…‘Why state probe panels won’t result in police reform’
By Charles Kumolu, DEPUTY EDITOR
President of African Bar Association, AFBA, Mr. Hannibal Uwaifo, in this interview, speaks on conditions that could warrant the involvement of international bodies like the International Criminal Court, ICC, in getting justice for victims of Lekki shooting. He also looks at ongoing panels of inquiry across the states, saying they would not result in police reforms.
There are so many inconsistencies in the Lekki shooting narrative. With the varying accounts, would you have reasonable evidence to pursue the matter internationally?
The inconsistencies should be expected in this kind of situation, especially in Nigeria where truth is very scarce when public officers are accused of abuses. Having seen the horrible incident and the national and international outrage trailing it, the inconsistencies in the narratives of actors shouldn’t be a surprise. What is important now is that the entire episode is in the public domain, and even international domain.
If at the end of it all, government is unable to establish the truth, bodies like the Nigerian Bar Association, NBA, African Bar Association, and Amnesty International would establish the truth. Government needs to understand that this is a very serious matter that should not be taken the way issues concerning Nigerians and their welfare have been treated with laxity over the years. If you look at the way the protests were managed, you would realize that we are in a very big problem. How will a government allow protests to go on for nearly two weeks without any sign of abating and without having security knowledge that it could take a different dimension?
How can a government fail to know that the protests could be hijacked by a fifth columnist, politicians and hoodlums? It is unimaginable that they sat down and allowed the whole thing to go awry. In any part of the world, a protest that lasts that long is bound to be hijacked by vested interests. It is very clear to everyone that #EndSARS protesters were not responsible for the destruction that followed the Lekki shootings. Government is going to shoot itself in the foot if it does not come out with the truth. Protesters have the right to protest whether for 10 days or 20 days. It is the responsibility of government to provide security when such is happening.
If eventually it is officially established that soldiers actually shot at protesters, how does it constitute violations of rights that could give the international courts the jurisdiction to be involved in the matter?
The International Criminal Court, ICC, can come into a matter of this nature because shooting directly at armless people is a crime of unimaginable proportion. Such a crime is within the parameters of the ICC. The group of soldiers and those who authorized them violated the rights of the protesters. If soldiers are sent to quell a peaceful protest and, in the process, they kill protesters, it is assumed that you sent soldiers to kill people.
Saying that you didn’t tell soldiers to kill won’t be acceptable. Like I said you are said to intend the natural consequence which flows from the act. And that natural consequence of shooting at peaceful protesters is death. Before the ICC can come in, it must have been established that the federal government does not have the capacity to investigate the crime, or even if it has the capacity it must be established that it is unwilling and failed to investigate and bring culprits to book.
That is when the ICC’s jurisdiction can now be properly activated. I am not talking about formal complaints which we are making. I am talking about taking over, carrying out a proper investigation, and issuing an international warrant of arrest for those concerned. If that would happen, it is going to affect the top hierarchy of the military and all those responsible for the dastardly act.
What if government does its investigation and still insists that nothing happened…
If there is overwhelming evidence put together that these crimes were committed and actually suppressed by the state, the ICC can still have jurisdiction. People shouldn’t forget that we have local courts in Nigeria, we have regional courts and we also have the continental court. The federal high courts are there to deal with issues relating to this type of criminal case. We also have the ECOWAS Court and the African Court for Human and Peoples Rights. They are available to deal with issues like this because the issue is about human rights, rights to dignity, right to life and right to peaceful assembly among others.
Don’t you think the growing calls for an international inquiry make a mockery of the Nigerian justice system?
International inquiry is something that can be carried out by different bodies. The African Bar Association, for instance, is seeking to establish an international inquiry. It is more or less a fact-finding body that ultimately would provide facts and submit a report to the authorities internationally and locally. Don’t forget that countries have their sovereignty. Nigeria is a sovereign nation with different arms of government with the capacity of undertaking this task. Even if an international inquiry is carried out, the report has to go to the federal government by a way of advising. If the findings go to international bodies like the ICC, it is to see if the body can go after individuals who have committed the crime.
At the level of the African Bar Association, is an independent investigation into the matter going on?
Like every other responsible organisation, particularly in a matter that you were not physically present, we don’t jump to conclusion. For instance, we may know of 12 deaths and it eventually turns out to be 20. We may know of six deaths and it turns out to be only two. The best thing to do at this time is to investigate the issue through many means.
The panel of inquiry has commenced sitting. I can tell you that we are adequately represented there because the Chairman, AFBA Access to Justice and Judiciary Commission, Ebunoluwa Adegboruwa, is a member of that panel. He is not there on behalf of the African Bar Association. He is there on behalf of the Nigerian people. The panel headed by Justice Okwuobi would come to a conclusion that would be beneficial to all investigations. The report we are expecting from the federal government, our field officers and even the reports of Amnesty International would be put together to form an opinion of the African Bar Association.
