Nigerians are living in difficult times

The recent rash of protests on both sides of the governance divide was healthy. First it underlined the increasing awareness of the people that they have a right to express themselves and to be heard. Even more positive was Vice President Yemi Osinbajo’s response to the Abuja protesters: “To those who are on the streets protesting the economic situation and those who are not, but feel the pain of economic hardship, we hear you”.

 As sound-bites go, that was a good one. But in a season of hunger and deprivations, the people of Nigeria deserve more and the protesters said as much in their statement: “Nigerians are facing difficult economic challenges and do not see any end in sight. Our standards of living have worsened and we are also disappointed in the lack of transparency and an ineffective fight against corruption in a government that made a fight against corruption a key pillar of its campaign. The change that Nigerians were promised has not been delivered and a road map to the desired destination is yet to be communicated. This is not about ad-hoc programmes or sound-bites.”

While we commend the acting president for displaying uncommon maturity, attempt by law enforcement agents to abridge the rights of the people deserves strong castigation. A protest does not threaten public peace except it degenerates into a riot. We acknowledge that miscreants can take advantage of peaceful protests to foment trouble. We did not see this in the recent nationwide protests. Appreciably, the crowd was peaceful. No property was destroyed. No houses were burnt. And there was no violence of any kind, even when government rented its own crowd of protesters.

The responsibility of government is to closely monitor these protests as barometers of public perception of their performance in office. Both the pro and anti-government protesters have equal rights under the constitution. Freedom in a democracy is a multiple lane highway. But in our current situation, it is futile for agents of government to engage in the silly antics of funding and promoting demonstrations just to dampen public anger at the current tardiness in the affairs of the nation. The reality of our situation today is that of a massive betrayal of the hopes of the people by a government that may mean well but lacks the competence to address fundamental economic problems.

What the citizens demonstrated last week was that voluntarily entrusting to elected officials the responsibility of governing their affairs does not suggest that they have relinquished their power. They have merely entrusted it to the office holders. They can invoke that power at periodic elections to either vote for a popular government or even vote out an unpopular one. In the same vein, they can invoke that power on the streets through protests as was demonstrated last week. In a presidential democracy such as ours the people should not be shut out from expressing their views in matters which affect their interests and welfare.

Now that the protests are over, we need to stress that the people do not derive their natural right to peaceful assembly from the government: they are born with that right. Besides, the era of military dictatorship or rule by military fiat is gone. We are now under a presidential democracy which ought to guarantee maximum expression of the citizens’ fundamental rights especially the rights to hold public gatherings and public debates. Since the people are the ones that directly bear the full brunt of government policy, those in authority must conduct their activities in line with the aspirations of the people who at all times deserve to be heard.

 We hope, as the acting president said, that the Nigerians who protested last week have been heard.