Nigeria: Special Report - 300 Petitioners Stranded As Lack of Funding Cripples Abuja #EndSARS Panel (1)

Protesters at an #EndSARS protest in Lagos in mid-October, 2020 (file photo).
24 September 2021

This first of a two-part series captures how the federal government's failure to fund the #EndSARS panel in Abuja has dashed the hopes of over 300 victims and relatives of victims of police brutality.

Any time Chinenye Igwetu talks about the murder case, the images of her slain sister's last moments flood her mind. These bring fresh pains, and tears drop down her cheeks.

A trigger-happy police officer had shot Chinenye's 23-year-old younger sister, Linda Igwetu, on July 4, 2018, around Ceddi Plaza, in the central area of Abuja.

It occurred at about 3 a.m. on the day Linda was to pass out from the National Youth Service Corps (NYSC), a scheme mandatory for under-30 Nigerian graduates.

On July 3, Linda, who usually closed from the customer service organisation where she was observing the one-year national youth service at about 11 a.m, had stayed out with colleagues after leaving work to celebrate her successful completion of the scheme.

At about 4.35 a.m. on July 4, her sister, Chinenye, got a distress call. Linda's colleague who called from Garki Hospital, had asked her to hurry down.

As Chinenye would find out, Linda, while returning home in a car with her colleagues, had been hit by a bullet fired from a police post. Benjamin Peters, a police inspector, was identified by his colleagues as the man who pulled the trigger on the moving car.

On getting to the hospital, Chinenye met her sister in a pool of her blood, gasping.

Linda died at about 6 a.m. on July 4, 2018 "without the necessary first aid," Chinenye wrote in her petition to the panel set up by the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) in the aftermath of the October 2020 #EndSARS protest to investigate cases of police brutality.

Mr Benjamin's bullet had pierced the youth corps member's chest region, snuffing her life out at a time she was bubbling with the joy of her imminent successful completion of the year-long NYSC scheme.

Tormenting search for justice

As Chinenye spoke from the witness box when she appeared before the 11-member panel of enquiry in Abuja on November 5, 2020, her mind was again flooded by graphic images of Linda abandoned in a pool of her blood as life gradually ebbed away from her gasping body.

Overwhelmed by emotion, she broke down in tears, wondering aloud if justice would ever be done, after an earlier attempt through the Nigerian senate had failed.

The chairperson of the #EndSARS panel, Suleiman Galadima, who is a retired Justice of Nigeria's Supreme Court, along with the panel's secretary, Hilary Ogbonna, took turns to assure Chinenye of justice.

Over 300 petitioners, according to the data shared with our reporter by Mr Ogbonna, approached the Abuja #EndSARS panel with their complaints of police brutality.

Many of them are relatives of victims or direct victims of police brutality. Some like the Igwetu family, had also, in futility, explored other fora to get justice, with some even obtaining court judgments that have been hard for them to enforce.

Due to the uncertainties of the Nigerian justice system, victims or their relatives often have to go to different fora, including the courts, in chase of justice, an absurdity the likes of Chinenye find tormenting because of the agony of having to retell their tragic stories at every turn.

The NHRC, which set up the federal government's panel of enquiry on police brutality in Abuja, said in March that 44 of the petitions submitted were about enforcement of judgments awarding damages against the police for rights violations.

The commission added that 20 of the petitions considered in just one day had a total of N575.8 million in judgment debts against the police.

The compensations in the judgments, according to the commission, were awarded in cases bordering on extra-judicial killing, unlawful arrest and detention, cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment and torture, alleged enforce disappearance, confiscation of property, among others.

Hopes dashed

Sadly for the over 300 petitioners looking up to the panel for justice, their hopes have been dashed.

In March, the panel declared a two-week Easter break. Almost seven months after, a period that is already longer than the six months it was given at its inauguration in November 2020 to turn in its report, the panel has yet to resume sitting.

