Last week, operatives of the Nigeria Police arrested some young men who gathered in Abuja to protest. They were charged to court. The Punch reported that they were charged with criminal conspiracy, public nuisance, disturbance of public peace, and threat to public security and safety, criminal defamatory and derogatory conduct against constituted authority and breach of law and order under Sections 96, 113, 114, 152, 183 and 391 of the Penal Code. The accused persons were, however, granted bail by the presiding Magistrate, Aliu Kagarko, but could not immediately meet the conditions, which included two sureties, one of whom must be a level 14 civil servant with a cover letter from his superior, and also a businessman with a verified address. They were subsequently taken to Keffi prisons by the police after they failed to provide the sureties.
On the surface, the action of the police in using the court to get the protesters detained was constitutional. It is the court that should determine if a citizen should be detained or released from detention. That should not be determined by the police, the army, or even the President of Nigeria. However, because the right to protest is a universal one, the administration of President Muhammadu Buhari again brought international attention to itself in a wrong way through the action of the Inspector-General of Police, Ibrahim Idris, with the arrest of the protesters.
The arrest of the protesters was reported by the local and international media. But most importantly, Amnesty International condemned the arrest of the protesters. The Nigerian chapter of Amnesty International, on its verified Twitter account, @AmnestyNigeria, said, “Arrest of @adeyanjudeji by @PoliceNG is an appalling sign of increasing shrinking of civic space in #Nigeria. Protest is a human right. #FreeDejiNow.”
It is instructive to note that by arresting the protesters, the police have drawn negative attention to the administration of President Buhari as a dictatorial one which is intolerant of dissent. Many people who never heard of Deji Adeyanju have heard of him through his arrest. The administration has, therefore, ended up popularising him through the needless arrest. Recall that it was like this that the administration of Buhari popularised Nnamdi Kanu, his Radio Biafra and his group, the Indigenous People of Biafra, both of which had been in existence since 2012 without much attention. But by responding to the radio station’s comments, announcing that it had jammed its signals and arresting Kanu and detaining him, Buhari gave unprecedented publicity to Kanu and his cause.
The irony of the arrest of Deji and his colleagues was that there was no need to arrest them. Their arrest served no purpose. It would not stop other people from protesting. Deji’s protest portended no danger to the police or this administration. Most Nigerians did not even know that the group was protesting or what it was protesting about. The only purpose the arrest served was to draw sympathy to the protesters as victims of police highhandedness. More Nigerians have now heard of the reason for the protest.
Interestingly, last weekend, a violent protest took place in France. The Yellow Vest protest went into its third weekend on December 2, having started on Saturday, November 17, 2018. It is a protest that takes place on Saturdays. It started as a protest against the increased tax on petroleum products but has expanded to other issues concerning the purchasing power of the middle class. By last weekend, three people had died (accidentally), over 100 cars had been set ablaze, houses burnt, windows smashed, police guns stolen, dozens of police officers injured by stone-throwing protesters who called for the resignation of President Emmanuel Macron. But in all this violence, no single bullet was fired at the protesters unlike the usual way operatives of the Nigeria Police as well as soldiers readily use live bullets on protesters, while many Nigerians (who have lost their humanity) justify such wanton killings. The French police used batons, teargas and water cannon on the protesters.
In her 1906 book, “The Friends of Voltaire,” Evelyn Beatrice Hall (using her pseudonym S. G. Tallentyre.) said: “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.” That statement has become the global encapsulation of the primacy of freedom of speech. Even when you don’t agree with the view of another, you have to recognise that person’s freedom of expression. This was re-echoed in October this year by the United States Ambassador to Nigeria, William Stuart Symington, when he noted that injustice and disregard for the rule of law are worse than stealing of public funds. Delivering a convocation lecture titled, “Citizen Leadership and the Link between Economic Diversity and Democratic Good Governance,” at the University of Ilorin, Kwara State, Symington said: “What many consider as the great corruption is stealing of money but what to me is the great corruption is when people are deprived of justice, when you do things without regard for the rule of law.”
Repeatedly, local and global agencies have given uncomplimentary verdicts on Buhari’s human rights record. Each time this happens, the government feels unhappy and makes serious efforts to counter the verdicts. Yet, it continues to allow the rights of its citizens to be breached unnecessarily. In May this year, some protesters sympathetic to government had disrupted activities at the Abuja headquarters of Amnesty International over a report they got wind of that would not be favourable to the Nigerian Army on the abuse of people’s rights. But bodies like Amnesty International were not created to publish reports that favour governments. They get their data from the actions taken by government and its agencies like what the police have done to the protesters led by Deji Adeyanju. Such acts are seen as acts meant to intimidate people from expressing their views against an administration. They are anti-democratic and globally unacceptable.
Protesters, journalists and other citizens (seen as enemies) are regularly harassed, beaten, arrested and even shot at with live bullets. On New Year’s Day this year, before dawn, about 15 men of the Federal Special Anti-Armed Robbery Squad stormed the Nnewi country home of the Elombahs, scaled the wall into their compound, and handcuffed Tim Elombah, Editor of Elombah.com, as well as five of his relatives, and took them away. He was accused of publishing a story that embarrassed the IG of Police. He was in detention for 25 days. Similarly, on July 21, 2016, about 12 agents of the Department of State Services went to Yenagoa to arrest Jones Abiri, the publisher of Weekly Source newspaper. For two years, he was detained without trial. Following public outcry, he was charged to court some months ago and was granted bail.
The reason this breach of people’s rights continues to happen is that the heads of the police, DSS, army, the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission, and other security bodies have seen that President Buhari condones their lack of respect for the rights of the citizens. Therefore, they know that they cannot be fired for such actions. Sadly, the person who gets a bad image from these actions is the President.
What is inexplicable is what Buhari gains from allowing people with limited national influence to be arrested and detained, when they pose no critical threat to him, thereby drawing sympathies to such people and painting him as an enemy of people’s rights. It is a terrible political mistake that Buhari has continued to make since the beginning of his tenure in 2015. But he does not seem to have realised that it is a minus to him.
– Twitter @BrandAzuka