Law

#EndSARS: Robbing judicial panels of legitimacy

 

AKEEM NAFIU writes that lawyers were unanimous against Federal Government’s onslaught on #EndSARS protesters and their promoters. To the lawyers, the government’s action apart from being prejudicial to the constitutional responsibility of the ongoing Judicial Panel of Enquiries into alleged brutality of officials of the disbanded Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS ), it may also rob the panel of enquiries of their legitimacy

 

 

 

“If the government at the centre is taking this kind of decision, what happens to the various panel of enquiries and commissions set up by state governments? What will be the consequence of the findings of those commissions of inquiries? Will the government not be unduly interfering with the activities of those panel of enquiries by obviously working from the answer to the question?

 

“Will those panel of enquiries not be readily duty-bound to agree with the position of the Federal Government in a country where all governors defer to the president like in a monarchy?

 

One of them asked Another one said “the arrest, prosecution and freezing of bank accounts of actors in the #EndSARS protests is to my humble mind a disservice to this nation and an exercise that was calculated to rubbish federalism.” The above were part of the views expressed by some senior lawyers on the ongoing clampdown by the Federal Government on some actors in the #EndSARS protests which last month rocked the country to its bottom.

 

The lawyers were unanimous in condemning the different strategies, part of which included freezing of bank accounts and confiscation of travel documents being employed by the Federal Government to punish those who presumed to have actively played key roles in the nationwide protests. They said by arresting, prosecuting and freezing the bank accounts of #EndSARS protesters, the Federal Government was defeating the purpose for the setting up of Judicial Panel of inquiries on police brutality across states in the country.

 

The latest move is being seen by them as being at variance with Federal Government’s earlier endorsement of dialogue as the best approach to addressing the protesters’ call for justice and good governance. Government at both the Federal and the state levels had set up Judicial Panel of inquiries in their quest to constructively engage the protesters in dialogue towards finding lasting solutions to some of the issues raised by them.

 

However, the various panel of enquiries had barely set out in their activities when the Federal Government began a crackdown on #EndSARS protesters and their promoters. Already, the Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN) had secured a court’s order through an ex-parte motion it filed at an Abuja Federal High Court to freeze the bank accounts linked to 19 young Nigerians and a firm for 90 days over their alleged involvement in the protest.

 

The apex bank had since, on the strength of the order, instructed six financial institutions, namely; the United Bank for Africa (UBA), Guarantee Trust Bank, Zenith Bank, Access Bank, Fidelity Bank and First Bank of Nigeria to attach all accounts linked to the 19 individuals in their domain. The 19 individuals affected by the order are Bolatito Racheal Oduala, Chima David Ibebunjoh, Mary Doose Kpengwa, Saadat Temitope Bibi, Bassey Victor Israel, Wisdom Busaosowo Obi, Nicholas Ikhalea Osazele, Ebere Idibie, Akintomide Lanre Yusuf, Uhuo Ezenwanyi Promise and Mosopefoluwa Odeseye.

 

Others are: Adegoke Pamilerin Yusuf, Umoh Grace Ekanem, Babatunde Victor Segun, Mulu Louis Teghenan, Mary Oshifowora, Winifred Akpevweoghene Jacob, Victor Solomon and Idunu A. Williams. Gatefield Nigeria Limited, an advocacy group that reportedly provided media coverage for the protest also had its account attached. Already, the freezing of Bolatito Racheal Oduala’s account had forced the Lagos State Judicial Panel under the chairmanship of Justice Doris Okuwobi (Rtd) to suspend its sitting.

 

This is because the panel could no longer form a quorom as Oduala, who is a member of the panel had excused herself immediately her account was frozen. Apart from freezing of #EndSARS protesters’ accounts, a lawyer who offered free legal service to some protesters arrested by the police, Modupe Odele, also had her international passport seized by the Nigeria Immigration Service (NIS), released later though.

 

The passport was seized at the Murtala Mohammed International Airport on her way to Dubai en route the Maldives. Odele’s passport was with the NIS for over a week before it was eventually returned to her. Federal Government’s defence Despite the public outrage against Federal Government’s clampdown on #EndSARS protesters, the Presidency has justified the action. Speaking on a TV programme, Senior Special Assistant to the President on Media and Publicity, Mallam Garba Shehu, said the nation had been hurt by the #EndSARS protests and that those who promoted the protests and allowed it degenerated into chaos must be made to face the full wrath of the law.

 

Shehu said: “Everyone witnessed the massive looting of public and private properties, particularly in Lagos, Calabar, Plateau, Taraba and some other states, even the FCT. Now, the laws of the country must be allowed to decide, to rule on wrongdoing on the part of just anybody.

 

“I am not particular about any celebrity or promoter, but this country has been harmed enormously and people should be prepared to account for what they did.” #EndSARS protesters fight back Determined in their quest to unfreeze their accounts, about 16 #End- SARS campaigners have asked the Federal High Court in Abuja to reverse a temporary restraining order placed on their accounts by the Central Bank of Nigeria.

