By Romanus Okoye
As the Judicial Panel of Inquiry and Restitution set up by the Lagos State government to investigate cases of brutality and human rights violations committed by operatives of the dissolved Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS) is set to end its sitting on July 19, the panel has, by May 14, awarded N68.25 million compensation to 12 petitioners. It received a total of of 235 petitions between October and December 2020.
The petitioners compensated include Adebayo Abayomi, Hannah Olugbodi, and Tolulope Openiyi, who received N10 million each. While Abayomi and Openiyi were compensated for the extrajudicial killings of their loved ones, Olugbodi was compensated for being shot at by an officer, resulting in damage to her leg. Another petitioner, Chidebere Nwadi, was awarded N7.5 million for spending six years in jail without any offence, while Felicia Opara and Tella Adesanya were awarded N750,000 and N500,000, respectively, for the harassment, unlawful detention, and brutality they suffered in the hands of the police.
Blessing Omorogie was awarded N5 million as compensation for a deformity on her face after being shot by an officer; N10 million was awarded to the family of the late Rasheed Kareem, who was killed by a bullet shot by the police during the #EndSARS protest and N1 million was awarded to another victim of police brutality.
Olalekan Bankole, brother to late Mr. Kareem, earlier narrated to the panel how the deceased was killed by police officers from Area C in Surulere. He said the deceased was shot in the head on October 21, 2020, in the Stadium area of Surulere. Doris Okuwobi, the panel chair, said, from the totality of evidence before it, the panel found that police officers shot at unknown persons in Surulere on October 21, and there was an extrajudicial killing of the late Kareem.
Adeyinka Austin was awarded N1 million compensation for his unlawful arrest, detention and torture by police officers. The petitioner, an English tutor, earlier narrated how the police unlawfully arrested him, detained and tortured him for allegedly defrauding a woman. Austin said his vehicle was impounded by the police and, despite police investigation revealing he had no contact with or defrauded the complainant, he was subjected to abuse and torture. Giving the position of the panel on the matter, Okuwobi said the petition was undefended by the police and there was incontrovertible evidence by the petitioner.
The proceedings of the panel degenerated into a shouting match after panel members and lawyers disagreed loudly over the reopening of Lekki Tollgate. Okuwobi and four members of the panel ruled for the repossession of the Lekki toll plaza by the Lekki Concession Company. The company, on four different occasions, had applied to be allowed to repossess the toll plaza in order to evaluate damage caused during the #EndSARS protest and make insurance claims.
In response to one of the applications on January 5, Okuwobi said the state government had paid a forensic expert to examine the scene of the Lekki shooting and LCC had to wait for the report of the forensic examination.
“Forensic evidence is most needed in this inquiry,” Okuwobi said.
Counsel for the LCC, Rotimi Seriki, in restating the application, said it had been pending before the panel and it was necessary to reopen the tollgate for repairs and insurance claims. But Adeshina Ogunlana, counsel to some of the #EndSARS protesters, vehemently opposed the application, saying the panel should be in control of the Lekki Tollgate until all matters relating to the Lekki shooting incident of October 20, 2020, were completed at the panel.
However, Okuwobi, ruled that the forensic report was ready and the panel was satisfied: “The panel would not wait till the termination of the petitions before it hands over control of Lekki to LCC. To put the record straight, it is the jurisdiction of this panel to investigate the incident of October 2020 and make recommendations. The Lekki toll plaza is considered the seat of events of that day. This panel has given ample opportunity to all petitioners to access the toll plaza with the view to considering the investigation.”
Okuwobi said the panel and several other counsel visited the site and their arguments were that the control of the plaza should be under the panel until it concluded its assignment.
“To say that its wreckage be preserved as evidence beats my imagination. Whatever evidence any interested person decides to have must have been taken before now as the petitioners do not have any review before the panel to restrain the use of the toll plaza,” the judge said.
Okuwobi said: “Justice is a double-edged sword, both for the petitioners and the LCC and the company was unfortunate to have its place of business vandalised during the protest. It will be foolhardy for any reasonable petitioner to say the toll plaza be closed for the lifetime of the assignment of the panel. The hearing of petitions of victims is not being seen to be tied to the closure of the plaza indefinitely. It is unheard off that a crime scene of this nature would be closed.
“We see a lot of sentiments going on in this whole matter of repossession of the tollgate by the LCC, a place people were alleged to have died or ‘massacred’. These are statements of no truth. In that case, the panel has found no tangible evidence with this allegation. They are mere speculations and the panel will not speculate and sentiments have no place in law.”
