Abuja — The presidency yesterday expressed shock as the Nigeria Police Force (NPF) launched a legal bid to arrest the ongoing proceedings by judicial panels set up by state governments to investigate allegations of brutality against the law enforcement agency's personnel, which triggered the #EndSARS protests that later snowballed into an orgy of violence in October.
A top presidency official, responding to THISDAY inquiry on whether or not the police suit has the consent of the Buhari administration, said they were surprised when the news broke yesterday.
Earlier, the police had filed a suit at the Federal High Court in Abuja, praying for an order stopping the various states' judicial panels of inquiry probing allegations of rights abuses and other acts of brutality against the disbanded Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS) and other police tactical units.
The plaintiff in the suit marked, FHC/ABJ/CS/1492/2020, urged the court to restrain the attorneys-general of the 36 states of the federation and their various panels of enquiry from going ahead with the probe.
But the Inspector-General of Police, Mr. Mohammed Adamu, has denied authorising the suit and ordered an investigation into the circumstances surrounding its filing.
Besides, he has queried the Force Legal Officer, who may face further sanctions if found guilty of dereliction of duty, over the suit.
The suit has also divided lawyers and other activists as while some hailed it, others condemned the action.
It was, however, learnt that the police headed to the court to stop the judicial panels' proceedings in a bid to stop attacks on their officers and policemen as well as on their assets.
According to the Minister of Information and Culture, Alhaji Lai Mohammed, 57 civilians, 37 policemen and six soldiers were killed all over the country when hoodlums seized the #EndSARS peaceful protests and went on a looting spree, arson and vandalism of public and private property.
In addition, the hoodlums injured 196 policemen, destroyed 164 police vehicles and torched 134 police stations.
In the wake of the social crisis, the National Economic Council (NEC), chaired by Vice President Yemi Osinbajo, at a meeting in Abuja on October 15, directed the 36 state governors and the Minister of Federal Capital Territory (FCT) to establish judicial panels to investigate alleged police brutality, supervise fresh tactical team being set up by the Inspector-General of Police and raise a fund to compensate victims of cruelty by the defunct rogue squad, SARS.
At the meeting, attended by state governors, among others, the NEC had said that membership of the judicial panels should compose of representatives of youths, students, civil society organisations and be chaired by a retired state High Court judge.
About 1,247 petitions are believed to have been filed in 30 states and the Federal Capital Territory (FCT) with the panels set up to investigate complaints of alleged police brutality or extrajudicial killings.
THISDAY, however, gathered that Kano, Kebbi, Sokoto, Zamfara, Borno and Yobe States are yet to set up panels in their states.
But a THISDAY source, who sought not to be identified, described the police suit as nothing but a rogue action, which he viewed as an affront to a presidential directive that birthed the constitution of the judicial panels.
According to him, the constitution of the panels was the outcome of NEC resolution, which he said secured the nod of President Muhammadu Buhari as part of the necessary steps for police reform.
The source viewed the action of the police, which is an agency of the federal government, as an affront to a presidential directive which authorised the constitution and activities of the panels.
He added that even the Attorney-Government of the Federation (AGF) and Minister of Justice, Mr. Abubakar Malami, was not aware of the decision to file the suit.
He described such a situation where the AGF, whom he described as the chief law officer of the federation, was not consulted before an agency of government proceeds to the court as an aberration.
"It was a NEC decision and the president approved it. What the police are doing is a rogue action. The presidency may ask them to withdraw the suit. The AGF has said he's not aware of the suit and no agency of the government ought to go to court without the knowledge of the AGF as the chief law officer of the federation. They were ill-advised," he said.
The official described the police decision as baseless, noting that all that was rather expected of them was to prepare to defend the allegations against them and not attempting to stop the investigations.
He also expressed concerns that the Inspector-General of Police (IGP), Adamu, whom he said would be due for retirement in January, could dare to undertake such a move.
According to him, the IGP should have rather been interested in the outcomes of the investigations as viable tools for police reform, which would have been his legacy when he retires.
Asked if NEC will not respond to the move, a presidential source said there is no how NEC could react now, bearing in mind that the council is not a personality but a body of persons which takes decision only when it meets.
Police Ask Court to Stop Judicial Inquiries
The police, in the suit before the Federal High Court, sitting in Abuja, are praying for an order stopping the various states' judicial panels from going ahead with their proceedings.
The defendants, totalling 104, who were sued by the NPF, comprised the AGF, the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC), which set up the Independent Investigative Panel, sitting in Abuja, the attorneys-general of the states and chairmen of the judicial panels.
The NPF, through their lawyer, Mr O. M. Atoyebi (SAN), argued in the suit that the state governments lacked the power to constitute the panels to investigate activities of the police force and its officials in the conduct of their statutory duties.
According to the plaintiff, the setting up of the panels violated the provisions of section 241(1)(2)(a) and Item 45, Part 1, First Schedule to the Constitution and Section 21 of the Tribunals of Inquiry Act.
It said by virtue of the provisions of 241(1)(2)(a) and Item 45, Part 1, First Schedule to the Nigerian constitution, only the federal government had exclusive power to "organise, control and administer Nigeria Police Force."
It, therefore, urged the court to, among others, declare that "the establishment of a panel of inquiries by the governors of the various states of the federation of Nigeria, to inquire into the activities of the Nigeria Police Force in relation to the discharge of her statutory duties is a gross violation of the provisions of Section 241 (1)(2) (a) and Item 45, Part 1, First schedule, 1999 Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria (as amended) and Section 21 of the Tribunals of Inquiry Act, Cap.T21, Laws of the Federation of Nigeria, 2004."
