The right to peaceful rally is a fundamental human right protected under our constitution
While the 112 women who were arrested, detained and remanded in Owerri prison for participating in a peaceful protest to demand the whereabouts of the leader of the Indigenous People of Biafra (IPOB), Mr Nnamdi Kanu have been released, there are several disturbing issues about their ordeal. With stories of maltreatment of the women by the police, including a pregnant one who reportedly had to be hospitalised after bleeding, the episode has further shown the contempt of this administration for the inalienable rights of citizens.
It is unfortunate that the police in our country find it difficult to understand the elementary fact that their basic responsibility is to manage the delicate balance between protecting citizens exercising their lawful rights and that 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 is a disgrace to any society that claims to be democratic. In the instant case of the harmless women, it is a new low for the police that its men and officers would apply unrestrained force.
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. If for instance the protest by the women was to endorse the aspiration of the ruling All Progressives Congress (APC) in both the state and federal government, they would have been given support by the police.
Policemen are paid to be present whenever and wherever the people are exercising their rights. In all such situations, it is their responsibility 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.
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.
It is a big shame on the authorities that the Owerri women would be so crudely treated for exercising their rights.