Okuwobi added the LCC had every right to repossess the toll plaza, their place of business, as they had an interest in the place: “The speculations that the doctors that testified from Reddington of bullets removed from victims would not take any party back to the toll plaza. We should all be good citizens of the state and not for any consideration take a short route to justice. I thereby give an order for LCC to repossess the tollgate, which has been under the control of the panel upon indication given that the forensic analysis of the said toll plaza is to be concluded. The order made for repossession is for evaluation of the plaza by LCC insurers, renovation and total control.”
Ebun Adegboruwa, SAN, Patience Udoh, lawyer and human rights activist, and the two representatives of the youth, Rinuola Oduola and Temitope Majekodunmi, said the decision of the judge and four other members of the panel did not represent theirs. They opposed it, questioning the rush in reopening the tollgate, which had not been operational since October 20, after the alleged shooting of protesters by soldiers.
Adegboruwa said the takeover of the plaza at this time was hasty, premature and would overreach the work and eventual recommendations of the panel.
“Investigation by the panel over the Lekki Tollgate incident is still ongoing, it will, therefore, be premature to hand over the plaza that is still subject of the panel’s investigation and proceedings, to LCC,” he said.
“It will foist a situation of complete helplessness and a fait accompli on members of the panel, in respect of any recommendation that it may make on the general operations of the plazas. The panel is yet to ascertain the claims and counter-claims of fatalities and massacre of citizens on 20th October, 2020. Reopening the tollgate now will be insensitive, callous and totally uncharitable to the memories of those who might have died.”
The senior advocate said the panel was yet to receive full details of the forensic report, which was the basis of LCC’s case.
Ms Udoh, another member of the opposing group, said the reopening of Lekki toll plaza should wait till the final report of the forensic expert. Oduala and Majekodunmi insisted that the Lekki toll plaza should remain shut and under the purview of the panel until full investigations and hearings were concluded.
In their statement, they averred that, “As indicated by the provisions of the panel’s Rules 2020 – Rule 6 (1&2), every member of the panel has a legal duty to provide written contributions to any report, in response to any application or matter brought before the panel. We have made efforts to communicate our position on the application by LCC to take repossession of the Lekki Tollgate to the chairlady as required by the rules of the panel but our dissent was not reflected in the ruling,” the statement partly read.
“It is important to ensure there is a full and thorough investigation into the Lekki Tollgate incident to ensure justice for all victims and everyone found culpable is recommended for appropriate action under the law.”
Rinu Oduala resigns
In protest, youth activist, Rinu Oduala, resigned from the panel. She said her decision was hinged on the fact that the panel ruled to reopen the Lekki Tollgate when the government had not granted justice to victims. Oduala described the development as an act of injustice, adding that she would not be part of a cover-up.
She said: “My stand on the reopening on the tollgate remains clear; the state government and the private organisation, which operates the toll, have not been cleared of collusion with elements allegedly deployed by the Federal Government to target Nigerian citizens on home soil during a time of peace, without provocation.
“Justice has not been served, and as a representative of the Nigerian citizenry, my only recourse is to stay the course of justice. Let me be clear: I chose to honour the invitation to represent my peers and to stand as an example that any Nigerian has the right to demand accountability of elected government officials and that our institutions, however flawed, can still deliver justice.
“What I will not do is be part of a cover-up. I am proud that I took the invitation because some of the successes the panel has recorded so far have been incredibly powerful for the people. For the first time, SARS victims have had the opportunity to be truly seen and heard by the government, by the public, and by the system that allowed them to be victims in the first place.
“The panel allowed victims of police intimidation and brutality to have their day in the light of justice. They got to expose the violence that was meted out, to experience some catharsis from having the government acknowledge its failures and, in many cases, are going to be receiving some compensation, however inadequate for the disruption to their lives. This is farther than we have ever come as a nation, and while this same rigour was not applied to the case of the Lekki Toll shootings, we can at least celebrate the wins that our brothers and sisters can finally claim in their fight for justice, and recognise that our collective will is more powerful than any institution.
“However, partial wins are not enough for me. I decided to join this fight because I wanted the government to recognise its failures and work to overhaul its security institutions. I did not expect piecemeal acknowledgements and efforts to sabotage vital proceedings.”
Nigerian Army angle
The judge said the panel “cannot force the army to come” to state its case in the Lekki shooting incident. She said there was nothing the panel could do if the army failed to appear before it.
Okuwobi said the reports about Akinlolu Kehinde, the counsel who represented the Nigerian Army in the earlier proceedings, and his ‘refusal’ to appear before the panel were not accurate.
“We cannot force them to come. We will take on the petitions as if they are not present. I made that very clear in the ruling. We have tried our best, served the legal summons, served the Chief of Army Staff, beyond that, there is no more the panel can do. The reports by the press have not presented the rulings of the panel. We never said he (Mr. Kehinde) refused to come. The reports were not accurate, so do let him know that we did not in any way make such report,” she said.