It last sat on March 24, and as its timetable seen by this reporter showed, it was supposed to resume sitting on March 11, but that never happened.

"I have made calls, I have asked questions and what I have even heard is that we should forget about it and move on with our lives," Chinenye said when asked by PREMIUM TIMES if she had got any assurance that the panel would resume sitting any time soon.

About six minutes into her phone conversation with our reporter, Chinenye broke down in tears as she recalled her torturing experience seeking justice.

"There is an emotional rollercoaster that comes with recounting the story, reliving the experience all the time and at the end of the day hope is dashed," she said in disappointment.

The Abuja panel has been crippled by a lack of funding from the federal government, our reporter has confirmed, but it is not a fact the NHRC or members of the panel would publicly admit.

The executive secretary of the NHRC, Tony Ojukwu, and the secretary of the #EndSARS panel, Mr Ogbonna, have, in their frantic effort to keep petitioners' hopes alive, given shifting explanations for the aborted sitting of the panel.

At a press conference in June, Mr Ojukwu said the panel was using its "break" to collate reports "from some states where sitting has ended."

On his part, Mr Ogbonna said the panel was busy confirming the judgments some petitioners had brought for enforcement, a process he said was being hampered by the judiciary workers' strike at the time.

Funding crisis cripples #EndSARS panel

Despite the window-dressing, the inability of the panel to sit is caused by lack of funding, and it is a reality some of the petitioners, their lawyers, NHRC officials, and members of the panel are aware of, PREMIUM TIMES understands.

"They told us logistics. They said the federal government has refused to release any funds for it (the panel)," Chinenye said when asked by our reporter if she had been told why the panel had stopped sitting.

Also, the leader of the team of lawyers engaged by the NHRC to guide and advise the panel, as well as interrogate complainants and witnesses during proceedings, Chino Obiagwu, confirmed the crippling impact lack of funds has had on the panel.

"The panel started well with a commendable stride. It stopped because the human rights commission has not received funding from the government to be able to cope with the expenses associated with the panel such as payment of the allowances to members of the panel, and provision of stationeries and other logistics," Mr Obiagwu, a Senior Advocate of Nigeria, said.

He described the situation as "very disturbing because a lot of victims and their families have put their hope and high expectation in the panel."

Frank Tietie, a human rights lawyer who also served in Mr Obiagwu's team, corroborated this point in a separate interview.

"It appears the government intended that the panel failed by starving it of funds from the very beginning and making sure it did not have funds all through its sittings," Mr Tietie said.

He added that, apart from non-payment of allowances to panel members and the lawyers, the panel was finding it difficult to meet its basic operational needs such as stationeries. According to him, it was also hard for the panel to buy water or tea for members' routine meetings.

"There was no way the panel was going to be able to continue sitting that way," Mr Tietie said.

A representative of the Nigerian Bar Association (NBA) on the panel, John Aikpokpo-Martins, refrained from giving reasons the sittings had stopped.

"As a member of the panel, I would not want to speak on why the panel has not been sitting," Mr Aikpokpo-Martins, who is NBA's 1st Vice President, said.

He noted that the panel had only sat for four weeks in the year, and described the suspension of the panel's sittings as "a sad situation".

'Panel hasn't received funds, but FG not the problem'

When contacted by this reporter, the panel's secretary, Mr Ogbonna, assured again that the panel would soon come back, saying, this time, that a retreat was being held to determine which role the newly inaugurated governing council of the commission would play in the panel.

"If the government had inaugurated them long ago, we might not even have had the #EndSARS panel. But now that we have had a panel, and the panel is already sitting, we are working on a mechanism that will ensure both the governing council and the panel can co-exist," he said.

He confirmed that the NHRC had yet to receive any funding since the panel started sitting in November 2020, but added, "We don't really think that the federal government is the reason why we are not sitting.

"We are not sitting because we don't have to have two parallel bodies sitting at the same time," the panel's secretary said.

