The right to a peaceful protest is guaranteed by the constitution
The right to peaceful protest against injustices or other grievances remains fundamental and is guaranteed in the constitution for every citizen. Unfortunately, for too long, the police authorities in Nigeria have continued to frighten our people from holding protests, processions and rallies, especially when perceived to be against the government of the day. Under the current Inspector- General of Police, Mr Ibrahim Idris, the situation has degenerated to an abysmal level.
Following a public demonstration in Abuja last Friday by the leadership of the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) against the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) over the conduct of the Osun State gubernatorial election, the President of Senate, Dr Bukola Saraki and two other senators, Dino Melaye and Ben Murray-Bruce, have been invited by the police for questioning. This is despite the fact that many PDP leaders, including three governors, a former governor, presidential aspirants and members of the national working committees participated in what the police now criminalise as “the disturbance of public safety, unlawful blockade of Shehu Shagari Way.”
We consider the selective invitation by the police not only provocative but an affront on the rule of law and public decency. It is very clear that Idris finds it difficult to understand the elementary fact that the role of the police is to manage the delicate balance between protecting citizens exercising their lawful rights and the responsibility of ensuring an orderly environment. Besides, a mindset that is trained always to see protesting citizens as potential criminals to be dispersed with tear gas as was done last Friday is a disgrace to any society that aspires to be termed democratic. It is worse that Idris has become so partisan that even senior officials of government who themselves should ordinarily be protected by the police are being cynically harassed and criminalised just because they are in opposition to the government in power.
In case Idris is not aware, Nigerian courts have, at different times, ruled that peaceful strikes, lock-outs, non-violent positive actions and others are legitimate weapons of expression in a democracy. And, as we have also argued on this page, protests only become matters of public safety when they degenerate into riots. The PDP protest in Abuja, done in a carnival manner, was not in any way violent and no public peace was disturbed as claimed by the police in their pathetic statement. If anything, it was the conduct of the police that was very disgraceful.
In his public statement which countered the police narrative as to what transpired, Saraki highlighted the level to which things have degenerated in the past three years under the watch of the current IGP and it should worry members of this administration and critical stakeholders. “In 2014, the protesters then led by the Major General Muhammadu Buhari (rtd.), the candidate of the opposition party, were not attacked. They were tolerated and their grievances listened to by the police leadership. In 2014, it was the same Nigeria Police as we have today. The difference is the temperament and democratic credentials of the then administration, in general, and that of the Police leadership, in particular”, said the Senate President.
It is difficult to fault the sentiment expressed by Saraki that the men and officers of the Idris-led police are intent on “destroying members of the opposition at all cost” and this bodes ill for the future of our democracy. That is why we implore President Buhari to call Idris to order in the interest of peace in the country, especially as we move to the crucial election season.
While it is the responsibility of the police to protect the lawful and arrest those who infringe on the law for prosecution where and when necessary, citing dubious reports to blackmail opposition figures is clearly unacceptable.