The #EndSARS Panels One Year On: Was Justice Ever Delivered? BY CHUKWUDI B. UKONNE

Or has it been deferred?

At the start of October 2020, Nigerians in towns and cities across the country took to the streets as part of the #EndSARS movement. These widespread protests, which some have described as the defining movement of this generation, initially demanded the disbandment of the rogue police unit, but soon evolved into wider calls for government accountability.

Then, on 20 October, the demonstrations came to an abrupt halt after the Nigerian army opened fire on protesters in Lagos. Dozens of protesters were killed and many more injured in what became known as the Lekki Toll Gate Massacre.

The government’s initial response was to deny the scale of the atrocity. In a tense interview on CNN days after the incident, for example, Lagos State Governor Babajide Sanwoolu promised to “do everything to ensure [perpetrators] are held accountable” but claimed only two people had been killed. When pressed for answers on who was responsible for the shooting, the governor reluctantly admitted that the CCTV camera footage showed ‘men in military uniform’ present at the site of the shooting – all but outrightly confirming what international news agencies had already reported.

Under continued pressure, however, the federal government eventually sanctioned the formation of judicial panels across all 36 Nigerian states that were to investigate grievances against the police.

The panel set up in Lagos, which was also tasked with looking into the Lekki Toll Gate Massacre, attracted special attention and received the highest number of petitions. It commenced sitting on 26 October 2020 and was given an initial six months to carry out investigations. A N200 million (€415365.65) fund was established to pay compensation to victims, though it remains unclear how the state government predetermined this figure.

Since hearings began, there have been several questionable elements of the panel.

For instance, many petitioners have lacked legal representation, even though the Nigerian Bar Association offers pro-bono services. This put many petitioners at a disadvantage, with some cases having to be dismissed on account of having insufficient or inadmissible evidence.

There have been allegations of foul play or conflict of interest during proceedings, including one incident in which one of the defendants, the Lekki Concession Company, was seen consulting with the Lagos state government’s legal counsel, who is meant to be an independent arbiter, before hearings began. This open fraternization between an accused party and the government made many observers question the government’s resolve towards ensuring fair hearing for the petitioners. On account of this alleged collusion, one of the youth representatives of the panel, Rinu Oduala, stepped down from the panel entirely, describing the process as a “rubber-stamped and foregone conclusion.”

And there have been various attempts to delay, sidetrack, or pervert the panel’s proceedings. At one point, for example, the Nigerian Police Force filed a lawsuit at a federal high court seeking to stop all the Judicial Panels of Inquiry, describing them as “unconstitutional, illegal, null and void and of no effect whatsoever”. The suit was subsequently withdrawn.

As of April 2021, when the Lagos panel had been operational for six months and was meant to be nearing its conclusion, it had heard only 112 out of 235 cases. It had disbursed  N43.75 million (€89854.61) to seven petitioners for a range of claims including extrajudicial killings of relatives, unlawful detention, harassment, and other forms of brutality. Of the 28 states that established judicial panels, Lagos was the last to conclude its proceedings, which officially closed on October 18 2021. The Lagos State panel awarded N410 million as compensation to 71 petitioners. Of the 255 petitions received, the panel decided on 182 petitions, with 52 petitions not heard due to “time constraints”.

Justice for the Lekki Toll Gate Massacre remains particularly elusive, in part because the Nigerian army has failed to cooperate. It initially refused to attend hearings and later prevented members of the panel from entering the mortuary at the military hospital where killed protesters are suspected to have been taken.

This means that one year on from the massacre, the question of who ordered the shootings is yet to be answered. Worse still, none of the panels have recommended any policeman or soldier stand trial in a court of law.

As the panel prepares its final report for submission to the Lagos State Government through the Ministry of Justice, the legal underpinnings of the panel’s recommendations are still unclear. While the State Judicial Panels of Inquiry have the legal backing to investigate allegations of human rights violations and even award compensation to deserving parties, the involvement of federal government agencies in the investigations (the Nigeria Police Force and Army) means that the implementation of the recommendations of the reports is at the discretion of the federal authorities.

In this way, the #EndSARS judicial panels appear to be following the same pattern as others before it. Constituted more to placate the masses than to actually deliver justice, bodies such as the 1999 Human Rights Violations Investigation Commission or the 2001 Judicial Commission of Inquiry into the Zaki Biam massacre have similarly lacked the political backing required to ensure implementation of panel reports and hold perpetrators accountable.

For the many Nigerians affected by police brutality, one can only hope that this is justice deferred and not denied.

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