By: Adémólá Òrúnbon
As an act to empower the Governor to constitute Tribunal of Inquiry and other matters ancillary thereto and pursuant to the powers conferred on the Executive Governor of Ogun State, Prince Dapo Abiodun, by the Tribunals of Inquiry Law, Laws of Nigeria and Ogun, 1990,(“the Law”) the Governor on 17, October 2020 set up a panel known as the Judicial Panel of Inquiry and Restitution for Victims of Special Anti-Robbery Squad Related Abuses. The Panel commenced sitting on Thursday, 5th November 2020, and the Panel sitting days are Mondays, Wednesdays and Thursdays starting by 10am at the Magistrate Court 1, Isabo, Abeokuta, the Ogun State Capital. The governor then urged the Panel to make fairness, firmness, dedication and objectivity their watchwords, enjoined them to shun all acts which could impact negatively on their assignment.
According to the act, nothing in this Act shall be construed as precluding the Governor of a State from constituting a Tribunal of Inquiry to inquire into any matter in respect of which the Governor of that State has power to make law. This Act may be cited as the Tribunal of Inquiry Act, which the Governor has veto power to appointment the members of the Panel of such inquiry to beam its torchlights into matter arising and conflicts in his jurisdiction or his territory, by which the Panel will feed him back according to its fact finding on the matters.
The eight (8) Committee set up by the Governor, includes; Hon. Justice Solomon Olugbemi (rtd) as Chairman, while Comrade Olayinka Folarin, Chairman, Ogun State Coalition of Civil Societies, Ms. Omonajevwe Janet Abiri, International Federation of Women Lawyers (FIDA), Deputy Inspector General Of Police (DIG), Babatunde Ogunyanwo (rtd), Comrade AbdulJabar Ayelagbe, Chairman, National Youth Council, Ogun State, Chapter, Comrade Bamgbose Tomiwa, NANS Chairman, Ogun State, Ms. Aisekegbe Momodu, National Human Rights Commission, Ogun State as members, with Mrs. Oluwatosin T. Ogundele, the Chief State Counsel, Ministry of Justice, serves as secretary of the Panel of inquiry, while a seed of N50 Million has been set aside as a startup amount to enable payment of monetary compensation to deserving victims.
Indeed, some other States of the Federation have also set up similar Judicial Panels of Inquiry to look into cases of police brutality in line with the relevant Laws of these States which are similar to the Ogun State Law. For example, Oyo, Lagos, Abia, Anambra, Osun, Ekiti, Delta, Niger, Taraba, Kaduna, Ogun, Enugu, Imo, Plateau, Edo, Nasarawa, Ondo, Akwa-Ibom, etc. The establishment of the panels was in line with the resolution of the National Economic Council. With that of these developments it will bring about a sign of relief to the members of the public and those in one way or the other has tumbled into the victim of SARS in the State and Nigeria at large.
In fact, the 8-person panel set up by Governor Dapo Abiodun has the mandate to identify victims of abuse, brutality and extra-judicial killings in the hands of Officers of the disbanded Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS) and Officers of the Nigeria Police; it is also permitted them to carry out investigative duties in respect of Petitions/Memoranda received on police brutality and extra-judicial killings in the State, also to evaluate evidence and draw conclusions on the validity of such Petitions/Memoranda received. Among their terms of references were to determine and recommend compensation for verifiable/deserving victims and their dependents; also to interrogate serving or dismissed Officers of the disbanded SARS and Officers of the Nigeria Police, responsible for the abuse of victims and recommend their prosecution.
Before the closure of submission of petitions on November, 2020, the Chairman of Judicial Panel of Inquiry in the State, Justice Solomon Olugbemi disclosed that the Panel has received a total of 105 petitions within six weeks of its sittings, while sitting still ongoing, but the Chairman assured that nobody will be witch-hunted as the justice would be delivered based on evidence provided, and adequate evaluation will observed. So far, the sitting has been a welcomed opportunity for the both complainants and petitioners, as the people of the State have the opportunities to express their plights and grievances meted by the men of the SARS in the State.