 

The apex bank had claimed in an affidavit- in-support of its ex-parte motion to secure the freezing order that its decision to shut down the accounts was on suspicion that the demonstrators might have been funded through terrorism. However, in their counter motion filed at an Abuja Federal High Court, the #EndSARS protesters spelt out 13 grounds upon which they were seeking immediate unfreezing of their accounts.

 

In a-16 applicants, Racheal Oduala, Chima Ibebunjoh, Mary Kpengwa, Saadat Bibi, Bassey Israel, Wisdom Obi, Nicholas Osazele, Ebere Idibie, Akintomide Yusuf, Uhuo Promise, Mosopefoluwa Odeseye, Adegoke Pamilerin, Umoh Ekanem, Babatunde Segun, Mary Oshifowora and Idunnu Williams in the suit contended that the CBN acted illegally beyond its authority by freezing their bank accounts before approaching the court for a restraining order.

 

They also contended that their rights to fair hearing under Section 36 of the 1999 Constitution and the Article 7 of the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights (Ratification and Enforcement) Act, Laws of the Federation, 2004, was violated when the court order had allowed and empowered the CBN governor, Godwin Emefiele, to freeze their accounts for 90 days. They further argued that the court’s 90-day freezing order also violated Order 26 Rules 5, 10 and 11(1) and (2) of the Federal High Court Civil Procedure Rules, 2019, which prescribes a maximum of 14 days for the validity of an ex-parte order.

 

Faulting CBN’s suspicion that they were being funded through terrorism, the applicants argued that the CBN acted beyond its purview in the sense that it was never among the investigative or prosecuting agencies recognised under the Terrorism Prevention Act, 2011 and the Terrorism Prevention (Amendment) Act, 2013. In an affidavit deposed to by Marshal Abubakar of Femi Falana Chambers, it was averred that the bank accounts of the #EndSARS protesters were frozen in October by CBN without any justification or proof for its terrorism claim.

 

 

The deponent added that the protesters’ whose accounts were frozen had no previous criminal record. “They are Nigerian citizens, human rights activists, social crusaders and some of the leaders of the #End- SARS movement, campaigning for an end to the brutality and a series of human rights violations perpetrated by the special police unit known as Special Anti-Robbery Squad”, the deponent averred.

 

Lawyers speak Some senior lawyers have also joined the fray in condemning the clampdown on #EndSARS protesters and their promoters by the Federal Government. They said government’s action is illegal as it does not follow due process of law.

 

The lawyers while speaking on the issue at the weekend berated the Federal Government for ‘resorting to selfhelp’ at a time it was expected to allow various Judicial Panel of Enquiries carry out their assignments unhindered. They added that the action of government has defeated the purpose for which the panels were set up. Speaking on the issue, a Senior Advocate of Nigeria (SAN), Chief Mike Ozekhome, opined that government’s lack of patience for the various panels to conclude their assignments was an indication that something was amiss.

 

He said: “If the government at the centre is taking this kind of decision, what happens to the various panel of enquiries and commissions set up by state governments? What will be the consequence of the findings of those commissions of inquiries? Will the government not be unduly interfering with the activities of the panel of enquiries by obviously working from the answer to the question? “Will panel of enquiries not be readily duty-bound to agree with the position of the Federal Government in a country where all governors defer to the president like in a monarchy? “These are some of the questions that state governments have to ask before taking further steps.

 

“If it has nothing to hide, the Federal Government should make haste slowly and allow the various states to do their work because we are operating a federal system of government. “At the end of the various panel sittings, when the governors meet at their state council meetings, they can then present the findings and discuss the issue at the national level.

“But if the government begins to take proactive steps such as blocking the account of the protest sponsors, arresting the protesters and arraigning them, then the government has already pronounced them guilty even before the panel of enquiries make their findings.” Speaking in the same vein, Dr. Fassy Yusuf described the clampdown on #EndSARS protesters by the Federal Government as a disservice to the nation and an exercise targeted at rubbishing federalism. Yusuf said: “The arrest, prosecution and freezing of bank accounts of actors in the #EndSARS protests is to my humble mind, a disservice to this nation and an exercise that was calculated to rubbish federalism. “Moreover, Federal Government is resorting to self-help.

The Federal Government and the Governors agreed to set up Judicial Panel of Enquiries to look at the immediate and remote causes of the protests especially the 5-point demands of the protesters. “It is sad that without allowing the panels to start and/or complete their assignments, the Federal Government has resorted to self-help. This is unfortunate and not due process. It is against the rule of law.

“The Federal Government will be compounding the problem and in the future, it will be difficult for the citizens, especially those who took part in the protests to trust the government. Trust is very fundamental in whatever we do; we need trust to engage the youths and we need trust for them to participate in the process and other things government is doing for them. “I would counsel the Federal Government to tarry a while and await the outcome of the various panel of inquiries before taking further action.

