Wednesday, 24 November 2021 15:55

[OPINION] #ENDSARS panel as a model for Nigeria - Ebun-Olu Adegboruwa, SAN

THIS piece has nothing to do with the report of the Panel submitted to the Governor of Lagos State, as to the merits or otherwise, as the White Paper promised by the government is being awaited. Let me now invite you to look at some aspects of the Panel that can be of benefit to our dear nation, especially the judicial sector. 

Mode of appointment of judicial officers: It is my firm conviction that one of the principal factors that help to determine the independence, integrity and effectiveness of a judicial officer is the mode of appointment. The old saying remains ever true that he who pays the piper dictates the tune.

We should, therefore, remove the influence of lobby in the mode of appointment of judicial officers, in order to guarantee their independence. Let the appointment be on merit, so that it will be treasured and become impactful. For the EndSARS Panel, the Governor of Lagos State did an excellent job in the assemblage of men and women of integrity into the panel. 

The governor stated that prior to her appointment as chairperson of the panel, he had not met Honourable Justice Doris Okuwobi (retd) and indeed many other members of the panel. So, we didn’t feel obliged to kowtow to anybody but to act in good faith in accordance with our conscience and in deference to God. Objectivity was the watchword for panel members as there was no faction, no allegiance to any godfather, bait of financial inducement or indeed any reason for patronage.

The chairperson of the panel was a no-nonsense and fearless judicial officer who had demonstrated rare integrity on the Bench before she retired honourably. She recorded all proceedings of the panel in longhand and had her own personal record and files for every petition. 

The other panel members were people with vast experiences in human rights, civil society organisations, criminology and indeed general law enforcement mechanisms. There were no preconceived notions or ideas but rather superiority of intellectual arguments based on rational convictions.

At times, a particular petition may look this way or that way but by the time the panel meets at its conference to analyse it, even the members do sometimes get shocked at the outcome. Such was the robustness of discourses at the panel and we always looked forward to the conferences. 

So if judges can be appointed without recourse to tribal or religious affiliations, they stand in good stead to perform more excellently than the current trend where traditional rulers, politicians and moneybags in some cases, determine who goes to the Bench.

Qualification, experience and competence: Closely linked to the issue of appointment is the quality and experience of the judicial officer. If appointment is based on patronage, then anybody will get to the Bench, irrespective of qualification and experience. In relating this to the EndSARS panel, it parades some of the best in relation to the subject matter of the assignment. The chairperson had an unblemished career spanning so many years, having risen from the Ministry of Justice. She had the zeal for the assignment and gave her very best to it. 

Although I was chosen as her deputy by the other members, I was led in my spirit not to ever preside over proceedings of the panel in her absence and I told the other members and pleaded with them. So, we kept encouraging her and praying for good health and strength for her such that throughout the sittings of the panel, she was never absent on ground of ill-health.

The panel had a seasoned officer who had distinguished himself in security intelligence and operations. That’s why I was shell-shocked when I heard about the alleged ‘discrepancies’ or ‘missing links’  (all traceable to the government, one from a paid counsel and the other from a paid government employee) being bandied about by the government and its agents, one of which was that the panel did not consider the case of policemen who suffered brutality in the course of the EndSARS protest. 

This elderly, humorous and polished officer would guide the panel in all matters relating to security and he indeed made a very strong case for the consideration of police officers who were victims of abuses.

When the panel was inaugurated, it had a floodgate of petitions so this had to be capped on December 22, 2020 which was the last date we received any petition at all.

The panel was set up to examine the complaints of citizens against the police but we met and felt moved by the cases of police officers that lost their lives, relations or property. So the panel decided to waive the closing date in order to receive petitions from police officers who were victims.

We got about 64 petitions but since it was just about two weeks for the panel to wind up its open sittings, we decided to filter the petitions and narrow them to cases with loss of lives, serious injuries or loss of property. We heard these petitions and awarded compensation in cases that we considered meritorious.

None of the police petitions relates to the Lekki Toll Gate investigation as no single policeman or any other security officer was reported to have died from the Lekki Toll Gate. So we decided to group police petitions along with the general cases of police brutality which constitute volume one of the panel’s reports that were submitted to the governor on November 15, 2021, in hard copy.

