Nigerians and the Right to Peaceful Protest

By Charles Ogbonna

In most mordern democracies the world over, organized civil or peaceful protests are perceived as a constitutional right of the people. Normally, protests don’t necessarily imply taking over the streets to unleash mayhems. Peaceful protests lend voice to the people to comment on government policy decisions and outcomes.Thus, labour unions and pressure groups have always used protests to express displeasure toward unfavourable policy decisions or actions.

Apart from providing a credible voice to interrogate government policy choices, mass protests are formidable means for the people to resist resist obnoxious policies or decisions considered detrimental to the collective  will of the people. In most practising democracies, the right to protest is enshrined in the constitution as the right to dissent is equally recognized.

When former President Goodluck Jonathan increased fuel prices in 2012, that singular action prompted a resolute mass action that compelled the regime to retrace its steps.

While the present All Progressives Congress regime of President Mohammed Buhari is obliged to recognize the rights of Nigerians to peaceful protest, recent events in our polity point to the contrary. Mass protests against police brutality, tagged the EndSARS marches, erupted across the country last October.

What had gone on as a peaceful protest was broken by gunfire opened on the unarmed protesters by the army on October 20. This triggered nationwide riots and an orgy of looting that followed for days later, leaving scores of people dead and hinting at deeper lying issues of inequality. Nigerians are yet to forget the horrendous massacre of innocent youths.

Yet, when peaceful protesters gathered at the scene of that massacre to register displeasure at the manner the judicial inquiry into those killings are being conducted, the Nigerian government once again unleashed the police and other security forces on the innocent peaceful protesters, with dozens of people arrested.

The pertinent question that arises from this is whether Nigerians still have the right to protest as enshrined in our constitution and recognized the African Union and United Nations treaties to which the country is signatory? Are we still operating democratic rule or are we back to the dark days of military dictatorship? Or is it a case of a dictatorship in the disguises of a civilian government?

The answers to the above questions are, at best, up in the air in our current national circumstances. If the provisions of our constitution are anything to go by, then the right to peaceful protests  should remain sancrosact. The use of naked military aggression on organized peaceful protesters as witnessed in Nigeria in recent times, is a gross rape of our much valued democracy.

Charles Ogbonna, a journalist, writes from Lagos.