For over a week, the police molested and tear-gassed a group of Nigerians protesting in Abuja over the continual medical vacation of President Muhammadu Buhari. Claiming that the President’s medical vacation in England has crippled governance, a coalition of civil society organisations led by entertainer, Charles Oputa (aka Charly Boy), had formed a protest group identified by the hashtag #ResumeOrResign. It is a direct statement to Buhari, who has spent more than 100 days in London treating an undisclosed ailment. The government replied that Buhari had not violated any law since he transmitted a notice to the National Assembly that Vice-President Yemi Osinbajo should act in his absence. That’s fine.
But oddly, the police would have none of the civil protests. They have meted out brutal treatment to Oputa and other members of the group. Oputa lamented, “We were not even up to 10 people that set out for the Unity Fountain. When we got there, we met close to 200 policemen. Before we knew it, they started with water cannon. Then, they tear-gassed us and set their dogs against us.” Apart from the protesters, journalists fromSilverbird TV and The Guardian were also molested. On Tuesday, because of police duplicity, thugs assaulted the campaigners in Wuse Market, with many injured.
As usual, the police are according protection to some amorphous groups campaigning in support of Buhari. It was reported that the protesters, under the aegis of Coalition for Good Governance and Change Initiative, had converged on the Unity Fountain, Abuja, singing solidarity songs in support of the Nigerian government. The pro-Buhari supporters, who attacked those demanding the President’s return, were seen armed with clubs, missiles and other weapons on Tuesday. The police pretentiously looked the other way, a subtle invitation to the rioters to unleash mayhem on the coalition of CSOs. The attacks were so vicious that the Charly Boy group was forced to flee. This special treatment speaks volumes about the contradictions in our so-called democracy. It is an affront to freedom and civil liberty.
Every democracy guarantees some fundamental rights of citizens. The right of assembly in a public place is truly one of the cornerstones of liberty. Since 1997, about 60,000 people have been turning out on July 1 to protest against the transfer of Hong Kong to China. All the police do is to prepare for the three-kilometre march. On Monday night, thousands of pro- and anti-Trump protesters in the United States stormed the Trump Tower in New York to protest against or in support of Donald Trump’s handling of his presidency. Indeed, Sections 39 (1) and 40 of the 1999 Constitution guarantee the freedom of expression and right to peaceful assembly and association.
The attitude of the police harks back to the era of military dictatorship, which ended in 1999. In those despotic days, police disrupted protests by students, and brutally murdered them. Their victims included Adekunle Adepeju, a University of Ibadan undergraduate who was gunned down in 1971. In 1986, the police shot dead four undergraduates of the Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria, who were protesting against the Structural Adjustment Programme of the then military dictator, Ibrahim Babangida.
Eighteen years into civil rule, it is ridiculous that the police have yet to imbibe basic democratic ethos. A 2013 report by the Educational Rights Campaign, a non-governmental organisation, estimated that the police killed no fewer than 10 undergraduates that year across the country during protests. Several times, they have meted out harsh treatment to the #BringBackOurGirls activists, preventing them from gaining access to the Presidential Villa. The group has been campaigning for the return of the Chibok schoolgirls that were abducted by Boko Haram terrorists in April 2014.
People have the right to protest. However, anyone that commits wilful act of property damage should be apprehended and prosecuted. Nigerians should, therefore, resist the police efforts to crush the right of free protest. In a virile democracy, arguments never stop and silence can never be imposed. The #ResumeOrResign group should not give in to intimidation. It should explore the legal option of enforcing the fundamental human rights spelt out in the constitution.
A professor of politics, Amy Lerman, is absolutely right to say: “By giving a microphone to the voiceless, protest has historically been a tool to make us a more just society. Those concerned with the health of our democracy should fear only the quiet acquiescence of the oppressed. In contrast, we should celebrate (the recent round of) protests as a sign that our democracy remains strong.” For Martin Luther King Jr., American civil rights activist, peaceful protest is the “only weapon that we (the people) have in our hands.” In a case quoted by Femi Falana, a Senior Advocate of Nigeria, the Court of Appeal once declared that “a rally or placard carrying demonstration has become a form of expression of views on current issues affecting government and the governed in a sovereign state. It is a trend recognised and deeply entrenched in the system of governance in civilised countries – it will not only be primitive but also retrogressive if Nigeria continues to require a pass to hold a rally. We must take a leaf out of the book of those who have trekked the rugged path of democracy and are now reaping the dividend of their experience.” We agree.
The police action was an affront to a nation that enshrines the freedom of speech and the freedom to assemble in its highest law. The Inspector-General of Police, Ibrahim Idris, should take responsibility and stop this illegality. In future, Idris should see to it that all Nigerians are free to air their views without the fear of assault. Peaceful demonstration is a fundamental civil liberty and law enforcement agencies should accept the costs that go with the job to keep the peace.