The right of citizens to peacefully protest is a fundamental right

Following unpleasant encounters with a mob at Wuse market last Wednesday and with the Police who shot tear gas canisters at them the day earlier, protesters demanding that President Muhammadu Buhari should either return to the country to resume office or resign had to suspend their daily sit-out. Now that the president is back to the country after spending more than100 days on medical vacation in the United Kingdom, the protesters led by a popular artiste, Mr. Charles Oputa (a.k.a. Charly Boy) under the aegis of “#OurMumuDonDo”, can claim some moral victory. But the police did not conduct itself very well on the matter.

It is unfortunate that policemen in our country find it difficult to understand the elementary fact that they are hired to manage the delicate balance between protecting citizens exercising their lawful rights and the responsibility of ensuring an orderly environment for the discharge of the obligations of government. A mindset that is trained always to see protesting citizens as potential criminals to be dispersed with tear gas is a disgrace to any society that aspires to be termed democratic.

The right of the citizens to peacefully protest in open expression of their grievances or support of any issue in the public space remains a fundamental right the exercise of which does not require anyone’s permission. That expression is no different from the right to free speech by individuals and groups. Protests only become matters of public safety when they degenerate into riots. But in Nigeria today, the only protest that is allowed is one that is sponsored by agents of government in aid of unpopular causes.

Policemen are paid to be present whenever and wherever the people are exercising their rights. In all such situations, it is the responsibility of the police to protect the lawful and arrest the lawless for prosecution where and when necessary. Therefore, scuttling and abridging citizen rights, most often on spurious grounds, is a relic of decades of military autocracy. Security is not the myth and cultic mystery that we keep being blackmailed with.

As we have reiterated repeatedly on this page, by voluntarily entrusting to a few elected people the responsibility of governing their affairs, the people have not 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 by staging public protests over any issue on which they may feel dissatisfied. 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.

It must be noted that the Nigerian Court has ruled that the right to peaceful rally and peaceful demonstration is a fundamental human right protected under our constitution. Specifically, section 41(1) of the 1999 Constitution guarantees the right to freedom of movement. Besides, peaceful strikes, lock-outs, non-violent positive actions and others are well-known legitimate weapons of expression in a democracy.

Now that President Buhari has returned to the country, 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 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. Therefore, it is important for the Police to conduct their activities in line with the aspirations of the people who at all times deserve to be heard.