Following the violence that later marred the initially peaceful #EndSARS protests across Nigeria, an emergency session was convened in Abuja between Vice President Yemi Osinbajo and the governors of the country’s 36 states, including the Minister of the Federal Capital Territory (FCT), where an agreement was reached for each state of the federation to set up separate judicial panels of inquiry to probe human rights abuses by operatives of the defunct Special Anti Robbery Squad (SARS), as part of wider efforts towards a comprehensive reformation of the Nigerian Police Force (NPF).
Some state governments have immediately swung into action by establishing their investigative panels of inquiry with terms’ of reference in the following mold:
- To listen to and take evidence from all victims or the families of victims of SARS abuse within the state (in the mold the Truth and Reconciliation Committee in countries). This would enable all victims and their families air and vent their grievances.
- Upon determining the compensation payable, the Judicial Panel is to immediately issue a check in favour of the victim or their dependents.
- The Judicial Panel is also to determine the officers (or anyone for that matter) responsible for abusing any victim and to recommend the prosecution of such persons.
- The panel shall also have powers to make recommendations to Government on how to ensure that the police and all security agencies never abuse the rights of citizens again.
- The Panel has the powers to compel and summon witnesses to appear before it. The Panel is expected to use these powers to ensure that all necessary parties appear before the Panel to testify.
IMPLICATIONS: From the aforementioned terms’ of reference, the states’ panels of inquiry would be playing purely investigative and advisory roles, as they lack enforcement powers.
The fact is that setting up judicial panels are not novel occurrences in Nigeria as governors are enabled to establish judicial committees under the Judicial Inquiry Law and the Commission of Inquiry Act of the Federal Capital Territory, which makes it curious that the governors had to be asked by the Presidency to exercise powers they already had.
Another curious part of the matter is the fact that only State Governments are setting up panels of inquiry, while the Federal Government is not doing the same. What this means is that the panel’s work will stop at the table of the governor, who can only issue a white paper on the matter, which will only be applicable to the state, after deliberations and consultations with stakeholders. Now considering the fact that police is item 45 in the Exclusive List of the Constitution, which automatically makes the police a federal body, which may not necessarily be bound by the decisions of the state judicial panels of inquiry, does it not amount to a waste of time, energy and resources to go ahead with the whole idea of setting up investigative bodies at the state levels?
Again, the police under Section 2153 of the Constitution is directly under the control of the President, meaning that the decisions of the State Judicial Panels of Inquiry can be circumvented by the President, who can order the IGP to do only his bidding.
The question is: why has the Federal Government refrained from setting up a panel of inquiry on the police? Why is it leaving it to the governors? Recall that the FG had set up investigative panels in the past such as: The Justice Uwaise panel on Electoral Reform-2019, the Turaki Panel on Security Crisis in Northern Nigeria, the Abdulmalik Panel on Boko Haram, and the Presidential Panel, headed by a retired President of the Court of Appeal, currently Investigating the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC), to mention just a few. So, why is not doing the same now?
WAY FORWARD: As dictated by current exigencies, the Federal Government should immediately stop the states from continuing on their wild goose chases by adopting reports of past inquiries into the misdemeanors of police operatives, all of which contain solid recommendations that can make the police more people-friendly and service-oriented.
Concluded investigations into different aspects of policing such as the 2019 Tony Ojukwu Presidential Panel on SARS Reform will come in handy in this case as they contain broad suggestions covering aspects such as recruitment, training, forensics, equipment, decentralization, oversight, budget et.al. These reports can be studied, deliberated upon, followed by the issuing of White Papers and sequencing of the suggestions. Government could at least start with these reports and see where it leads.
In all, a comprehensive credible reform of the police cannot be achieved overnight. It is an extensive exercise that will take some time!