The Federal Government came under fire on Wednesday for tagging of #EndSARS campaigners as terrorists with prominent citizens and groups deploring the Central Bank of Nigeria’s action, which led to the freezing of the accounts of some of the campaigners.
The Federal Government had succeeded in freezing the accounts of 20 #EndSARS campaigners after telling a Federal High Court in Abuja that the funds in their accounts might have been linked to terrorist activities.
This was according to a written address in support of a motion ex parte filed by the CBN, which froze 20 accounts in the second week of October and thereafter approached the court to seek an ex parte order to freeze the accounts.
In the case with suit number FHC/ABJ/CS/1384/2020, filed before Justice A. R. Mohammed, the CBN, however, made no mention of the fact that the 20 accounts were owned by persons involved in the #EndSARS protests, but told the court that the funds might have emanated from terrorist activities.
The Nigerian Bar Association (NBA) said on Wednesday that blocking the accounts of #EndSARS protesters on the pretext that they were terrorism suspects showed that the Federal Government was insincere.
Speaking for the body of lawyers in an interview with The PUNCH, the Publicity Secretary of the association, Dr Raps Nduka, maintained that the #EndSARS protests were lawful and the demands of the campaigners genuine.
He added that the action of the Federal Government through the CBN in blocking the accounts of the promoters of the movement showed that the government was insincere with its promise to address their demands.
Nduka said, “The timing looks very suspicious. The protests are lawful and the demands of the protesters and the concerns they expressed are genuine.
“What has happened shows that the protesters were right to insist that they were not going to leave the streets because over time, the government would promise something and do the opposite. This action of the CBN lends credence to the position taken by the youth.
“Even if the government is right, who will believe it at this time? The government makes it look like it is trying to silence people from talking about the ills of the society. Why does the government appear to be doing that?
“It tells us that the government may not be doing anything to ensure that the complaints are being addressed. It also tells us that that their original claims that they were standing with the youth were pretences. You cannot be standing with them and freeze their accounts. It does not work that way.
“Let us assume that the allegations are true, what happens to discrete investigation? Why should they block the accounts of persons because you are investigating them? Why don’t they be on the trail of the money going into the accounts, assuming the allegations are true?
“The time is very suspicious. It lends credence to the belief of the average Nigerian that the government is not being sincere.”
Reacting to the apex bank’s action, a prominent Senior Advocate of Nigeria, Chief Mike Ozekhome, on Wednesday described the Federal Government’s tagging of the promoters of the #EndSARS protests as terrorists as unlawful, unconstitutional and insensitive.
Ozekhome, who said he found it hard to believe that the CBN made such a claim in the application filed to obtain the court order freezing the accounts, noted that the rights to protest were guaranteed by the Nigerian Constitution.
He said, “Who is saying that peaceful protests on the streets of Nigeria by Nigerians, who are constitutionally entitled under sections 37 and 38 of the Constitution to protest, to assemble, to associate, to move freely, to kick against bad government policies, to demonstrate on the streets peacefully, to sing, to dance and to hold rally, are terrorism? Who is the person saying that these amount to terrorism? What can this government not do to give a dog a bad name so as to hang it?
“So, the government does not know that the herdsmen are the real terrorists? The government does not know that Boko Haram members are the real terrorists? The government does not know that the rampaging kidnappers are the real terrorists? The government does not know that the bandits are the real terrorists? The government does not know that those in government stealing the commonwealth belonging to the people are the real terrorists?
“It is insensitive; it is immoral; it is illegal; it is unconstitutional; it is unlawful; it is wrongful for the government, through CBN or any agency, to tag peaceful protesters as terrorists. It is most unfortunate and saddening.”
He also said the blocking of the bank accounts of the campaigners was an attempt by the Federal Government to intimidate the various state governments to express views contrary to its own via the various panels of inquiry to investigate the root causes of the protests.
