2020 would be globally remembered for years to come. It was a year that was shaped by memorable events that nearly shook the existence of many nations. Muritala Ayinla writes on the #EndSARS protests that rocked Nigeria in 2020 and efforts to address the wrongs that prompted the rage
For many Nigerians, Year 2020 came to expose the realities of already known and unknown challenges capable of threatening the unity and existence of the country. From COVID-19 outbreak which brought many lives including those of the nation’s prominent personalities to an end, to the lockdown that came with its adverse economic impacts on the people and their businesses, Nigerians won’t forget the year in a hurry.
The nationwide demonstrations against police brutality also known as #EndSARS protest that was later hijacked and turned into wanton destruction of lives and properties was an unfortunate episode in the year as fire and fury nearly brought the nation to its knees with almost a near collapse of law and order across the states. Lagos, Nigeria’s commercial nerve centre, was both the epicentre of the #EndSARS protest and the destruction that followed. Public and private properties were vandalized and set on fire. Public facilities comprising of parks and BRT buses, government emergency vehicles and other valuables were destroyed in the hijacked protest.
Palaces of traditional rulers were not spared, homes and businesses of notable personalities were torched just as police stations, secretariat buildings and public and private offices were destroyed and vandalized in the wave of violence protests that swept through the country. Investments of life-time savings were destroyed, leaving many hopeless and disenchanted. Roads, bridges and transportation facilities were completely shut and vandalized with hundreds of vehicles burnt.
The chaos swept from street to street, consuming lives and livelihoods across the country. It left over the loss of lives of citizens, the injured, and the colossal destruction of public and private properties. But experts attributed the destructions to what they described as pent up anger; others called it bottled anger, saying many Nigerians are not pleased with years of abuse of human rights by the supposed law enforcement agents.
They said many Nigerians suffered in silence as their rights were flagrantly abused by the notorious police unit also known as Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS). But to heal the wounds of many years of right abuses and police brutality, the Federal Government declared immediate establishment Judicial Panel of Inquiry and Restitution for Victims of SARS Related Abuses across the state. But according to Vice-President Yemi Osinbajo, the mandate of the panel in Lagos was expanded to include a full investigation of the Lekki toll gate incidents.
He said the Federal Government will ensure that all those responsible for misconduct or wrongful acts are brought to justice. His words: “We understand that you want to see action from us and I’m here to tell you that work is ongoing.
I chaired a meeting of 36 state governors and the Minister of the FCT (NEC), where we resolved to set up judicial panels of inquiry so we can see justice served, and fast.” According to him then, he had been holding meetings with the Senate President, Speaker of the House of Representatives, the Inspector General of Police and the Human rights Commission over the nationwide protests. Also apeaking at the launch of the Lagos Rebuild Trust Fund, Vice President Osinbajo said that truth and justice remains the balm for an injured society and that the panels of enquiry would ensure justice is served.
He explained that the pursuit of restorative justice, recompense for injury to innocents and a reckoning for perpetrators of abuse are essential components of the moral and ethical reconstruction of our homestead.
He, therefor urged all Nigerian to give the process a chance to work and to commit to the advocacy and participation that it will take to enable the process succeed He said: “Our state, like our nation, is in need of healing. We recognize that the balm for a wounded society is truth and justice. This is why Judicial Panels of Inquiry have been established all across the country.
Their mandate is to investigate cases of police brutality against citizens, where necessary compensate victims. Specifically, in Lagos the mandate of the inquiry has been expanded to include a full investigation of the Lekki toll gate incidents. This process has begun and all federal agencies and the armed services are participating actively as Mr. President said.”
To heal the wound of injustice and restore peace in the land through dispensation of justice, Lagos State governor, Mr. Babajide Sanwo-Olu, raised a seven-man Judicial Panel of Enquiry and Restitution to investigate cases of brutality and human rights violations committed by operatives of the dissolved Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS) in the state. The move was part of the steps taken by the state government to address the five-point demands of youths who demonstrated against SARS brutality.
