Anambra EndSARS Victims, an Endless Wait for Justice

“Waiting for Godot” is a play written by Samuel Beckett. The theme of the work tries to espouse a condition where people in their hopelessness rely on illusions, such as religion, to give hope to a meaningless existence.

For the very many victims of the now proscribed Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS) in Anambra State, their wait for the compensation meant to be recommended by the Anambra State Panel of Inquiry into Police Brutality and other Related Offences, better known as the EndSARS Panel, may have been too long that it could be equated to Beckett’s ‘Waiting for Godot’. It is becoming one long, endless wait, reports Ikeugonna Eleke.

In October last year, a nationwide protest that triggered huge destructions in various states across the country commenced. It was tagged, ”EndSARS Protest”, and not even the preachments of the dangers of COVID-19 pandemic could stop the large gatherings of youths who assembled in many states across Nigeria to protest police brutality, especially as it concerned youth harassment by SARS operatives.

The EndSARS proponents later won, as the then Inspector General of Police, Mr Adamu Mohammed, disbanded SARS operatives all over the country. There was also a recommendation for states to set up Judicial Panels of Inquiry to find out ways that operatives over reached themselves, so as to compensate victims and also punish erring persons.

In Anambra State, Gov Willie Obiano, in what was described as proactiveness, was among the first governors to set up a panel of inquiry into police brutality in the state. This was on October 20, 2020, when the Anambra State Government inaugurated a 37-man Judicial Panel of Inquiry on SARS Brutality in the state. The committee was charged to look into various allegations of police brutality and extra-judicial killings carried out by the defunct SARS.

The members were drawn from various strata of society, including; youths, students, religious and civil society organisations, and chaired by Retired Justice Veronica Umeh. Inaugurating the panel, Gov Obiano promised to continue protecting the life and property of the people of the state in order to ensure sustained peace and security.

Obiano said the panel would receive and investigate the complaints of police brutality relating to torture, high-handedness and extra-judicial killings by SARS and police in the state. He said the panel would also evaluate evidence, present circumstances and other surrounding issues and draw conclusions as to the validity of the complaints, and also recommend appropriate sanctions and proffer solutions/recommend compensations and other remedial measures, where appropriate, to the state government. The panel was given one month to submit its report.

By the terms of reference spelt out to the panel, the report was supposed to be submitted to the state government on November, 19 2020. But as at October 2021, no news of the submission of the report had been heard, just as the victims of police brutality, who suffered in the hands of SARS operatives have continued to wait for either financial compensation or otherwise.

Obiano, after the inauguration of the panel, had announced that the sum of N200m had been set aside to compensate all that were involved in proven cases of brutality, according to the recommendation of the panel.

Fides investigations showed that in all, the panel received a total of 311 petitions, making it the panel with the highest petitions in the entire country. The number of petitions, it was learnt, also made it difficult for the panel to complete its work on time, especially as some members had expressed disenchantment with government over funding.

A source said the original proposal was for members of the panel to receive stipends at every sitting, but close to one month of sitting, ‘It became clear that the government was not ready to fund the sitting of the panel and that was where the rancour began.’

A coalition of youth groups in the panel withdrew from it, accusing government of lacklustre attitude towards the panel and doubted its readiness to treat the main cause of the EndSARS Protest. In a press conference in Awka, the coalition of youth groups represented by Ifediora Chijioke; Henry Chibuike Ugwu; Mr. Osonwa Chukwuka; Comr. Ebelechukwu Ngini; Comr., and Kas Chibuike Obiwuzie, said they were compelled to resign from the panel because government showed that it did not have the interest of those killed and brutalized at heart.

Reading an open letter they wrote to Obiano, the youths said: ‘It is imperative to mention that Anambra State, under your (Obiano) watch and that of your predecessor, was the cynosure of police brutality, extortion, and even extrajudicial killings in Nigeria,’ noting that SARS, Awkuzu, and numerous other police outfits in Anambra State, had gained infamy around the world for outrageous, unconscionable, and iniquitous violations of the fundamental rights of Nigerians, including the right to life.

‘We were impressed when the government constituted the panel to investigate cases of police brutality and recommend compensation to victims, among other points, in its terms of reference. Sadly, the sittings of the panel were characterized by inefficiency and poor organization because the Anambra State Government failed woefully to adequately provide logistics for anything at all involving the proceedings of the panel. There was no funding to enhance clerical or secretarial functions of the panel; no provision for security or witness protection.

‘We are however now convinced beyond peradventure that the Anambra State Government has no regard for the victims of the many human rights violations by the police in the state. The government has totally ignored the panel and had simply set up the panel to play to the gallery. Many victims of abuse of police powers and other interested stakeholders have been communicating the panel’s secretariat or its members in a bid to know why the panel is no longer sitting despite more than 250 petitions which have been unattended to. All these inquiries have failed to yield concrete answers and the government, despite being aware of the interest of the public is showing no signs of interest in the activities of the panel. We firmly refuse to be pawns in the game of the Government, so we hereby resign our appointments into the Anambra State Panel and completely dissociate ourselves from all the charade,’ they said.

Meanwhile, Fides gathered that some members of the panel continued, even in the face of the seeming reluctance of government, to fund the panel. A member of the panel who begged not to be quoted said: ‘You were all there when the youths backed out of the panel. I do not blame them because they are youths. As for some of us, we have passed doing things for society only because we will get paid, so we decided to continue.’

On why despite being given just one month to submit its report, close to one year after, its report on recommendations were yet to be out, the member said it was true that the Governor gave one month to complete the task, but that Anambra had the highest number of petitions because SARS brutality was much prevalent there.

