Pardon my choice of Fela-inspired caption but what inspired the thematic title would become more apparent as we proceed.
Central to the social contract theory is the truism that government is a trust; a contract between the government and the governed, by which the latter cede some of their rights to the former. Consequently, the latter has an inherent right to rise up in defense against the abuse or unlawful utilization of any of these rights they had willfully ceded to the Former. That is why the Constitution which is the product of “we the People” recognizes certain fundamental rights that are inherent in the people-rights that cannot be taken away or abrogated from without an affront to the Constitution, being the grundnorm itself.
Over the years and since the inception of Democracy in Nigeria, successive Governments and some depraved government officials, owing to gross incompetence, nepotism, wholesale corruption and reckless bastardization of our common patrimony have consistently deplored the instrumentality of state apparatus to asphyxiate public dissent and revolt against their reckless abuse of office.
Political dissent and press freedom is indeed a sine qua non to the modern day ideals of democracy, the liberty to criticize, condemn, analyze and demand immediate change/reversal of anti-people policy(ies) is a right that naturally inure and are inherent in the people who are indeed, the true sovereign in a democracy, the consistent attempt by government therefore to deplore the instrumentality of state apparatus to subjugate the people including the criminalization of criticism and demand for true change (including the filing of frivolous charges against activists and pro-democracy campaigners) is an aberration that is worthy of total condemnation. In the case of RAMILLA MAIDAN INCIDENT V. HOME SECRETARY UNION OF INDIA (UOI) (2012) SSCC I, Swatanter Kumar, J. observed, “It is significant to note that the freedom of speech is the bulwark of democratic Government. This freedom is essential for proper functioning of the democratic process. The freedom of speech and expression is regarded as the first condition of liberty. It occupies a preferred position in the hierarchy of liberties, giving succor and protection to all other liberties. It has been truly said that it is the mother of all liberties. Freedom of speech plays a crucial role in the formation of public opinion on social, political and economic matters. It has been described as a ‘basic human right’, ‘a natural right’ and the like.”
People who assume highly visible public roles must necessarily face a higher degree of criticism than private citizens; otherwise public debate may be stifled altogether, persons who do not recognize this truism have no business aspiring for public offices. The culture of deploying security agencies to ‘investigate’ and ‘prosecute’ alleged defamatory publications must be stopped forthwith. It is indeed very worrisome that persons who had benefitted immensely from the freedom to ‘say anything’ and dish out ‘unprecedented propagandas’ on account of which Nigerians committed the immortal error of voting them into offices in 2015 on account of which they gained the leverage of recklessly rigging themselves into offices in 2019 are now the ones opposing and clamping down with impunity press freedom in this country today. Upon loosing the 2003 General Elections, General Muhammadu Buhari, the then presidential candidate of the ANPP and other leaders of the party had approached the global icon and torch bearer of human right in Nigeria; Mr Femi Falana, SAN to challenge the disruption of their protests. Mr Falana characteristically accepted to represent General Muhammadu Buhari and his party pro bono. In ANPP & ORS V IGP (2006) CHR 181, the learned Justice Chikere J. in upholding the Plaintiffs’ fundamental rights to assemble peacefully had resoundingly held as follows; “the provision in section 40 is clear, direct and unambiguous. It is formulated and designed to confer on every person the right to assemble freely and associate with other persons”
The epochal judgement of the Trial Court received the appellate stamp of the Court of Appeal when the learned law lords held thus; “Public order Act should be promulgated to compliment Sections 39 and 40 of the Constitution in context and not to stifle or cripple it. 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 tread recognized and deeply entrenched in the system of governance in civilized countries- it will not only be primitive but also retrogressive if Nigeria continues to require a pass to hold a rally. We must borrow a leaf from those who have trekked the rugged path of democracy and are now reaping the dividend of their experience“
In August 2019, a group of young, vibrant pro-democracy activists and patriots under the auspices of the CORE had in furtherance of their Constitutional right to protest rolled out plans to embark on nationwide protest tagged #RevolutionNow#. Few days to the August 5, 2019 protest, the leader, of the group, the indefatigable Omoyele Stephen Sowore was snatched in the middle of the night by DSS officials in Lagos and whisked to Abuja all in a bid to frustrate the organizers and stop the protest but the other organizers stood their ground and the protest proceeded nationwide as scheduled. Expectedly, the DSS and officers of the Nigeria Police disrupted the protest and made arrests. Some of the protesters were brutalized, arrested and charged for very ridiculous offences. Expectedly, almost all of the persons against whom charges were filed aside Mr Omoyele Sowore and Mandate aka Olawale Bakare have had the ridiculous charges against them thrown out (the same fate await the preposterous charges against the duo of Sowore and Mandate). While delivering judgement in a suit filed by radical activist and advocate; Mr Olukoya, Ogungbeje, the Federal High Court Lagos per Hon. Justice Maureen Onyetenu had declared the disruption of the peaceful protest tagged #REVOLUTIONNOW as ‘illegal, oppressive, undemocratic and unconstitutional.’ The Court had further maintained that by disrupting the protest, the Federal Government deprived the participants their right to peaceful assembly and association in violation of Sections 38, 39 and 40 of the Constitution. As my lord, Adekeye JCA re-emphasized in the Buhari’s case of IGP VS ANPP, “The rights to freedom of assembly and freedom of expression are the bone of any democratic form of government. Besides their embodiment in the Supreme law of the land – the 1999 constitution and the African Charter on Human and People’s Rights locally adopted as Ratification and Enforcement Act Cap. 10 Laws of the Federation of Nigeria 1990, a plethora of decisions of our courts have endorsed same.”
In the case of EBUTE Vs. STATE (1994) 9 NWLR (Pt. 984) 105, the Court of Appeal had warned Nigerians against abandoning their rights to freedom of expression cherishingly donated by the Constitution.
The Courts have consistently maintained that the right of Nigerians to hold public meetings or protest peacefully against the government on any matter whatsoever is a right inherent in them, “democracy admits of dissent, protest, marches, rallies and demonstrations…The right to demonstrate and right to protest on matters of public concern are rights which individuals must possess, and which they should exercise without impediment as long as no wrongful act is done.” Adekeye JCA maintained in IGP VS ANPP
To this end, we warn some of the over-zealous security agencies in the country to desist from the unholy habit of being used as tools of oppression against the Nigerian people with whose tax payers’ money their salaries are paid. The new August 5 ritual with the hashtag #REVOLUTIONNOW# and every other protest legitimately called by Nigerians with specific demands is/are legitimate and the responsibility of the security agencies is to provide security for the protesters, never to clamp down on them.
Marshal Abubakar writes from Abuja
For comments and observations, you can reach him on [email protected]