Ozekhome stated, “What happens to the various judicial panels of inquiry set up by the various state governments like Edo, Lagos, Ondo, and Ekiti to look into the root causes of these protests and what can be done? The Federal Government is already intimidating the states by already condemning the #EndSARS campaigners by blocking or freezing their accounts and tagging them as terrorists. Do you expect any state government panel to come with views that run contrary to the views of the government of Muhammadu Buhari?”
Similarly, human rights lawyer, Mr Jiti Ogunye, said the profiling of the #EndSARS promoters as terrorists by the CBN was ridiculous, warning that the apex bank, which is not a security agency, must not get itself involved in politics at the risk of losing credibility.
Ogunye said, “It is ridiculous. The CBN has no statutory duty to profile anybody. The CBN is not a security agency or a law enforcement agency. The CBN is the banker to the Federal Government of Nigeria; it is also a regulatory agency in terms of ensuring compliance with fiscal policies. But it is not a body to designate or profile anybody as terrorists.
“What the CBN reportedly has done on this occasion is ridiculous and dangerous. This clampdown, violation of rights and profiling are unlawful and disconcerting. We live in a country that is talking now about rehabilitating known terrorists, who have taken up arms against the state, who are being rehabilitated or de-radicalised, but people who embarked on a protest are then tagged as terrorists; it is ridiculous.
“It is best for the government to calm down and engage in introspection. When you talk about incitement, if there is no fundamental lack, will it be possible for people to be incited? The more the CBN gets itself caught in the vortex of this very political action of the government, while it is supposed to maintain a degree of independence, the more people will treat it with derision and the CBN may suffer credibility crisis.”
Also, a Senior Advocate of Nigeria, Mr Tayo Oyetibo, said the right to protest was guaranteed by the country’s constitution and by no stretch of imagination could a protester be tagged a terrorist.
Oyetibo stated, “I think the proper question is whether people, who protested against police brutality, can be regarded as terrorists and my view is no. Because the right to protest against policies of government that one disagrees with is one of the fundamental rights granted to every Nigerian citizen. So, if you are protesting against government policies, there is no valid legal basis of adjudging you a terrorist. By no means can anybody protesting be adjudged to be a terrorist.”
Another Senior Advocate of Nigeria, Mr Seyi Sowemimo, described the profiling of the #EndSARS protesters as terrorists as a wrong move by the government.
Sowemimo said, “It is not helpful in trying to quell the tense political climate. I don’t think it is necessary. The protesters are not terrorists in the sense that we all understand who terrorists are and describing them as terrorists is not going to change people’s views as to the merit of their protests.
“So, I think it is a wrong move. If they have no other reason for trying to clamp down on their accounts, the tag of terrorism is simply not going to fly with the people.”
A former President of the Committee for the Defence of Human Rights, Malachy Ugwummadu, said, “The state is at liberty to file charges against anybody. What is important is to be able to gather watertight evidence to prove and establish the charges.
“Allegations of terrorism and terrorist activities are not mere misdemeanours. They attract as much as life imprisonment upon conviction or N150m, or both, pursuant to Section 33 of the Terrorism (Prevention) Act, 2011. Thus, where were the CBN, the DSS, the FIU and other security and financial institutions before the #EndSARS protests?
“What the government has done with these moves amount to a breach of the understanding it has with Nigerian youths.”
The Convener of the Coalition in Defence of Nigerian Democracy and Constitution, Ariyo-Dare Atoye, also berated the government.
He stated, “It is not shocking to me that a government that has been doing everything to reshape terrorism narrative in the country and turn Boko Haram members into freedom fighters or agitators could now easily turn around to label peaceful protestors as terrorists.”
On his part, a former Chairman of the Human Rights Commission, Dr Chidi Odinkalu, tweeted that the government regarded treasury looters as saints and #EndSARS protesters as terrorists.
He wrote, “Reprisals: @cenbank says those who protested to #EndSARS & those who supported them were terrorists.
“The #SARS operatives who slaughtered young ppl & the politicians who loot our common patrimony are saints!” – Punch.