Nigerian Government is keeping with its long history of setting up commissions of inquiry to probe allegations of state-led human rights abuse. The various judicial panels of inquiry established last year following nationwide demands for police reforms is yet another exercise by the Government that raised hope of an holistic police reform.
What is clear after many of the shocking revelations from those panels is whether the government will act on the panels’ recommendations when their work is done?
Panel investigations are one avenue the government uses to gather facts and conduct an in-depth review of allegations of human rights violations and possibly bring perpetrators to justice.
For instance, with the rise in the insurgency, the Nigerian army was deployed to the northeast to combat members of the Boko Haram terrorist group and restore peace to the region. But in their response, the military has been found to commit various human rights violations against the civilian population including torture, rape, forced evictions, and arbitrary arrests.
Children have been detained in their thousands under degrading and inhuman conditions based on suspected links with Boko Haram and without access to lawyers.
International humanitarian law on armed conflicts states that for any act that constitutes a war crime or crime against humanity, the military commander is held accountable and he bears responsibility for crimes committed by his subordinates. Many of the military leaders accused of human rights violations in the ongoing war against insurgency are yet to be made accountable.
The End SARS Investigative Panels
In November, Lagos State established a judicial investigative panel to look into allegations of brutality by military personnel and policemen, especially officers of the now-disbanded Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS). Similar panels were set up in Anambra, Delta, Edo, Enugu, Imo, Kaduna, Nasarawa, Ogun, Ondo, Plateau, and other states.
SARS had been set to arrest and prosecute armed robbers, kidnappers, and other hardened criminals, but instead, was notorious for profiling and extorting young Nigerians.
Sunday Bang, 24, who was arrested by three SARS officers at his home in Abuja in October 2018 and accused of robbery shared his traumatic experience with Amnesty International.
“He tied my left arm with the tube. It was very painful and my arm went numb. He tied me from my palm to the end of my upper arm. They beat me with a stick and rod on my arms, knees and legs,” Bang narrated.
In October, Nigerians hit the streets across 21 states of the country to demand an end to police brutality, triggering outrage on the international stage and eventually leading to the establishment of panels of inquiry in many states.
2017 Presidential Investigative Panel
In August 2017, then acting President Yemi Osinbajo set up a Presidential Investigative Panel to Review Compliance of the Armed Forces with Human Rights Obligations and Rules of Engagement.
This was following the publication of various damning reports by Amnesty International and other advocacy groups that had piqued the interest of the International Criminal Court.
Between September 11 and November 8, 2017, the panel held public sittings in Abuja, Maiduguri, Port Harcourt, Enugu, Kaduna and Lagos, where victims gave vivid experiences of being tortured, raped, and witnessing extrajudicial executions carried out by military personnel.
The panel submitted its report in February 2018. But, till date, its findings have not been fully published nor have victims received compensation for the violation of their rights.
The panel inquiry shone a light on the perpetrators of these crimes but, nearly three years after it concluded its work, not much has been done in following-up its report.
The military had denied all the allegations. In December 2018, Sani Kukasheka Usman, Director of Army Public Relations, made a press release calling for the closure of Amnesty International Nigeria on the grounds that their reports about the military were false.
The Trilogy Of Police Reform
The advocacy for reforms in the security sector is not new to Nigeria. The Human Rights Violations Investigation Commission, popularly called the Oputa Panel, was set up by the Olusegun Obasan presidency in 1999 to investigate gross human rights violations under military governments from 1966.
Obasanjo had charged the panel to review past military regimes’ human rights abuses for the purpose of enhancing reconciliation and establishing the development of democracy. But even though the panel submitted its final report in 2002, the Federal Government, till date, has not implemented its findings nor has it officially published them.
The former president, in 2006, also set up a presidential committee on reform of the Nigeria Police.
Former President Umaru Musa Yar’Adua’s Presidential Committee on the Reform of the Nigeria Police was set up to investigate the implementation of previous recommendations in 2008.
Again, the successive administration of Goodluck Jonathan fired Hafiz Ringim, the Inspector General of Police at the time, when the main suspect of the Christmas day bombing of the St Theresa Catholic Church in Madalla escaped police custody. President Jonathan thereafter set up a committee to reorganise the police force.
Over the past four years, the government had likewise promised multiple times to reform SARS. But nothing longlasting was done till the notorious police unit was finally dissolved on October 11 in response to nationwide protests.
Justice Or Business As Usual?
The government of Nigeria struggles to meet its obligations under local and international laws to investigate, prosecute and punish all violations of human rights law, whether committed by non-state actors or the Nigerian military and police force.
The precedent set by previously set up investigative committees and panels, which often ended without concrete impacts, begs the question of whether the SARS judicial panels will finally be a tool guaranteeing accountability.
There is however a difference in how the various panels were set up. While the presidential investigative inquiries were conducted by the Federal Government, the End SARS judicial panels are independent panels set up by the states in line with a 2003 Supreme Court decision.
But will states own up to the responsibility of holding security officials accountable for crimes being committed during the performance of their duty?
The presidential investigations were conducted publicly but some hearings that border on serious allegations against the military were held behind closed doors in the name of national security and public order.
The End SARS judicial panels, on the other hand, are held in public and have media coverage. This, to many observers, appears to be the beginning of a new era of law enforcement reform starting with the accountability of SARS officials.
In his broadcast welcoming Nigerians to the new year, President Muhammadu Buhari indicated that the ENDSARS protests would not be in vain. “This government heard, this government listened and this government is committed to fulfilling the five demands of our youths, fully understanding that we all wish well for Nigeria,” the president declared.
He said his administration was committed to ensuring that every region in Nigeria is safe for every citizen while guaranteeing that the future is also secure for the coming generation.
Meanwhile, Nigerians await the final report of the various judicial panels and only time will tell if it is business as usual or concrete police and military reforms are going to be executed and victims compensated.