We have already issued a statement condemning it because we were very certain that protesters were attacked at the Lekki Toll Gate. And that was the live ammunition given to vandals and hoodlums to unleash mayhem all over the country.
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Before the Lekki incident, the protest was very peaceful. Even if protests in other places weren’t peaceful, the Lekki protesters were very peaceful. They were what we could describe as the command centre of the #EndSars protests. Before the firing at protesters at the Lekki Toll Gate, there was no violence of any sort. The consequence of firing at the protesters, which were clearly seen in various videos, armed vandals to go about desecrating our common heritage, looting and maiming individuals for no just cause.
Irrespective of what looks like seriousness on the part of state governments, especially Lagos State, about panels of inquiry, there are doubts that the end may not satisfy yearnings for justice. The Nigerian culture of not implementing outcomes of probe panels informed this…
It won’t go the Nigerian way anymore because things have dramatically changed in the country. For the first time, we are seeing the speedy inauguration of panels of inquiry, who are also mandated to pay compensations to victims of police brutality. Of course, we have also seen governments pledging to support those affected by the activities of vandals and looters. I would say that things won’t end up the way they had ended up in the past.
The NBA, just like the African Bar Association, is involved. Don’t forget that this whole activity is within Nigeria and the NBA is largely involved in what is going on. The AFBA is a continental body with headquarters in Nigeria. We have a role to play and we are playing it while we are giving room for the local bar and local authorities to play the major roles. It would be out of place to have the African Bar Association with an opinion that is contrary to that of the NBA. I am saying that we have to work together on the matter particularly when the NBA has local jurisdiction over the matter.
Given the setting up of panels of inquiry, can you shed light on the argument that state governors do not have powers to investigate the police?
Every state has Panel of Inquiry Law just the way the federal government has its act. For everything that happens within the jurisdiction of a state, the state government has the right to inquire. That is why we find states prosecuting cases against those who committed offences in their domains. The states have the authority and right to probe anything, except the reformation of the police. The state has the right to make an inquiry into what happened and make appropriate recommendations.
The states do not have the power to discipline erring police officers and make recommendations. The Attorney-General of a state even has the right to prosecute and jail the police. States lack the power to institute reforms in the police. The panels of inquiry are in order but it is not within their powers to make whatever reforms. Unfortunately, the reforms would lead to nowhere. The reason is that Nigeria’s deficient administrative structures are largely responsible for the corruption in the police and criminal neglect of the institution. The items on the Exclusive List of the federal government are too numerous.
And it is becoming very difficult for government alone to perform all the functions in the Exclusive List. Coming up with community policing and all sorts of funny names they are bringing will not work. At the level of federalism which Nigeria professes to practice, every tier of government is supposed to have its police force. All the stories about the likelihood of state governments abusing state police are baseless. They are just stories that are meant to continue holding Nigeria and Nigerians by the jugular by political jobbers who have no business being in government.
I am shocked that the National Assembly, NASS, as bad as the situation is, has still not acted decisively. The power to amend the constitution rests with the NASS. It doesn’t have to be a bill from the executive. They can even have a private member bill. The Constitution Review Committee of NASS is also there to amend the Constitution.
What are they waiting for? The abuse of the police is not restricted to state governments alone. We know how the federal government misuses the police. The SARS that we are dealing with now, was it not under the federal government? Have they not abused Nigerians? How can a policeman take a citizen of this country to an ATM to withdraw money in the middle of the night? How can a policeman chain a citizen to an object for days and months? How can a policeman arrest someone and summarily execute that person?
How long are we going to continue like this? The only police reform that will work is decentralization of the police. The Nigeria Police should be on the Concurrent List. This time, we should have local police. It is unimaginable that in 2020, we are still controlling the police from one quarter. States should be given powers to have their police. The local government should also have its police. With such an arrangement, the police would be much closer to the people they are meant to protect.
The real reform that should be done now is to remove the police from the Exclusive List so that policemen who are being recruited can be verified by those they are trained to police. There is no doubt at all that corruption would not be totally wiped out in the police, but it can be reduced. When aspiring policemen are recruited with knowledge of their background, the ills in the system would be reduced. I do not understand why the federal government would still want to control the police under the prevailing circumstances. I do not understand why the NASS would keep quiet and pretend as if all is well. Nigeria needs restructuring at this time.
We need to remove a lot of things from the Exclusive List. How can we be talking about the federal government distributing palliatives? Even the palliatives ended up in private hands. Are we going to probe that? Until the federal government gets its hands off so many things, we cannot make progress. The President of Nigeria has sweeping powers.
That is why there is corruption everywhere. Why is the federal government still controlling the police? Therefore, the fears that we are not ripe for state police should not arise. From what we have seen in the #EndSars protest the people are ready to hold their states accountable. Who are they going to hold accountable at the federal level?