Dayo Oketola, Olalekan Adetayo, Femi Atoyebi, Fidelis Soriwei, Adelani Adepegba, Femi Makinde, and Success Nwogu
A cross-section of Nigerians, socio-cultural and political groups have expressed anger over an order by the Nigeria Police cancelling the February 6 nationwide anti-government protests organised by singer, Innocent Idibia, popularly called Tuface.
The organiser of the protests, tagged Occupy Nigeria, had said the planned protests were to draw the attention of the present government to the hardship in the country as a result of high inflation rate, shortage of food and other social problems. They are scheduled to hold simultaneously in Lagos, Abuja, Port Harcourt and Kano.
The Nigeria Police on Friday called on the conveners of the protests to call off their planned gathering, saying it might lead to a breakdown of law and order.
The force said it learnt that apart from the protests being planned by Idibia, other interest groups were also planning a counter-protest, which might lead to clashes and attendant loss of lives.
A statement by the police spokesman, Jimoh Moshood, at 10:28pm on Friday, said it recognised the right of the citizens to protest, but added that it was necessary for the two groups to call off their protests.
It read, “The Nigeria Police is currently in possession of credible intelligence reports that other interest groups are equally planning to hold a counter-protest on the same day at the same places as the Tuface group. If these various planned protests are held as scheduled, there may be breakdown of law and order, with attendant loss of lives and property.
“To this end, the Nigeria Police deems it imperative to issue this press release:
“That Innocent Idibia (a.k.a Tuface) and his group are hereby advised strongly to shelve their planned peaceful protest(s) in the interest of peace and security.
“That the other opposing groups are equally advised strongly to shelve their planned counter-protest in the interest of peace and security.
“That the Nigeria Police is prepared to employ every possible legal means for the maintenance of law and order; and for the protection of lives and property.
“Consequently, members of the public, parents and guardians, religious leaders and other interest groups are strongly advised to prevail on their children and wards, followers and adherents not to allow themselves to be used by any group to cause disturbance of public peace and break down of law and order.”
Earlier, Mr. Laolu Akande, Senior Special Assistant on Media and Publicity to Acting President Yemi Osinbajo, had said in an interview with one of our correspondents that “Nigeria is a free country. Lawful assembly is permitted (for Nigerians) to express themselves.
“This administration is not in the business of stopping people’s rights. The most important thing is to ensure a peaceful assembly.”
When asked specifically if the Presidency was not concerned that the Abuja protest is scheduled to take place on a day Buhari is expected to resume work, Akande said, “They are free to protest any day they choose.”
Lagos State Commissioner of Police, Mr. Fatai Owoseni, and the FCT Commissioner of Police, Muhammad Mustafa, had earlier on Friday warned the organisers against the planned protests, saying that they stood the risk of being arrested.
And while Owoseni later on Friday said that his command had reached an agreement with the organisers of the rally scheduled to hold on Monday, his FCT counterpart, Mustafa, had cautioned Tuface against holding a similar rally in Abuja.
He had said, “The command wants to advise the conveners of such a protest to jettison any plan of carrying out the protest on the streets of FCT as it is capable of breaching the peaceful atmosphere.”
However, Nigerians lambasted the Presidency and made reference to a protest successfully held on November 19, 2014 by chieftains of the All Progressives Congress, including Buhari; Chairman of the party, Chief John Odigie-Oyegun; and former Rivers State Governor, Rotimi Amaechi (now Minister of Transportation).
They described protest as a right enshrined in the Nigerian Constitution, adding that it would be hypocritical for the government that came to power on the back of rallies to now stop Nigerians from holding peaceful protests.
For instance, the President Emeritus of Aka Ikenga, an Igbo socio-cultural organisation, Chief Goddy Uwazurike, said as enshrined in the Nigerian constitution, every Nigerian has a right to peaceful protest, adding that a high court in Kwara State once ruled that police lacked the right to issue permit for protest or stop people from protesting.
He said, “President Buhari, then a candidate, not even an aspirant, of the All Progressives Congress; chieftains of the APC, including Odigie-Oyegun, Amaechi and many others had their own protest in Abuja and nobody stopped them.
“They even marched on the police headquarters, through the streets of Abuja. They were not stopped. So, if they benefitted from the right to protest, they have no right to stop others from exercising that right.”