According to him, "the federal government called for a budget which we have submitted," adding that the executive secretary of the commission had been following up on the release of the funds.

"The federal government is working on it, but I cannot tell you how soon or how long that they would do that. I am sure they have their competing priorities," Mr Ogbonna said.

"What I can tell is that we are committed to ending this work."

'Out of 300 petitions, only 60 concluded, 50 being heard'

With only 60 petitions concluded by the panel, while 50 others were being heard before sittings stopped in March, Mr Ogbonna said "we are still a long way to concluding over 300 petitions we have.

"We are still a very long way from finishing, but the commission is committed to ensuring that the panel continues its work, and completes everything by the end of this year."

He noted that the panel's tenure would likely be extended like that of Lagos, expressing hope that "we are probably hoping that all of us conclude sitting at the same time."

Birth of #EndSARS panels

The federal government scrapped the Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS), a tactical unit of the Nigeria police notorious for its brutality, following the October 2020 #EndSARS protest.

It also promised extensive police reforms, which many Nigerians say have yet to be done.

The National Executive Committee (NEC) headed by Vice President Yemi Osinbajo, with governors of the 36 states of the federation as well as some top federal government officials as members, also passed a resolution for the setting of the panels of enquiry and recommended that state governments should set aside about N200 million as compensation for victims.

The panels of enquiry were set up in 29 states and Abuja to investigate police brutality complaints of Nigerians, recommend sanctions against erring police officers and award compensations to complainants in deserving situations to assuage their pains.

As of August, at least 2,791 police brutality petitions had been submitted to the panels in the 29 states and Abuja.

PREMIUM TIMES had confirmed nine states that did not set up the panel. They comprise five of the North-western states - Kano, Jigawa, Kebbi, Sokoto and Zamfara; and two states in the North-east - Borno and Yobe.

Mr Osinbajo said in August through a statement issued by his spokesperson, Laolu Akande, that the panels of enquiry had finished their assignments in 28 states.

But he was silent on the state of the federal government's own panel that had stopped sitting for months.

'Federal government not leading by example'

Officially referred to as the Independent Investigative Panel on Human Rights Violations by the Defunct Special Anti-Robbery Squad, the 11-member panel sitting in Abuja to hear complaints of police brutality from different parts of the country, has not had another sitting since its last on March 24.

Mr Obiagwu, the senior advocate serving on the panel's legal team, said by its failure to fund the panel, "The federal government has not led by example.

"The allegations of murder, torture, and ill-treatment by the Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS) is widespread and I think there is something that the federal government should have taken keen interest to provide accountability to ensure that those who are responsible are brought to justice," he said.

A Lagos-based lawyer, Tope Temokun, who represented some petitioners at the #EndSARS panel in Ondo State, said the lack of funding of the federal government's panel might be indicative of a diversionary tactic to stop "overwhelming youths' restiveness and resolute moves to confront the anti-people police's configuration and operations.

"Nothing has changed. Police brutality is back in the form of a revenge mission against the youth," he said.

Mr Tietie, who shared similar thoughts on the issue, also suggested that the non-funding of the panel could be a calculated step that foretells uncertainties about payment of the compensations the panel might recommend if it concludes its sittings.

"We are talking about even money for the panel to do its work for which it was set up by a presidential fiat, yet it was not funded to carry out that work. Are you now going to be talking about the issues of compensation?"

Officials keep mum on funding

Both Mr Osinbajo, whose office is monitoring the #EndSARS panels across the states through the NEC platform, and the Attorney-General of the Federation, Abubakar Malami, who oversees the NHRC, refused to comment on the funding of the #EndSARS panel and its crippling impact.

Mr Osinbajo's spokesperson, Laolu Akande, asked our reporter to direct enquiries to the NHRC.

On his part, the AGF's spokesperson, Umar Gwandu, did not respond to our reporter's calls and the message sent to his phone.

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