The Unwarranted Antagonism Towards Bring Back Our Girls Group

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The hostile attitude of the Buhari government towards the Bring Back Our Girls movement is totally uncalled-for, writes Vincent Obia

After partnering the Bring Back Our Girls group to campaign and win the last general election, the All Progressives Congress federal government is displaying an attitude towards the group that few would have expected when President Muhammadu Buhari took office in May last year. With the government, ostensibly, giving the BBOG organisation the cold shoulder, some of the worst acts of police hostility towards the group have been enacted under the Buhari administration.

The situation became very bad recently, when the Inspector-general of Police, Mr. Ibrahim Idris, said the BBOG group constituted a “threat to public peace and order.” That was after the police had tried to stop members of the group from marching to the presidential villa and threatened to ban all such marches.

This is not good for the image of the government and for democracy. It gives the impression that the president and his party merely used members of the group, formed in the wake of the Boko Haram terrorists’ kidnap of nearly 300 schoolgirls from Chibok, in Borno State, over two years ago, as political pawns. And the attitude of the police infringes on the fundamental rights of the BBOG members right under Buhari’s nose.

Not long ago, Bring Back Our Girls was the biggest thing in the Nigerian anti-insurgency war. Many who could speak and be heard within and outside the country joined the BBOG movement. The hashtag, #BringBackOurGirls, meant to garner support for the efforts to rescue the schoolgirls kidnapped by Boko Haram extremists from their school hostel and put pressure on the insurgents to release the girls, became a global phenomenon. Mrs. Michel Obama signed on to the #BringBackOurGirls campaign and became one of the most prominent advertisers of the movement.

Back then, too, the opposition, now the ruling party, APC, maintained a special affinity for the BBOG group. On several occasions, APC leaders took to the airwaves and the podiums to wax lyrical about the BBOG organisation. The relationship between APC and the group was so close that many began to insinuate that the then opposition party might have founded the movement to disparage Dr. Goodluck Jonathan, who was then president, and his Peoples Democratic Party. APC and its then presidential candidate, Buhari, were widely accused of creating #BringBackOurGirls to try to demonise the Jonathan government and present themselves as the saviour of the country ahead of the looming general election.

But now? There has been no conclusive proof that BBOG was formed by APC. But nothing has also seemed to disprove the belief that BBOG was used by APC as a mere bargaining chip before the last general election. Events since Buhari’s swearing in last year seem to reinforce that belief.

The BBOG group, led by former Minister of Education, Mrs. Oby Ezekwesili, had since last month intensified its campaign for the rescue of the Chibok girls after Boko Haram released a video showing that the girls were alive. The insurgent group said it would release the girls only when their members held by the federal government were released to them. Though, Buhari had said his government was willing to concede to the terror group’s demand, for the sake of the girls, the BBOG organisation wanted the government to state specific steps it was taking to achieve the release of the girls. The group vowed to march to the presidential villa every 72 hours until the government addressed its concerns.

But their protest march on September 6 was obstructed by the police as members of the group embarked on their usual walk from the venue of their daily sit-out, Unity Fountain, to the Three Arms Zone where they wanted to meet Buhari. The police tried to stop the marchers, claiming they do not have a permit for the protest. But a member of the BBOG group who led the march, Buky Sonibare, reportedly, showed proof of the legitimacy of the protest and insisted they could not be stopped.

However, as the BBOG members forced their way through the police cordon, they were confronted by a group of Buhari’s supporters, who labelled #BringBackOurGirls as a sponsored scam meant to undermine the administration. This is a throwback to the last administration, when Jonathan pro-government groups, particularly the “#ReleaseOurGirlsNow”, emerged and clashed with the #BringBackOurGirls organisation, which was perceived as sympathetic to Buhari.

Following wide condemnation of the attempt to stop the BBOG protests, the police have denied prohibiting public rallies, saying, “Peaceful public protest/procession is an integral part of democratic norms in as much as it conforms with the rule of law and public order.”

The rule of public order being referred to here is, apparently, the controversial Public Order Act, which basically requires intending protesters to obtain permit. A subsisting judgement of the Court of Appeal in Abuja has nullified the necessity for permit before the holding of peaceful assemblies, meetings, and processions. That was in the case of All Nigeria Peoples Party and others versus Inspector General of Police (2006). The court says it is a breach of the right of citizens to freely assemble and associate as provided in the 1999 Constitution and the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights.
Yet, in a previous case, Chukwuma versus Cop (2005), the Court of Appeal, Ilorin, had declared that police permit was necessary for rallies and other public meetings.

While the ruling by the appellate court in Abuja is popularly quoted by civil society groups, it is the wont of the police and other security agencies to cite the judgement of the Ilorin division of the appeal court whenever they want to stop public meetings. To break the seeming stalemate, the Supreme Court would need to rule on the issue of the Public Order Act.
But as a matter of decency and justice, the Buhari government needs to improve its attitude towards the BBOG group and others of that ilk.