The panels may recommend that certain members of the group be prosecuted or may recommend whatever they think is appropriate, but the Federal Government should not resort to self-help by taking any action that is prejudicial to the activities of the various panels. The Federal Government has to act in a responsible manner and return to the path of rectitude and honour.” A rights activist, Mr. Kabir Akingbolu, said the #EndSARS protesters had committed no offence to warrant the clampdown.

He said: “The Federal Government’s latest move of clamping down on the supposed protesters seems to have dealt a devastating blow on the very essence of the various panel of enquiries set up across the country. For the negative effect and extent of damage it will do, only time can tell, but I advise the government to re-trace its steps and stop the harassment because it is uncalled for. Akingbolu said: “Arresting protesters or freezing their accounts is the most ludicrous step any reasonable government anywhere can take. In fact, it is a joke taken too far. This is because by doing this, the president is telling the world that he doesn’t take criticism however little. How can you freeze accounts of protesters or place an embargo on them from traveling? I think it is very unjust and illegal because they have committed no offence in showing their grievances against the government and its ineptitude. “The president should know that we are not in a totalitarian state where all that matters is the interest of the ruler. Even though, the government of the day appears to have undermined or altogether destroyed all the tenets of modern democracy, one thing is certain, we are in civil rule and freedom of movement, freedom of association and freedom of speech are still part of our laws and same be respected.

 

“I also have a word of advice for the government and it is that they should know that the citizens of Nigeria are more enlightened and better educated than before. They are also not pleased with the present political order in the country which necessitated the End- SARS protest in the first place. “Imposition of travel ban and restrictions on the accounts of certain protesters is like sitting on a keg of gun powder.

 

It is dangerous if the ban is not lifted with immediate effect. This is because such action of government can be the precursor of another crisis or demonstration. So it will be wise for the government to use its tongue to count its teeth.” Mr. Malachy Ugwummadu also took a swipe at the Federal Government for clamping down on protesters.

He said: “The state is at liberty to prefer charges against anybody, but not in the circumstances that it has embarked on the present onslaught. The timing is wrong, the motive wrapped. What is important is to be able to gather watertight evidence to prove and establish the charges. “Allegations of terrorism and terrorist activities are not mere misdemeanors. They attract as much as life imprisonment upon conviction or N150m or both pursuant to Section 33 of the Terrorism (Prevention) Act 2011.

 

Thus, where were the CBN, DSS, FIU and other security and financial institutions before the ENDSARS protests? What the FG government has done with these moves amount to breach of the understanding it has with the Nigerian youths.” To Mr. Ige Asemudara, the Federal Government’s action had robbed the panel of enquiries of its legitimacy and importance. He said: “The Federal Government is different from the states. This country is not unitary and the Federal Government should not be seen as dictating to the states.

 

In the first instance, I think it should be the Federal Government that should set up the Panel of Inquiry and not the state. If any state desires to set up such panel, it should be on its own volition not under the directive of the Federal Government as is the case here.

 

“Having said that the action of the Federal Government in arresting or prosecuting the #EndSARS protesters will definitely affect the panel of enquiries, if a person is arrested and he is standing trial in relation to the protest, he may not have a need to go before the panels again. One proceeding will definitely be prejudicial to the other.

 

So, the panel may not achieve its purpose.” A Lagos-based lawyer, Mr. Destiny Takon, said the action of the Federal Government has given it an insensitive, oppressive and tyrannical face in the eyes of the public. “Apart from the absurdity of prosecuting #EndSARS protesters who were, in exercise of their constitutional right of expression, peacefully demanding for long overdue reforms in our police operations and an end to bad governance, the fact that this is coming simultaneously with the ongoing public hearings in several states of the federation, gives this government an insensitive, oppressive and tyrannical face.

 

“It also shows this government as being run by individuals with a dead conscience, who are sponsors and beneficiaries of the anti-people system of police and governance in the country and so, had to proceed to harass #End- SARS protesters, instead of seeking for justice for victims of police illegality, brutality and inhumanity, as various states are doing, by their public hearings.

 

“It is very obvious that rather than work towards the various yearning reforms demanded by the #EndSARS protesters, this government has resorted to intimidation and indiscriminate persecution of those they perceive to have been sponsors or participators in the protest. “This backward posture to governance serves their purpose and that was why the protests had to be crushed with brute, lethal albeit, illegal force.

 

That is why they have not sympathised with families whose children were murdered by Army assassins or moved to bring those mass murdering soldiers to book. “The #EndSARS protesters should be seen by all well-meaning Nigerians as patriots, as young people who love their country and want her to redeem her place in the comity of nations.

 

 

 

They do not have to be persecuted for daring to demand for an end to decades of police brutality and illegality. “Neither do they have to be persecuted for daring to demand for end to bad and irresponsible governance. The government must stop its naked dance in the market place, which its move under review represents and with immediate effect.”

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