As protests against police brutality raged across Nigeria last October, one of the pacifying concessions reached by the state and federal governments was the setting up of judicial panels of inquiry.

The National Executive Council (NEC) headed by Vice-President Yemi Osinbajo recommended that the panels be established in the 36 states of the federation and the Federal Capital Territory, Abuja, with the mandate to look into cases of alleged violations of human rights by the now-disbanded Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS) and other units of the police.

Legal representation challenges

One of the challenges bedevilling Nigeria’s justice administration has been the inability of indigent litigants or suspects in criminal cases to get legal representation.

As a result, the Legal Aid Council of Nigeria (LACON) was established in 1976, with a mission to provide free legal advice, representation and assistance to indigent Nigerians.

Lagos State has an adaptation of it as the Office of the Public Defender (OPD).

Following the composition of the judicial panels of inquiry in the states, with the exception of a few that refused to set such up, a deluge of petitions, numbering about 2600, was filed by alleged victims of human rights abuses at the hands of the police, PREMIUM TIMES’ findings showed.

Legal Aid Council only represent five petitioners

PREMIUM TIMES gathered that the Legal Aid Council of Nigeria (LACON) is representing only five petitioners in two states.

The spokesperson of LACON, Jessica Memven, confirmed to our reporter that the agency is representing only the five petitioners it received requests from.

Ms Memven identified the states where the agency is representing the five petitioners to be Lagos and Oyo.

Lagos

When contacted by our reporter, a representative of LACON on the Lagos State Panel of Enquiry and Restitution, Sandra Benjamin, said the council only received one application for legal representation.

Governor Babajide Sanwo-Olu of Lagos State had on October 16, 2020, announced the setting up of the seven-member panel, which is being chaired by a retired judge, Doris Okuwobi.

Oyo State

In Oyo State, it was slightly different as the council offered free legal services for four indigent complainants at the state’s panel of inquiry.

Funmi Odutayo, who coordinated the activities on behalf of LACON at the panel, said two of the victims of alleged police brutality were in critical need of medical attention.

According to her, one of the petitioners who free legal services are being provided for by the council, was shot twice in his groin by a policeman in Oyo State, prior to the #EndSARS protests.

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“The medical condition of this petitioner required $50,000, for him to be treated abroad. But due to paucity of funds, the panel recommended that the state government take responsibility for the petitioner’s medical treatment, pending when it will conclude its sitting,” Mrs Odutayo explained.

Ekiti and others

But in what appears to be what is applicable in other states where the panel has been set up, the LACON representative at the Ekiti judicial panel of inquiry, Adeyinka Opaleke, said there was no request for legal representation from petitioners to his agency.

Mr Opaleke explained that the 12-member panel, which was inaugurated on October 22, 2020 by Ekiti State governor, Kayode Fayemi, concluded its sittings in May 2021, adding that compensations for victims had commenced.

The judicial panel was chaired by a retired judge; Cornelius Akintayo. Other members were Dipo Ayeni (Rtd Commissioner of Police); Yetunde Kolawole, state counsel (representing the Honourable Attorney-General & Commissioner for Justice); Kikelomo Owolabi (chairperson, Nigerian Bar Association, Ikere Ekiti branch); Rotimi Ojomoyela (chairperson, Nigerian Union of Journalists, Ekiti State Council); Jamiu Adigun and (representative, National Human Rights Commission).

Others were Adeyinka Opaleke (representative, Legal Aid Council of Nigeria); Akin Rotimi; Caroline Fakinlede (Ekiti State youths representative); Omowumi Deborah (youth representative); Asiwaju Oladimeji (youth representative) and Abiola Johnson-Ogunleye (Ekiti State students representative).

Why LACON recorded low requests for representation

The head of the press unit at LACON, Ms Memven, attributed the meagre number of legal representations at the panels on the pro bono services that were being offered by the Nigerian Bar Association (NBA) across the country.

“The low number of requests for legal services was due to the legal services that were offered by the NBA at the various panels,” she said.

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