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Nigerians await #EndSARS panels’ report

By Editorial Board
19 October 2021   |   3:01 am
By its original mandate, the Justice Doris Okuwobi panel of inquiry into the #EndSARS protest in Lagos State is supposed to conclude its hearing today.

By its original mandate, the Justice Doris Okuwobi panel of inquiry into the #EndSARS protest in Lagos State is supposed to conclude its hearing today.

If the panel is able to meet that deadline, it will nevertheless be about one year since the tumultuous events of the protest that rocked the entire country in an unprecedented fashion. It is disappointing that the panels, set up countrywide to investigate and provide answers to posers arising from the incident are yet to complete their assignment and submit a report.

Reasons for the disillusionment are obvious: The protest, organised by the youth, was like no other in the country’s history; it featured an array of civility and organisation that could not be faulted even by law enforcement agencies; the organisers made points to protect Nigerians against police brutality but also for enhancement of police welfare, and they made optimum use of modern communication technology to canvass their case and mobilise fellow Nigerians. It was most notable and unfortunate that the protest took unprecedented violence after state actors, desperate to halt it, embarked on measures that triggered a wave of criminality, including killings, looting, arson and a general breakdown of law and order.

Although the protest was nationwide, it was expectedly most profound in Lagos State, which therefore is expected to lead in resolving matters arising. Again, there is no doubt that the Lagos State Government led by Babajide Sanwo-Olu rose vigorously to the occasion and responded promptly by setting up the panel of inquiry, but the long interval has inevitably dampened the people’s enthusiasm for a full resolution; and many have perceived the inquiry as an example of ‘‘justice delayed is justice denied.’’ It is important, therefore, that the Okuwobi panel, which undoubtedly is saddled with heavy responsibility, surmounts whatever challenges before it, concludes its work creditably and within a reasonable time frame, in order to assuage bruised feelings.

The #EndSARS protest which actually started on October 8, 2020, and dragged on to October 22, 2020, was organised by Nigerian youths in protesting against police brutality and demanding the disbandment of the Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS), a unit of the police force accused of extortion and extrajudicial killings. It culminated in a controversial advancement of armed men of the Nigerian Army and the alleged killing of protesters who were demanding good governance while wielding the Nigerian flag and chanting the nation’s national anthem at the Lekki toll gate in Lagos. In order to address the issues and demands of the youths raised at the time, the Lagos State government, following a resolution by the National Economic Council (NEC), had set up the panel to investigate cases of police brutality and human rights violations allegedly perpetrated by operatives of the Nigerian Police Force, particularly its now-disbanded Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS).

Apprehension regarding the panel’s work and mandate heightened when, some weeks ago its Chairman, retired Justice Doris Okuwobi, announced the indefinite suspension of sittings to enable the Panel to evaluate, collate and make its findings. However, Ebun-Olu Adegboruwa, a Senior Advocate of Nigeria and member of the panel representing the civil society, had alleged attempts to frustrate the Panel from reaching meaningful conclusions on investigations into the Lekki Toll Gate incident. While no detail was given at the time, the repeated extension of the Panel’s date of completion and its seemingly endless sittings appear to point to something amiss.

Nigerians’ fear of the panels was hinged on the fact that similar panels set up in the past did not achieve meaningful results as their reports never saw the daylight or were not implemented. The series of events that occurred between October 8 and October 22, 2020, particularly the shootings at the Lekki Toll Gate was a defining moment in the history of Nigeria. Properties worth billions of naira, particularly public assets belonging to the state government were looted and destroyed; while the violence and criminality that flowed from it robbed the nation of the future of some of its promising youths, including policemen, whose loved ones continue to live in grief to this day while hoping for relief from the reports of the Panel.

The Justice Okuwobi panel must ensure the completion of its investigation while Sanwo-Olu should follow up appropriately by prosecuting those found culpable. At a time of palpable unrest when the country contends with various groups agitating for secession, Nigerians need credible reasons to believe in the continuous existence of the Nigerian State. A pervasive sense of injustice does not help in building such trust. Innocent Nigerians particularly the common class have for too long been subjected to various acts of brutality and extortion by a state apparatus put in place to ensure their safety. It is only just that this anomaly is addressed, and this the government can do by ensuring that victims are adequately compensated, culprits within the force are duly sanctioned, and that the nation is spared such calamity in future.

Amongst the demands by the protesters at the time was an improvement on the welfare of officers and men of the Police force, inclusive of compensation for occupational hazards and provision of regular training. Although Buhari while calling for an end to the protests at the time, assured the nation that the voices of the youths had been heard loud and clear, it is instructive to note that one year after, there has been no significant improvement in the welfare of officers and men of the police. While the corrupt practices by some men and women in uniform are inexcusable, the correlation between the poor welfare or lack of periodic training of members of the force and these vices should not be overlooked.

The events of October 2020 are too significant in the life of the nation to be treated with levity, and the government would be wise to consider it a barometer to gauge the pulse of Nigerians, particularly the youths who until this time may have been generally regarded as passive to political issues. Nigerians have been patient with the inadequacies of their elected officers so far, but it would be unwise to continue to test their patience.