In a trend that has alarmed many, the police have embarked on a nationwide mission to stop rallies organised by the Academic Staff Union of Universities but allow marches against the union, writes Vincent Obia
“The police are your friend” is a popular catchphrase of the Nigeria Police. But in relation to the Academic Staff Union of Universities, the police have acted as an enemy that has taken a stand against the union and embraced all those that hate it and whatever it stands for in its ongoing industrial action.
ASUU has been on strike since over four months. That is no longer news. What is, perhaps, news is the incessant disruption of ASUU rallies by the police, which only recently merely winked at a vituperative demonstration in Abuja by some women against the union.
The national body of lecturers had recently resolved to stage rallies in their local chapters to sensitise the public to the essence of their industrial action. They had, apparently, sensed attempts by the federal government to blackmail ASUU and portray it as insensitive to the plight of parents and their wards. In the midst of desperation by students of public universities – who form the bulk of the country’s university student population – following months of idleness at home, it is easy for the government to try to depict ASUU as an amalgam of everything objectionable to education in Nigeria. ASUU, understandably, needed to speak up before the impression sticks.
But the police have embarked on a nationwide drive to silence the union.
The police on Wednesday disrupted a peaceful rally by members of the University of Abuja chapter of ASUU in Gwagwalada, in the Federal Capital Territory. Heavily armed policemen barricaded entrances to the university and prevented other members from joining the rally while firing teargas on the demonstrating lecturers. One lecturer was, reportedly, rushed to the University Teaching Hospital for treatment after inhaling the teargas.
UNIABUJA ASUU Chairman, Dr. Clement Chuks, said, “The essence of the protest is to sensitise the public on government’s inability to honour the 2009 agreement, we will continue the struggle until the government says yes to us, stopping our salaries will not solve the problem…
“Our demand is that our universities should be made to compete with others in the world.”
But the Divisional Police Officer in Gwagwalada, Mr. Tony Okon, said the presence of policemen at the campus and the “Shooting of teargas was to prevent hoodlums from joining the protest so that they do not take advantage of the situation and cause any damage.”
While it is the duty of the police to maintain public order, firing teargas on peaceful protesters, more so an enlightened group like ASUU, to try to prevent them from becoming violent definitely flies in the face of logic.
But the police have latched onto this excuse to break up ASUU rallies in many states of the federation.
The police in Ondo State, on October 24, disrupted a rally organised by the ASUU chapter of the Federal University of Technology, Akure. And the union’s branch at the Ondo State-owned Adekunle Ajasin University, Akungba-Akoko, was not granted permission by the police to hold a rally on the same day. Several riot policemen with an Amoured Personnel Carrier barricaded the main gate to the state university to stop the planned rally.
The ASUU members who had planned to march on the streets with their placards were ambushed and stopped by the police. The FUTA ASUU chairman, Dr. Alex Odiyi, said the disruption by police was despite a letter to the command since October 17 notifying it of the date of the demonstration.
The Police Public Relations Officer in Ondo State, ASP Wole Ogodo, told journalists in Akure that the police stopped the ASUU rally because they feared it “might be high-jacked by hoodlums if the lecturers took their protest to the streets. A reliable source also told some of our officers in Akungba -Akoko that the lecturers will be attacked.”
Last Monday in Calabar, scores of fierce looking policemen barricaded entrances to the University of Calabar and the state-owned Cross River University of Technology to stop a rally planned by ASUU branches of the two institutions.
The police in Ebonyi State on October 16 besieged the Collage of Agriculture, Presco, and Ishieke campuses of Ebonyi State University, Abakaliki, to stop a rally organised by the university’s branch of ASUU. Reports said armed policemen numbering over 150 and operatives of other security agencies had besieged the three campuses of the university as early as 7am and stationed at the entrances of the campuses ahead of the rally, which was scheduled to take place between 8am and 12pm.
In Bayelsa State on October 22, the police stopped a peaceful protest organised by the ASUU chapter of the state-owned Niger Delta University at Amasoma.
Across the country, many ASUU branches have experienced the police disruption. And in virtually all the cases, the police have adduced the cliché-ridden excuse of preventing possible hijack by hoodlums.
Curiously, the same Nigeria Police that profess to be protecting the public against likely violent degeneration of ASUU rallies did nothing on October 14 to try to stop some women who protested against ASUU at the National Assembly and the Federal Ministry of Education in Abuja. The overall tone of the protest, held under the aegis of Market Women Association of Nigeria, was that of an event with the imprimatur of the federal government.
The leader of the group, Mrs. Felicia Sani, did not hide her prejudice in favour of the federal government. “We are here to tell you we have done our investigation and seen that we can no longer keep our children in the house. What ASUU is looking for is for us to cut our heads and give them,” she said.
Sani also delved into other subjects that are not at issue in the current ASUU strike. “We are tired of seeing our children at home. We want our children back in school. Enough of this cheap blackmail! We all know what they do with our year-one daughters in the university. We equally know that they sell handouts and handbooks. Is this not worse than corruption of the highest order?” she alleged against the lecturers. She threatened further action if the lecturers failed to return to work.
The police watched the verbal assault on ASUU with apparent admiration.
A section of the National Association of Nigerian Students has also threatened action against ASUU if it fails to call off its strike. And the police seem likely to condone this.
The selective disruption of rallies by the police witnessed in the last few weeks is an embarrassment to the country and a danger to democracy. This is more so when the Court of Appeal had in 2007 nullified the Public Order Act, (Cap 382) Laws of the Federation of Nigeria, 1990, which required citizens to obtain police permit before holding public rallies.
Without any cogent reason – beyond the puerile excuse of guarding against a hijack by criminals – the police action smacks of malicious overzealousness not dissimilar to the recent trend in states where the governors are thought to have political disagreements with President Goodluck Jonathan. This assault on the fundamental freedoms of the people is a risk to democracy and justice, especially ahead of critical elections in the next two years.
Human rights activist and lawyer Fred Agbaje says, “The incessant interruption of ASUU protests is a criminal violation of the constitutional rights of the members of ASUU to peacefully protest. The freedom of expression and freedom of association are guaranteed under the constitution.
“The police should go and read the law or go to court for interpretation where they are not certain.”
Unfortunately, however, the police seem to clearly know what the law says and the danger of their action. Their activities bear all the hallmarks of a deliberate assault on perceived enemies designed to excite the federal government. But the government must realise that compromise is not forced in a democracy, it is negotiated and won.
It is important not to trivialise the public concerns over the matter.
All eyes are on Nigeria as it tries to get to the root of the controversial procurement. Probes of many recent scandals in the country have been complete flops. But the world would want to see if the current aviation probe will make a difference.