By Evans Ufeli
The Nigerian government using the instrumentality of the police force stopped her citizens in Lagos from assembling for a peaceful protest, following the ruling of the Lagos State Tribunal of inquiry for victims of SARS brutality to allow the Lekki Concession Company to repossess the Lekki Tollgate for business.
The government argued that the last protest was hijacked by hoodlums, leaving huge destruction of lives and properties worth millions of naira. With this mindset, the Lagos State government aligns with the federal government to hold forth this narrative tacitly against the protesters constitutional right to protest and express themselves within the bounds of the law.
Let me state here that the event of the last protest at the Lekki tollgate in October 2020 was very peaceful until the Lagos State Governor Babajide Sawoolu “invited” the military to the protest arena from where the military introduced violence into the protest by shooting at armless protesters, injuring many and killing scores of citizens, while they held their nation’s flag.
It is therefore incorrect to say that hoodlums hijacked the last protest. It is equally not true that the protesters planned this second protest to destabilise the country and to call for a regime change. The protest was called for because the Lagos State Tribunal of Inquiry looking into the causes and effects of the violence of the last protest has just made an order granting the prayer of the Lekki Concession Company to repossess the tollgate for business when nothing tangible has been done to the families of those who lost their lives and nothing actually has been said about those who were treacherously injured by the military with gun wounds.
The military recently pulled out of the Tribunal and debriefed their lawyers and ever since, they have refused to honour the hearing notices served on them by the Tribunal. This act is contemptuous and the same is a gross disregard to the authority of the Lagos State government and a violation of the extant law that empowers the state governor to constitute the Panel of Inquiry. One would have thought the Tribunal would by now be making a serious case against the military and asking that they be compelled to come forth to discharge or disprove the allegations leveled against them by the EndSARS protesters, rather the Tribunal is making an order granting the Lekki Concession Company to repossess the toll gate for business. It is rather unfortunate, to say the least. That toll gate symbolises the outright repression of citizen’s sacred rights to express their grievances as sanctioned by the 1999 constitution as amended.
The Federal Government of Nigeria through the Economic Council of Nigeria ordered the states in 2020 to setup the Tribunals of Inquiries but the same Federal Government have failed to call on the military to go back to the Lagos State Judicial Panel on Restitution for Victims of SARS, Related Abuses And Other Matters to continue hearing on their involvement in the “massacre” of peaceful protesters in October 2020 at the Lekki tollgate.
The government of Nigeria is unable to drive social justice to move Nigeria forward for change. Not only is the government failing economically, but it has also equally failed to address the basic issues of governance to promote the dignity of the human person in the Nigerian citizens. With a massive youth population hardly seen anywhere in the world, the Nigerian government is completely oblivious of what to do with this compact energy and its utility, hence it allows it drifts away to lose in-between time and policies.
Today’s restriction of the rights of the citizens to protest is another inglorious misadventure of the Nigerian state. The right to peaceful assembly is not respected in Nigeria, particularly in the case of protests against the government.
Meanwhile, Nigeria is a state party to the 1966 International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR). Article 21 governs the right of peaceful assembly, providing that: The right of peaceful assembly shall be recognized. No restrictions may be placed on the exercise of this right other than those imposed in conformity with the law and which are necessary in a democratic society in the interests of national security or public safety, public order, the protection of public health or morals or the protection of the rights and freedoms of others.
At the regional level, Nigeria is a state party to the 1981 African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights. Article 11 provides as follows: Every individual shall have the right to assemble freely with others. The exercise of this right shall be subject only to necessary restrictions provided for by law in particular those enacted in the interest of national security, the safety, health, ethics and rights and freedoms of others.
The domestic legal framework on the Right of Peaceful Assembly is constitutionally provided for under Section 40 of the 1999 Constitution, every person is entitled to assemble freely and associate with other persons. Section 45 permits these rights to be restricted in the interests of defence, public safety, public order, public morality or public health, or to protect the rights or freedoms of others.
The 1979 Public Order Act is the primary legislation regulating assemblies in Nigeria. In 2007, the Court of Appeal quashed several sections of the Public Order Act; the Court’s decision, however, has not yet been reflected in legislative changes. Notification is no longer required unless the organisers wish to receive police protection. In its 2007 judgment in All Nigeria Peoples Party v. Inspector-General of Police, Justice Adekeye held that: The Public Order Act should be promulgated to complement 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 trend 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.
Ufeli is a Lagos based lawyer and Executive Director Cadrell Advocacy
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