Also, National Publicity Secretary, Afenifere, a pan-Yoruba socio-cultural group, Yinka Odumakin, who made reference to the 2014 protest by the APC chieftains, said no government had the right to arrest people embarking on a peaceful protest.
He said, “Under colonial rule, our people protested; under military rule, our people protested. This government came out of protests against the Federal Government. When they (APC chieftains) promised Nigerians change, does the change mean taking away our fundamental rights?
“As long as your protest will be peaceful, you don’t need permit from any police, President, or dictator, and no military tyrant can take that right away. Tuface and co should go ahead and organise the protest and let us see the police arrest them and the whole world will know that there is no democracy in Nigeria.”
The group’s Secretary-General, Sehinde Arogbofa, added, “It is true that this government has not done anything for the past two years and people are suffering. So if Nigerians decide to hold a peaceful protest, I don’t see anything wrong in that.
“Even in civilised countries, they still hold protests, so it is not proper for Buhari to stop the protest.”
Spokesman for the Northern Elders Forum, Prof. Ango Abdullahi, said by stopping a peaceful protest, “the police would be working against the Nigerian Constitution.”
“Protest is part of the freedoms guaranteed in the Nigerian Constitution and I don’t see why it will not be allowed. It is the job of the police to make sure that protests are peaceful. In other countries, you see the police there escorting protesters; so long as they do not violate the law through violence and so on, they can go on with their protests,” he added.
The spokesperson for the Ijaw Youth Congress, Mr. Eric Omare, said it was ironic that the President Buhari–led government, “which came into power based on protests against the former President,” would try to prevent Nigerians from protesting.
He described the move as anti-people and an infringement on the fundamental human rights of Nigerians.
“We are in support of the planned protest by Tuface and the government should not try to stop it,” he said.
President, Arewa Youth Consultative Forum, Mr. Yerima Shettima, said it “would be out of place for any commissioner of police under a democratic government to threaten to subdue peaceful protesters with state powers.”
“It is no story that certain things are not right in the government and Nigerians are very angry. If you deprive people of the right to protest, automatically, what you are doing is killing them and denying them the right to talk and the consequences of that will be unimaginable,” he said.
National Publicity Secretary, Nigeria Advance Party, Mr. Tosin Odeyemi, also condemned Buhari and his aides for allegedly using the police to muzzle people with dissenting voices.
“Buhari is not tolerant of criticisms; the same party that staged protests against former President Goodluck Jonathan when it was in the opposition is now preventing protests,” he said.
The Committee for the Defence of Human Rights also warned against any attempt by the police to stop the planned protest.
The group’s President, Mr. Malachy Ugwummadu, said in a telephone interview with one of our correspondents on Friday that rather than stop the protest, the police were duty bound to provide protection to the protesters.
Ugwummadu said apart from sections 38, 39 and 40 of the Constitution, which guarantee the rights of Nigerians to associate, move and assemble freely, the Supreme Court had, as far back as 2007, nullified the requirement of obtaining police permit as a pre-qualification to protest.
“Without going into the merit of the planned protest, my admonition to the police and the government is to provide protection to the Nigerian people who have found their voices and are ready to give concrete expression to their voices.
“I, therefore, urge the good people of Nigeria, especially those who reside in Lagos, to join us en masse at Ikeja for the rally. We cannot be intimidated in our own country by the same people who are paid to protect us,” he said.
Deputy Coordinator, National Association of Nigerian Students (South-West), Mr. Saheed Afolabi, who pledged the support of students for the planned protests, also expressed worry over the current hardship in the country.
He said, “I, the Deputy Coordinator of NANS in the South-West, am ready to join the protest. We are not going to attack anybody or cause violence but we will use the opportunity to express our minds. The hunger is too much.”
Chairman, Civil Societies Coalition for Emancipation, Osun State, Mr. Suleiman Adeniyi, said any attempt by anyone to stop a peaceful protest would be illegal.
“So no President or commissioner of police has the right to stop Tuface from staging a peaceful protest because it will be undemocratic,” he said.
Coordinator, Academic Staff Union of Universities, Port Harcourt Division, Prof. Beke Sese, and a human rights activist, Mr. Alagoa Morris, also knocked the Federal Government for attempting to use the police to stop the protest.
They said it would be fool-hardy and undemocratic to prevent Nigerians to ventilate their grievances on the state of the nation.
