The traumatic events of the #EndSARS protest and the riots that followed its hijack presented the President, Major General Muhammadu Buhari (retd.), with another opportunity to exhibit statesmanship. But typically, he bungled it, shifting instinctively into his dictatorial default mode. While in one breath, he expressed willingness to go into dialogue with all stakeholders, in another, he vowed to “do whatever it takes to ensure a repeat of the protests does not occur in Nigeria again.”
No doubt, the mindless killings, arson, looting and other forms of lawlessness that the Lekki tollgate massacre engendered are unacceptable and condemnable. Financial Derivatives estimated the economic cost of the unrest at N1.5 trillion, which is approximately 1.03 per cent of GDP and 11.47 per cent of the 2021 budget. More disturbing is the death toll nationwide, put at 73, of which 22 were police officers. These are the unintended consequences of the noble cause that the #EndSARS promoters embarked upon. Urgently, Nigeria must create and sustain a liberal political environment where opposition to government action or inaction is not brutally suppressed, thereby creating the opportunity for miscreants to unleash mayhem on the society.
Buhari’s pledge to engage stakeholders in dialogue across the country is the right step. At the National Security Council meeting that he chaired, according to the Minister of Police Affairs, Muhammed Dingyadi, who briefed the media on the outcome, the President committed to “humane and just postures in handling security matters” and carrying stakeholders along. He said, “…all stakeholders will be involved in the process of maintaining peace in the country, particularly the youth, community leaders, traditional rulers, politicians, public servants, religious leaders etc.” But he is decidedly wrong in clamping down on the protest promoters and vowing not to allow such protest again. Nonviolent protest is an inalienable right and an integral part of democracy. It is only in dictatorships that peaceful protests are suppressed as part of the architecture of repression. As long as Nigeria advertises itself as a democratic republic under a constitution, the rights of assembly, of association and of free expression are non-negotiable.
The regime’s recent actions suggest a deliberate state policy to instil fear in the people, especially the youth. Arrests, detention and prosecution of #EndSARS protesters have been stepped up. Planned public meetings by activists in Lagos and Abuja were violently broken up by the police, who also sealed off the Afrika Shrine, Lagos, venue of a scheduled protest convened by a musician, Seun Kuti. Several protest leaders and enablers have been arraigned in court and detained beyond the number of days permitted by the law. In an unprecedented dimension, and at the behest of the regime, the Central Bank of Nigeria has frozen the bank accounts of activists. Terrifyingly, in court papers seeking to validate its action, it accused the victims of sponsoring terrorism! Not even the usurping military juntas that ruled for 28 of the country’s 60 years of independence were that devious. The regime’s war against peaceful protesters has been widely deplored, with the UK lawmakers pressing for sanctions. Ironically, Buhari had participated in protests while out of office in exercise of his rights.
Nigerians must resist this assault on their liberties by all lawful means. Buhari must be told clearly that peaceful protest is a fundamental right and an intrinsic feature of democracy. This arises from the right to assembly and association, freedom of thought, freedom of movement and of expression. These rights are enshrined in Chapter IV of the 1999 Constitution that Buhari swore to uphold and defend. A joint communiqué by the UK Foreign & Commonwealth Development Office, the Norwegian and Swiss governments declared; “Increasingly various human rights, such as the right of peaceful assembly and freedom of expression, are viewed as contributing to the existence of an umbrella right to engage in peaceful demonstrations and other forms of peaceful protest.” Nigeria is also a signatory to among others, the UN Universal Declaration on Human Rights and the African Charter on Human and People’s Rights that also guarantee these fundamental rights.
That Nigerians do not need permission for peaceful protests has been affirmed by the Court of Appeal. Open Democracy, a British advocacy, lists protests as vital to representative governments and universal suffrage to combat the “tyranny of the majority” and ensure that all stakeholder voices are heard. Echoing former US president, Barack Obama, the Brookings Institution declares that for a vibrant democracy, peaceful protest is as important as voting; saying, “Public protests are manifestations of dissent and an expression of the urgent need to change policy.”
Buhari should stop criminalising peaceful protest. #EndSARS protesters were engaged in lawful activity and deserved police protection, which is the standard practice in democracies. They should not be lumped with the vandals, looters and arsonists who capitalised on police abdication of their duties to unleash mayhem across the country. Rather, the regime should apprehend the hoodlums and their sponsors that in full public glare, attacked peaceful protesters across the country, and hold security personnel accountable for failing to act promptly to stop rioters and looters.
A protest is not the same as a riot. Therefore, there should be new policing strategies to keep protests peaceful. Many protests are organic and there is nothing a responsible government can do to stop it. Amnesty International, USA suggests that when a (lawful) decision has been taken to disperse an assembly, the order to disperse must be clearly communicated and explained, to obtain, as far as possible, the understanding and compliance of the demonstrators. Sufficient time must be given to disperse. In this regard, AI adds that force should not be used to punish the (presumed or alleged) non-compliance with an order nor simply for the participation in an assembly. “Arrest and detention should be carried out only in accordance with procedures established by law. They should not be used as means to prevent peaceful participation in a public assembly or as a means of punishment for participation,” it says.
These are the global best practices. Many of the over 100 ongoing protests worldwide identified by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace are in stable democracies, including Canada, the USA, Australia, Brazil, France, Germany, India and Hungary. Peaceful protests are not threats to democracy or national security as regime enforcers falsely claim. Instead, said Brookings, “By driving media coverage, catalysing congressional action, and shifting public opinion, nonviolent protests have been a force behind positive social change.”
By their inflexible martial disposition, Buhari and his enforcers are doing incalculable harm to democracy. It is uncivilised, inhuman and sadistic to use live bullets on peaceful protesters. Firearms or shotguns should never be used for the purpose of dispersing a crowd. Batons and similar impact equipment should not be used on people who are unthreatening and non-aggressive. Where baton use is unavoidable, law enforcement officers must have clear orders to avoid causing serious injury and that vital parts of the body are excluded as target zones.
According to AI, the type of equipment used to disperse an assembly must be carefully considered and used only when necessary, proportional and lawful. Policing and security equipment – such as rubber bullets, tear gas and stun grenades, often described as “less-lethal” weapons – can result in serious injury and even death. Chemical irritants, such as tear gas, should not be used where people are confined in an area and not in a way that can cause lasting harm (such as at too close range, or directly aimed at people’s faces). Clear orders should be given to all law enforcement officers that medical assistance to anyone injured must be provided immediately. These are the measures Buhari should consider to ensure that peaceful protests do not end in carnage again.
Nigerians should however not be cowed; they should press ahead with all lawful means to ventilate their concerns. They were not broken by repressive military juntas, or by colonial overlords. Those harassed should seek redress in court.
In the face of creeping authoritarianism, civil society organisations should recover their heroic vibrancy that helped bury military rule. The message must sink in: peaceful protest is a constitutional right that governments can neither give nor withhold.