In fact, just like a court, the Panel has the power to regulate its own proceedings. What this means is that the Panel has the power to dictate how the entire process of inquiry would go, subject to the overriding power of control by the Governor. We must however note that the proceedings of the Panel differ from that of the regular courts as the complainants or petitioners have the will to express himself/herself based on the facts and evidence put across the Panel, like that of cross-examinations being witnessed in the normal court proceeding. Indeed, it was true reflections of who, where, when and do people of the same country/nation could suffer so much blow from the security agents of our dear country. The injustice from the SARS to the common men was revealed without fear of anybody and from any quarters.
Moreover, the Panel has the power to procure all such evidence (written or oral) and to examine witnesses. The Panel may require that evidence of witnesses be given on oath. The Panel may summon any person in Nigeria to attend any meeting of the Panel to give evidence or produce any document or other thing in the person’s possession, subject to all just exceptions. The Panel may issue a warrant to compel the attendance of any person who refuses to attend the proceedings after being summoned without justification. The person might be compelled to bear all costs incurred for the purpose of compelling the person. It is also an offence to fail, refuse or neglect to give evidence after being summoned. However, no one is obligated to give evidence incriminating himself or herself.
Mind you, the Panel has the power to admit any evidence (written or oral) notwithstanding that such evidence might have been inadmissible in the regular courts. What this means is that not all the strict rules of evidence will apply at the Panel. In the regular courts, there are certain rules that guide the courts in admitting evidence. However, the Panel has the power to relax those rules; even the Panel has the power to appoint any person as interpreter. This is to help in occasions where a party or witness does not understand English language. English is the official language of any court or tribunal in Nigeria.
It is important to note that evidence taken by the Panel will be inadmissible against any person in any civil or criminal proceedings. This is to guarantee further freedom to any person appearing before the Panel to freely bring forward the case and to testify. However, this freedom does not entitle any person to give false information to the Panel. Any person giving false information may be charged by the Court for it. And the penalty is 2 years imprisonment. Also, it is an offence to threaten, insult or injure any person acting as witness at the Panel. It is also an offence to hinder or attempt to hinder any person, or by threats deters or attempts to deter any person from giving evidence before the Panel. That penalty also is 2 years imprisonment.
It is imperative that every person appearing before the Panel must show maximum respect to the Panel and not commit any contempt, whether or not in the presence of the members of the Panel. An act of contempt means any act of disrespect, insult or threat to the Panel or any of its members. Acts of disrespect, insult or threat to a member of the Panel include those committed at any time and place by any person on account of proceedings in the capacity as a member of the Panel. Any publication calculated to prejudice an inquiry or any proceedings is also an act of contempt.
It is also interesting to note that any person whose conduct or affairs are the subject of the inquiry into police brutality or who is in any way implicated or concerned in the matter of police brutality will be entitled to be represented by a lawyer/counsel at the whole of the inquiry. (Section 19) This is also a constitutional right. It is advised that it is better to engage lawyers skilled in public interest litigation and human rights activism. To be legally represented at the Panel also includes assistance with relevant legal documentation.
The Panel shall at the conclusion of its assignment, make and furnish to the Governor a full report in writing of its proceedings, findings and recommendations and record an opinion and reasons leading to its conclusion. (Section 15), and upon receiving the report by the Panel, the Governor may make any order as he deems fit and deliver the same to the Registrar of a High Court in Ogun. The Registrar shall register the Order which shall have the same effect as the Judgment of a High Court and may be enforced accordingly. The Order will not be reviewed in any court by prerogative order or by any other means and no appeal will lie from the Order. In other words, any registered Order by the Governor based on the report by the Panel is final.
It is now imperative to commend the National Economic Council for deem it fit in setting up such a glorious and glamorous Panel of Inquiry into the atrocities committed by the men of the Special Anti-Robbery Squad across the country which pave ways for the residents of various States in expressing their plight and injustice meted on them by the police, especially SARS and also to hail the Ogun State governor, Prince Dapo Abiodun on the quickly response in the constitution of the Panel members and the huge amount of money placed on compensation for the deserving victims. So, we must love justice as much as we love peace.
Òrúnbon, an opinion writer, poet, journalist and public affairs analyst, writes in from Federal Housing Estate, Olomore, Abeokuta, Ogun State.
Can be reached via: firstname.lastname@example.org, or 08034493944, 08029301122