At that day’s proceedings, Samuel Agweh, SAN, was prompted by Olumide Fusika, counsel to victims of the Lekki incident, to announce his appearance, since he was representing the Nigerian Army. Mr. Fusika made the call while cross-examining a surgeon from Reddington Hospital, who gave evidence of several people sustaining bullet wounds on the night of October 20, 2020.
Agweh, responding, said he was appearing for Akinlolu Kehinde, the counsel who represented the Nigerian Army. He said the army authorities had disbanded the legal team: “I am not here to represent the Nigerian Army. I have brought a message from Mr. Kehinde Akinlolu, SAN. Before now, Mr. Kehinde has written a letter to this panel because what we read in the news media and some other things that led Mr. Kehinde to ask me to come this morning is that the counsel representing the Nigerian Army has refused to show up.”
Agweh said the reports as portrayed by the media were not true because his brief for the Nigerian Army had been terminated. “My Lord, the letter written by Kehinde, dated January 20, which was already submitted to this panel, explains it all that the team of legal practitioners, led by Kehinde, SAN, who represented the Nigerian Army at this panel based on the summons issued on October 28, 2020. My Lord, that team had been disbanded, our job finished on the 21st or 25th of November, we do not have further mandate to represent the Nigerian Army in any subsequent proceedings.”
Agweh added that “it is not a matter of disrespect that the team was no longer appearing before the panel but the situation is that the team no longer exists. When these cases were called, I did not even know that the army was in the matter. Because, as at that time, these cases were not before this tribunal, we had finished our business before these cases came up. So, any subsequent summons issued by this panel was not brought to us to come and represent the Nigerian Army.
“As a matter of respect to the panel and is members, that is why I did not announce my appearance, because I did not have any mandate to represent the Nigerian Army in any matter after the 21st of November.”
Okuwobi answered that the reports by the press did not present the rulings of the panel, “We never said he refused to come. The reports were not accurate, so do let him know that we did not in any way make such report.”
“His position as stated to the panel are quite clear, but having served so many summons on the Nigerian Army and they are absent, we felt he, as counsel on record, could assist the panel and at least let us know why the Nigerian Army are not appearing in this matter. We didn’t go beyond that,” she said.
The panel’s chair said she appreciated the position of Kehinde “and the panel will no longer bother him. If he says his brief had terminated, we cannot revive the brief.”
Counsel to Lekki shooting victims, Olumide Fusika and Adeshina Ogunala, reacted, saying, though the tribunal could not compel any lawyer to represent any party and Kehinde’s brief had been terminated, the case against the Nigerian Army had not been terminated.
“I want that to be made very clear. So, if they decided not to come and they told any lawyer not to represent them, it is their own decision.”
Ogunlana said, “I wish to say that with due respect, I am taken aback by the position that, if the Nigerian Army decide not to come, there is nothing the panel can do. The refusal can frustrate the panel and also does not portray the panel well to civilians.”
While inaugurating the panel last year, Governor Babajide Sanwo-Olu, who approved N200 million as compensation for victims of police brutality, said the swiftness of the process of the panel’s composition was an indication of the state government’s sincerity towards quick resolution of the issues that led to the nationwide protests against police brutality.
He said government selected an unblemished retired judge to head the inquiry tribunal, given the enormity of the task at hand and the need to uphold the tenets of due process and fair hearing in the course of the panel’s proceedings. Also, Lagos States attorney-general and commissioner for justice, Mr. Moyosore Onigbanjo, SAN, said the tribunal had the full backing of the laws of the federal and state governments to carry out investigative duties and give recommendations for prosecution of anyone indicted.
Chairman of the panel, Justice Doris Okuwobi (retd.), who spoke on behalf of the tribunal members at their inauguration, said the EndSARS protests had proven formidable to elicit positive actions to re-awaken the consciousness of government on the need to address injustice meted out to members of the public by SARS operatives.
She said: “Having been invited to serve on this panel, we view our appointment as scary, demanding our utmost commitment, passion, loyalty and sense of duty in the discharge of this assignment. No stone will be left unturned. We shall be thorough, objective and transparent in line with the terms of reference and enabling legal instruments.”
Other members are: Mr. Ebun Adegboruwa, SAN, representing the civil society; DIG Taiwo Lakanu, a retired deputy inspector-general of police; Ms Patience Udoh, representing the civil society; Mr. Segun Awosanya, human rights activist; Mrs. Olutoyin Odusanya, director, Citizens Mediation Centre; as well as a representative/member of the youth-led protest and a representative of the Human Rights Commission.