federal Government ensure obedience?
There is no doubt that the allegations against the defunct SARS may amount to crimes punishable under the laws of the state, but unless the police as an institution, or even the Federal Government show overt support to the panels, no decision or sanction against the police would have any effect. That challenge, in our view, underlines the incongruity of operating a centralised police force in a country which the constitution prefaces as a federation.
So, those who are afraid that the Federal Government may ignore the findings of the state panels, when the din about the #EndSARS protests and its tragic aftermath ends, have genuine fears. If the findings are ignored, what will be the remedy available for the state authorities in law, to assuage those who suffered in the hands of the dreaded SARS? That possibility should worry the NEC that gave the advisory for the panels to be set up by state governments.
We believe that the #EndSARS protests and the tragic aftermath is one more reason why the security architecture of our country needs overhaul. Whether with respect to the grave allegations against the SARS, or in the inability of the states to stop the carnage when the federal police retreated, the glaring gap in the security architecture proved very devastating. When the federal police retreated, the state governments became totally helpless and the rioters had a field day burning and looting government and private properties.
Indeed, if we operated a federalised police system, there would have been no central SARS, whose alleged misdemeanours have turned a national calamity. Looked at from different angles, the police system we operate is abnormal, and that abnormality added in no small measure to the challenges of the past few weeks. Instead of beating about the bush, we think it is high time the nation confronted the monster of over-centralisation of its police, such that once there is a challenge at the centre, it demeans the entire national structure.
Perhaps, since the states have set up the panels, it behoves the Federal Government to ensure that the findings are enforced. As a corollary to state panels, the Federal Government can set up its own judicial panel to collate the findings, and deal specifically with personnel who were engaged in inter-state and widespread abuses. We urge the federal and state governments not to play the ostrich with the alleged abuses levelled against the SARS by majority of Nigerian youths.