So when I heard of alleged insensitivity on the part of the panel in failing to consider the cases of policemen, I knew straight away the kind of game that the government and its agents were up to, namely to give the panel a bad name so as to hang it. The alleged discrepancies being parroted by the paid agents of the government constitute the gamut of the case presented before the panel by the government, all of which we examined succinctly and made useful findings.

What it means, therefore, is that the persons speaking of discrepancies were not speaking from the reports of the panel. And if the White Paper promised by the government is to be based on such ‘report’, then the onus is on the government to publish the authentic report submitted to it by the panel, so that Nigerians, and indeed the whole world, would be in a better position to juxtapose them.

This is because it will be totally unfair for the government and its agents to substitute their own so-called discrepancies for the report of the Panel in order to lay the foundation for their white paper.

The assignment of the Panel rally around certain Germaine issues which fell for determination, namely:

(i)           Was there a protest at the Lekki Toll Gate?

(ii)         What was the nature of the protest?

(iii)       Was there an invitation to the Nigerian Army?

(iv)       Who invited the Nigerian Army?

(v)         Was there a deployment of the Nigerian Army to the Lekki Toll Gate?

(vi)       Who deployed the Nigerian Army to the Lekki Toll Gate?

(vii)     Given the nature of the protest at the Lekki Toll Gate, was the DEPLOYMENT (please mark this particular WORD as this was indeed the focus since the Panel was not set up to look into the activities of the Nigerian Army in OTHER parts of Lagos State) of the Nigerian Army to the Lekki Toll Gate warranted or justified?

(viii)   Did the Nigerian Army shoot at the Lekki Toll Gate (whether into the air, unto heaven, to the ground, directly at protesters or even against themselves)?

(ix)       Did the Nigerian Army shoot both live and blank bullets at the Lekki Toll Gate?

(xi)       Was the police present at the Lekki Toll Gate on October 20, 2020?

(xii)     Did the police shoot at the Lekki Toll Gate on October 20, 2020?

(xiii)   Did death occur from shootings at the Lekki Toll Gate?

(xiv)   Were there attempts to cover up the evidence of death at the Lekki Toll Gate?

These are the real issues which the Panel dwelt upon and any ‘report’ that does not address these issues cannot be said to be the report of the Panel. And I believe that the honest answers to these questions are largely in the public domain, when properly examined, devoid of emotions and politics.

Certified true copies of proceedings of the Panel in respect of the Lekki Investigation are available so that we don’t really need these distractions of supposed discrepancies or missing links that are being concocted to obfuscate the real issues in the matter, especially now that the government is even claiming that the Panel altered the testimony of witnesses! Imagine.

JUDICIAL INDEPENDENCE

Give it to Governor Babajide Sanwo-Olu any day, for keeping his vow not to interfere in the operations of the EndSARS Panel. At least for me (and I believe this goes for other members of the Panel too) not once was I approached to determine any petition in any particular way and no overtures were made even in respect of Lekki Toll Gate Investigation.

Right from the day the Panel was inaugurated, we took charge absolutely. We determined the day and time of our sittings, the mode of our operations and the general conduct of the proceedings without any interference at all. The Panel functioned under the Ministry of Justice and the Honourable Attorney-General never for once made any move to influence the decisions of the Panel.

Even when the Panel had cause to approach him on some administrative issues, he would maintain the stance of the government that it is an independent Panel.

Such was the latitude. And this is why the response of the same government to the outcome of the Panel’s activities is rather shocking.

If ever the government had a preconceived idea of what happened at the Lekki Toll Gate, this was not disclosed to us at all, so we proceeded upon the premise that we were free to dig out the truth and nothing but the truth.

The lesson in this is simply that if judicial officers are given free hand to operate without undue interference, then justice will come back to our land, impunity will cease and everyone will fall in line, knowing that the Court is no respecter of persons or governments.

When judges look at what has happened to their colleagues who have been targets of harassment by the executive, especially security agencies, many judges would exercise extreme caution to cross the lines.

This was not the case at the EndSARS Panel as every member had the liberty to think and act in the way his/her conscience directed.

Adegboruwa, SAN,  a member of the panel, wrote from Lagos

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