The plaintiff also urged the court to declare that "having regard to the circumstances of this case, the attitude of the governors of the various states of the federation of Nigeria, in this case, is unconstitutional, illegal, null and void and of no effect whatsoever."
It sought an order of perpetual injunction restraining the 3rd to 38th defendants (the state attorneys-general of the 36 states) "from making or conducting any investigations, sittings, and inquiries and/or from making or conducting any further investigations, sittings and inquiries in respect of matters affecting the Nigeria Police Force, and or further setting up any panel of inquiry in any state whatsoever in the country."
IG Denies Authorising Suit, Queries Force Legal Secretary
IGP Adamu, has, however, denied authorising the suit and directed an immediate investigation into the suit challenging the legality of the states' judicial panels of inquiry.
A statement by Force spokesman, Mr. Frank Mba, a deputy commissioner of police (DCP), said the IG, who gave the order on the heels of trending reports in the media yesterday expressed the disapproval of the Force Management Team on the matter and ordered investigations into the alleged role of the Force Legal Section, including its head.
He added that a query has been issued to the Force Legal Officer, who could face more sanctions if found guilty of dereliction of duty.
The IG reiterated the commitment of the police to fulfilling all their obligations with regards to the disbandment of SARS, the ongoing judicial panels and all other police reforms.
'IG Seeking to Protect Lives of Personnel, Further Attacks on Police Assets'
THISDAY's investigation, however, showed that the police filed the suit to stop the negative exposure that put the law enforcement agency in a bad light and could potentially trigger another round of attacks on its personnel.
THISDAY checks showed that the police management was worried about the further negative portrayal of the police through the panels and the potential to set the stage for another round of killing of police personnel and the potential destruction of police assets.
A source told THISDAY that more police personnel had been killed since the commencement of the panels' sittings in the states.
"Cases of suspects who admitted guilt, and whose cases were long dispensed with, are being exhumed at the panels.
"The suspects are given special treatment while the police, in spite of what we have been through, we are still subjected to inhuman treatment. A DPO was killed last week while another was shot. Just yesterday, an Assistant Commissioner of Police was killed by assassins," the source said.
Reacting to the suit, the Executive Director, Rule of Law and Accountability Advocacy Centre, Mr. Okechukwu Nwangwuma, said the decision of the police to go to court meant that the IG had something to hide.
"It is very easy to understand what has happened. All these atrocities, all this corruption by police officers, senior police officers are beneficiaries," he said, adding: "So what is happening is that if this continues (the panel sittings), it could expose all the SARS commanders and those senior officers and above who are benefitting from all these atrocities."
An official of the government, who spoke anonymously, queried the IG's decision to halt the panels' proceedings.
"What do you call this? A panel that the federal government was begging state governors to set up.
"Now the revelations are coming out and the IG wants it halted. Is he not an employee of the federal government? How can he go to court to stop those judicial panels?" he asked
A Senior Advocate of Nigeria and former Nigerian Institute of Advanced Legal Studies (NIALS) Director-General, Prof. Epiphany Azinge, faulted the action of the police, believing it was premised on wrong advice.
According to him, the various judicial panels are only investigating the alleged "criminal conduct of some policemen" and not the activities of the police.
Azinge said a state has the power to prosecute criminal activities committed within its domain.
"The states are not investigating the police; that is where Section 214 can come into play. But that is not what is being done. The police are not under any form of investigation but the activities and conduct of some policemen who obviously committed some crimes," he explained.
Another senior lawyer, Mr. Ahmed Raji (SAN), who described the action of the police as unbelievable, blamed it on what he perceived as the absence of synergy and coordination in the system.
While wondering how an agency can challenge the decision of the federal government, Raji, however, said he would wait to see how it all unfolds.
"It sounds curious and a bit unbelievable that an agency of the federal government is directly challenging the implementation of the directive of the federal government.
"I hope it is not true but if indeed it is, it smacks of either failure of synergy/coordination, monumental somersault or lack of sincerity, all of which are very despicable. We see how it unfolds. Very interesting times we are," he stated.
Another senior lawyer, Mr. John Baiyeshea (SAN), said the suit may become an exercise in futility.
He explained that the police cannot challenge the legality of the judicial panels now, having participated in their proceedings.
"Police officers and personnel are already serving and/or participating actively in those panels.
"It appears too late in the day for the police to complain. They are estopped from complaining about the constitutionality of the judicial panels," he said.
However, holding a contrary view from his colleagues, Mr. Akinlolu Kehinde (SAN), said: "There is no clear order by the Federal Executive Council, or the National Economic Council, approving the establishment of the judicial panels by the state governments."
Kehinde stated that what is, however, clear is that the police are on the exclusive list of the federal government and are regulated by it.
"In Lagos State, for instance, the state government in establishing the judicial panel of inquiry invoked the provisions of Section 1 of the Tribunals of Inquiry Law of Lagos State, which gives the state governor the power to constitute a tribunal when necessary to inquire into the affairs of any public officer in Lagos State. This provision should, however, be read in line with Section 1 (1) (3) of the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, which provides that "if any law is inconsistent with the provisions of this constitution, this constitution shall prevail and that other law shall to the extent of the inconsistency be void," he said.
He added that the police force is not a public officer of Lagos State.
According to him, a judicial panel set up to investigate the activities of the Nigeria Police Force must be constituted by the federal government or approved by the federal government.
He noted that in this instance there is no evidence that the judicial panels established by various state governments were approved by the federal government, and thus they are not properly constituted.
He, however, blamed the situation on the constitution of the country, which he claimed was not only faulty but designed to fail from the outset, adding that the development has further lent credence to the call for true federalism as well as state police.