The panel, headed by Justice Doris Okuwobi (rtd), will sit for six months and is mandated to thoroughly investigate all verifiable claims of abuses and fatalities arising from SARS engagements in the state, with the objective to bring erring officers to justice and get compensation for the victims.
The panel has three individuals representing the civil society, one person representing the security agencies and one person representing the government. The Human Rights Commission and protesters also nominated representatives. The governor also set aside a N200 million Trust Fund for the compensation of victims and families of those who died in the course of SARS’ activities.
The developments, Sanwo- Olu said, were part of the agreements reached at the meeting of the National Economic Council (NEC) presided over by the Vice- President Osinbajo, and which had all governors in attendance. “I attended a National Economic Council Sub-Committee Meeting in which the major focus was the #EndSARS protests and the necessary steps to take to assuage the feelings of the protesters.
In line with the fivepoint demands of the protesters, we unanimously decided to inaugurate a panel of investigation into human rights abuses. “A seven-member Judicial Panel of Enquiry and Restitution for victims of SARS-related abuses in Lagos State is now being constituted. This panel will ensure that all those with verifiable cases of SARS brutality or fatality get justice and receive compensation. The panel will be chaired by retired Justice Doris Okuwobi.
“Other panel members are Mr. Ebun Adegboruwa, SAN (representing the Civil Society), Taiwo Lakanu (a retired Deputy Inspector General of Police), Ms Patience Udoh (representing the Civil Society), Mr. Segun Awosanya (Human Rights Activist), Mrs. Olutoyin Odusanya (Director, Lagos Citizens Mediation Center), as well as a representative of the youthled protest and a representative of the Human Rights Commission,” Sanwo- Olu explained then.
The governor said his government frowns at police misconduct seriously and will continue to respect the rights of citizens to demonstrate peacefully. Today, in line with the Federal Government’s directive as part of the measure to restore peace and restitution, the 36 states of the federation including the FCT have not only established the judicial panel of enquiry but they have commenced sitting in public to enable citizen follow the proceeding. From Anambra to Abia State; Delta to Edo State; Enugu to Imo, victims of police brutality are sharing their experiences. From the Osun State to Ekiti State, those abused by personnel of the defunct SARS are enjoying the opportunity to narrate their ugly encounter with them.
The story is not different in Kwara, Kano, Ogun, Ondo and other parts of the country. Since part of the mandate of the panels is to ensure justice, the key word for all of them, whether in the North or South, is transparency such that for the first time, victims have the privilege of narrating their ordeals in the hands of the defunct SARS unit of the police. The carefully selected members of the various panels comprising justices, legal luminaries and right activists are also ensuring that both the plaintiffs and defendants have fair hearing. Indications from the panels’ sittings since its establishments have also revealed that there would be no sacred cows.
The respective panels have summoned the police, army chiefs and other top government functionaries. For instance, in the course of investigating the controversial Lekki shootings the Lagos panel has summoned some army chiefs and other interested parties. The panel has also summoned Governor Sanwo-Olu and the Minister of Works and Housing, Mr. Babatunde Fashola. Meanwhile, as part of moves to heal the wounds and reform the police, Vice President Osinbajo said that President Muhammadu Buhari has signed the new reformed Police Act 2020 into law after 70 years of the Police Act. The new law, according to him, contains in many parts, components of a charter of the rights of citizens when being questioned.
“The President has also signed into law, the Police Trust Act, essentially to provide a source of extra funding for the police. Equally, the Police has also initiated its community policing programme aimed at reframing policing as an activity based on trust between law enforcement and the community. We recognize that our communities can be made safer when they are primarily policed by members of that same community who enjoy the trust of their neighbours,” he said.
As the panels continue to sit across the states, it is the hope of every Nigerian that truth and justice, which are the balm of the wounded, will prevail and that the citizenry will give the process a chance to succeed.
This, it is believed, is the sure way Nigerians can have a rebirth of genuine reform in the nation’s police system, while those who have been unjustly treated by the police are adequately compensated.