Prof. Chidi Odinkalu, former Chairman of the National Human Rights Commission (NHCR), is the senior team manager for the Africa Program of Open Society Justice Initiative. He senses an ulterior motive in the President directing state governments to set up judicial inquiry into the abuses by the defunct Special Anti Robbery Squad (SARS) as the police is under the jurisdiction of the Federal Government not the States
What is your perspective on the #EndSARS protest across the country?
If there is one lesson from the weeks of #EndSARS protests in Nigeria, it’s that our rulers have no value for human life. State governors who can’t bring themselves to care for the mass killings of their people are irate because hungry people took Indomie? We are all getting educated on the situation. There is a lot that has happened and there is a lot that is still unknown. The story keeps evolving daily. The Lagos State Governor has given us, I don’t know how many versions of what transpired at Lekki toll-gate. It is like each day he discovers a new version of the story or he has a new revelation everyday. The Army has also kept revising its own version of the story. There is a whole village of paid trolls committed to making us believe nothing happened and, if they had their way, they could even persuade us that there is nothing like Lekki toll-gate. Media houses have been burnt, journalists and citizens are being intimidated. There is this army of judicial commissions of inquiry setting out across different states in the country. None of that would have happened if we didn’t have young people prepared to ask awkward questions from rulers who, for the most part, have missed the vocation of leadership. There is no better proof of that than the state governors hoarding food from their hungry populations and now scrambling for excuses to hide that kind of executive callousness. We all forget in all this politicking that many of our fellow citizens in different parts of the county have avoidably lost their lives, killed in circumstances in which no responsible government should tolerate. I hope and pray that the families of the victims will, in time, be consoled despite all the intimidation by the country.
The ＃EndSARS protests started off very organised but was suddenly hijacked by hoodlums and it turned violent. What do you think happened?
It seems clear even with the limited material we have now that the president and his intimates treated the protest from the beginning as a regime change proposition that had to be crushed. Everything fits this thesis. In the fullness of time, what happened will be revealed. That makes what I think both immaterial and irrelevant.
What lessons do you think the #EndSARS protest across the country holds for Nigeria?
It may be too early to systematise all the lessons into one coherent narrative but one clear thing obviously is that no country can afford interminably to disregard its young population or their well-being. Nigeria has one of the youngest populations in the world with a median age at just 18 years. That is a demographic that will continue to ask awkward questions. Our rulers don’t seem to have any answers to these questions. That is bad enough. The saddest part is that they don’t even seem to care about the need for answers.
President Muhamadu Buhari addressed the nation on after more than one week of the protest but the address however did not mention the Lekki incident, even as it was more of a threat than addressing the grievances, what is your take?
Hopefully, those who begged the president to speak have been satisfied. What else can I say? It is always a bad idea to beg an elected president to speak to his people. But that is the story with the Buhari presidency.
The Nigerian Army has the notion that the protests were aimed at destabilising the country, what is your view on that?
That fits the regime change narrative I spoke about. I tend to think that the president and his intimates are fixated on 1985 and on making sure it doesn’t repeat itself and they tend to see everything they don’t like from a window built from 1985.
Six months after the government locked down the country as a result of COVID-19, warehouses filled with palliative materials are being discovered around the country…
(Cuts in) I have already addressed this. There is nothing kind to say of most of the state governors. But again, we need to be clear – some governors did right. For instance, the Nassarawa State Governor promptly shared out the relief material that he received without waiting for anyone to come and take selfies with them. So, you ask the question: what did he know that his other colleagues didn’t?
You spoke about the hordes of judicial inquiry being set up by state governments into police brutality, what should be the terms of the probe, should they be civil or criminal?
It is always suspicious when the Federal Government outsources its constitutional role to the states. Police is a federal institution under the constitution and its malfeasances are the responsibility of the Federal Government. The atrocities of the SARS are for the Federal Government to fix. Now, they are asking the state governors to set up these judicial commissions in inquiry. The problem is that the inquiries will report to the state governors that set them up not to the president, who has control of the police. Their White Papers will be issued by the state governments, not by the Federal Government. The recommendations of these inquiry bodies will not bind the Federal Government. Any police officers found errant would easily get transferred out of the state making the recommendation and so the recommendations will be frustrated. The explanation of the Federal Government is that they have been precluded by the decision of the Supreme Court in the case involving former military president, Gen. Ibrahim Babangida and the Oputa Commission in 2001, from being involved in setting up judicial commissions of inquiry except in Abuja. Two things should be said about that. First, despite that decision, the Federal Government has set up a lot of panels since then, including the Danmadami, MD Yusuf, Parry Osayande Presidential Commissions on Police Reform; the Uwais Panel on Electoral Reform; the Sheikh Lemu Panel on Post-Election Violence; the Galtimari Panel on Boko Haram; the Turaki Panel on Insecurity, etc. Even now, the former President of the Court of Appeal heads a panel to investigate the former chair of the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC). So, when it wants to, the Federal Government finds ways to use panels for its work. Second, there is a power of inquiry under section 6(1) of the National Human Rights Commission Act, but the President has refused to exercise his power to appoint a Governing Council for the Commission since the last one ended in 2015.
Members of the judicial panel of inquiry and restitution set up by the Lagos State government were made to take an oath of secrecy, shouldn’t the inquiry be a full disclosure kind of inquiry?
My personal misgivings about these state judicial commissions of inquiry are public record. Different state governors are using them for their play thing. In Lagos, it is said that the state government has even added the Lekki Massacre to the terms of reference of the inquiry but there is no formal instrument doing so yet, surely not one that has been published. In any case, the Lekki Massacre is not the police but the military and why that should be added to an inquiry about the police is not clear. Then you have now this matter of the oath of secrecy subscribed to by the members swearing to the authority of the state governor instead of the Oath Act. It’s all rather dubious in my view but the members are adults and I cannot prescribe for them. Most of them are known to me and some of them are my friends. I wish them well.
The various judicial panels across the states of the federation are doing what should ideally fall under the purview of the NHRC, but the commission has been without a board since you exited?
I have already addressed this. I have nothing useful to add to what I have already said. I have done my own time in the NHRC. I don’t do well too much on prescribing about what happens after my tenure.
How many of the recommendations made by the NHRC during your tenure were implemented by the government?
In the most far reaching cases, we got compliance. The last was the killing of the 11 artisans in Apo. The government, as you may recall, paid the compensation that we adjudged.
There are agitations on-line calling for signatures in a petition for the prosecution of President Buhari at the International Criminal Court, for crimes against humanity?
Citizens are registering their concerns in the different ways that they can. It is not as if President Buhari much cares about such. It is in his hands to make such initiatives unnecessary.