The don said, ‘’First and foremost, the question is: is the protest necessary? And I will say categorically that the protest is necessary. If you look at Nigeria today, throughout my life up to my adult life, I can’t remember a stage in the history of Nigeria when we have experienced the level of suffering that we are experiencing currently.”
On his part, Morris, who is the Bayelsa State Coordinator, Environmental Rights Action, described any move to block a peaceful protest as “antidemocratic, unthinkable and misplaced.”
Chairman, Pro-Chancellors of Nigerian Universities, Prof. Kimse Okoko, said, “Stopping the protest would mean that they want Nigerians to bottle up their anger and that would not be good for us as a country.”
Also, Deputy Director, Communications and Public Relations, Civil Liberties Organisation, South-South, Mr. Livingstone Wechie, said “any government that suppresses the right of the people can be said to be tyrannical and dictatorial.”
A factional Chairman of the Peoples Democratic Party, Kwara State chapter, Mr. Iyiola Oyedepo; the Executive Director, Community Outreach for Development and Welfare Advocacy, Mr. Taiwo Otitolaye, and the President, Afonja Descendants Union, Kwara State, Mr. Olola Kasum, also said that it would be wrong for the Federal Government to stop the planned protest.
In separate interviews with one of our correspondents in Ilorin on Friday, they described protest as an integral part of democracy.
Human rights activist and lawyer, Yemi Adetoyinbo, said the citizens had “constitutional rights to hold peaceful protests.”
NLC, TUC, ULC declare support for rallies
Meanwhile, the Nigeria Labour Congress, the newly formed United Labour Congress and the Trade Union Congress have declared support for the planned protests and the right of the citizens to hold peaceful rallies.
The General Secretary of the NLC, Dr. Peter Ozo-Eson, said that all citizens have the right to peaceful protest and that it does not require approval from the government.
The NLC’s scribe said, “Citizens have the right to protest. This right is not contingent on the approval of government or the police.
“This is settled and has been upheld by a Supreme Court ruling. We stand by the fundamental rights of citizens to peacefully protest.”
Speaking also, the President, ULC, Mr. Joe Ajaero, noted that it would be impossible for the government to outlaw protests.
Ajaero, who is also the General Secretary of the Nigeria Union of Electricity Employees, said any attempt to arrest protesters would only make them more popular.
“No one can outlaw protests. Every Nigerian has the right to protest on issues he is not comfortable with. If you persecute protesters, you popularise and legitimise them,” he said.
President, TUC, Mr. Bala Kaigama, also said that Nigerians have the right to hold peaceful protests.
“Every Nigerian has the fundamental human right to hold whatever protest they want; there is freedom of association and assembly,” he said.
The United Kingdom has also declared support for the planned rallies, describing protests as part of the democratic system when conducted in an orderly manner.
It, therefore, admonished those participating in the rallies to be peaceful and orderly.
“The UK recognises that protests are part of the democratic system when conducted in an orderly manner. Those taking part in an orderly and peaceful protest should not be prevented from doing so provided the protest was organised lawfully,” Joe Abuku, Press and Public Affairs Officer, British High Commission, said in a comment on the planned protests.
He added, “We urge anyone intending to protest to do so peacefully.”
Reacting to the criticisms against attempts by the police to stop the planned protests, Special Adviser to President Buhari on Media and Publicity, Mr. Femi Adesina, on Friday said politicians who lost out in the 2015 general elections were behind the move.
Adesina spoke on a radio programme monitored in Ibadan, where he also said that although protest was legitimate in a democratic society, the police had the right to stop it.
Adesina said, “In a democracy, protests are legitimate, also, the security agencies have the right to ensure that they do not degenerate. The President is not home now. In Nigeria today, you have a large number of people who seem not to forget that the 2015 elections have gone and have been won. The other group is the group that will always complain, even if angels come to rule Nigeria.
“Then you have people who believe in free money, there is no more free money, those people will also join the protest. Genuinely concerned people have ways to protest. There are millions of people who are with the President, and I believe that the people who are with the President are more than those who are not with him.”
Additional reports by Chukwudi Akasike, Simon Utebor, Ade Adesomoju, Gbenro Adeoye, Kunle Falayi, Jesusegun Alagbe, Tunde Ajaja and Peter Dada