‘So he gave us another one month, and when we couldn’t finish he added another three months. Do not forget also that we had both logistics problems and others. The panel chairman had just lost and buried her father before she was appointed. Then again, she lost her mother, and yet again, her brother. These devastated her and also slowed down our work. You know also that we had to do a lot of investigations about the claims of the petitioners before making recommendations,’ the source said.

A report released by a human rights group, International Society for Civil Liberties and the Rule of Law (Intersociety) in September 2021, and signed by the chairman of the Board of Trustees of the group, Mr Emeka Umeagbalasi, alleged that in Nigeria; between 2015 and 2020, over 1,300 people were killed; 1,500 others injured, while thousands died indirectly from police brutality.

It also said about 10,000 were unlawfully arrested, while about 3,000 disappeared mysteriously and could not be accounted for. The group claimed that Anambra alone had a lion’s share of the number quoted.

The group’s report was corroborated by the number of petitions received in Anambra State by the EndSARS Panel.

Among the many petitions brought before the panel was that of Mrs Amala Uju Nwabudu, a resident of Umuanugo, whose husband of six years, Emmanuel, disappeared after he was arrested by SARS operatives from Awkuzu. She said her husband was simply invited for questioning by the operatives and that was the last time she saw him. She said her attempts to get the operatives to say what fate had befallen her husband irked them to the point of accusing her of running guns for her husband which he used to perpetuate kidnapping business.

She said she was later arrested and intimidated into silence and was only able to speak after she heard about the constitution of the EndSARS Panel.

Another Victim, Dr Justin Ogo Nwankwo, while appearing before the panel, told how SARS operatives ruptured his scrotum in the process of torturing him after arresting him for a crime he knew nothing about.

He said, ‘The incident happened in 2013. I was the manager of Upper Class Hotel in Onitsha, and I was also a PhD student then. We had rented one of our rooms to a guest who was properly checked in.

‘In the morning, policemen came and searched the hotel and discovered some skulls in Room 102 and the guest to whom we rented the room was not there. We told them that we duly recorded the guest before check in, and that same morning, we had taken our manifest of all people who were guests to the CID Department as was the practice, but they refused to listen.

‘We urged them to investigate the guest as only he could tell how the skulls got there, but they were more interested in parading us as kidnappers and human parts dealers. I had brutality, torture and near death experience for 81 days in SARS office, Awkuzu, and I almost died. We (staff members of Upper Class Hotel) were detained, tortured and released without any charge. I sustained damaged testicles and ruptured scrotum, with lots of bodily harm. I am seeking compensation for the demolition of the hotel and for my name to be cleared, and my property paid for.’

He regretted that immediately after they were arrested, no investigation was carried out, nor any panel set, but the then state governor, Mr Peter Obi, ordered the demolition of the hotel on same day.

‘The police knew that no one was missing in that room. The man who rented the room had a name and the manifest was submitted to the police. The person who brought the skull is the person who should be investigated. Under one day, there was an executive, a judiciary and all investigation carried out in one day, and the hotel was demolished, all in one day.

‘We were paraded to the world as people selling human parts and taken for torture. That, to me, as a PhD student then, was enough blacklisting. They know you cannot as a hotel Management ask to search the bag of guests. Our instinct is clear and we know that it was a plant. The hotel owner (Mr Bonaventure Mokwe) was set up by his adversaries and we (staff) were caught in the web,’ he said.

More nerve chilling testimonies were entertained at the panel, just as many of them were up to date, awaiting monetary compensation as to be recommended by the panel. But to this date their hopes have remained dashed.

Fides caught up with Justin Nwankwo and asked if he was still hopeful about getting compensated for all his troubles.

He said, ‘The Anambra EndSARS Panel was very encouraging when they started and we, the victims of Awkuzu SARS, were very hopeful, especially upon presentation of our petition to the panel. But we do not seem to have hope any longer.

‘What is happening now and the delayed justice therein, is not what Anambra State Government under Chief Willie Obiano should handover to a new government. Let justice delayed not become denied in the EndSARS Panel. I am expecting a perfect and justiciable closure of that ugly chapter in my life,’ he said.

Meanwhile, the chairman of the panel, Justice Veronica Umeh (Rtd), told Fides that the panel had concluded its work and that the report would be presented to the Governor soon. In a telephone conversation with Fides, Umeh said, ‘What you are asking for will be ready soon. You know we had the highest number of petitions in the country and we had to take time to sit on all of them. So, the report is almost ready, so just wait and we will present it to the governor and it will be ready for all to see.’

She also noted that the panel had powers to make recommendations, but that the report was not final because another white paper committee would be set up to look at the findings and recommendations.

‘Ours is to make recommendations, but government may decide to pay more than we recommended to a particular person or to slash what we recommended. As at now, we already have a draft of our reports and anytime from now, we are submitting it.

‘Also note that some of the atrocities meted on people may not be left like that. The attorney general may have to take it up and prosecute some people, depending on our recommendation.

‘Considering that Chief Obiano has just five months to the end of his tenure, one may want to wonder if his white paper committee could be constituted and recommendation paid to victims of police brutality and erring police officers dragged to court for prosecution before the end of his tenure,’ he said

One name that remained recurring in most of the petitions as far as police brutality in Anambra was concerned was that of CSP James Nwafor, who was the SARS Commander during the period most of the atrocities were committed. Many believe that Nwafor has questions to answer, regarding the disappearance of most people arrested by him during his period as Commander.

Fides visited Dr Uju Nwogu, the Commissioner for Justice and Attorney General in Anambra State, to ascertain her plans of  ensuring that victims get redress through the prosecution of Nwafor and other officers like him, and also if  Governor Obiano would be able to pay compensation to victims before the end of his tenure. But she was said not to be on seat. Calls and text messages sent to her phone were not answered or replied as at the time of filing this report.