The right to peaceful protest is guaranteed in the constitution

The arrest at the weekend of Mr Omoyele Sowore by the Directorate of State Services (DSS) and the decision by the police to declare his planned protest scheduled for yesterday as ‘treasonable’ was a needless show of force. The right to peaceful protest is guaranteed in the constitution for every citizen and there was nothing to suggest that Sowore and his supporters were planning anything violent. Unfortunately, for too long, the 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.

The presidency has stated that the organisation championing the protest is not fronted by any serious public faces while at the same time calling “on the sponsors and organisers to have the decency to come forward and make their identity known – out of respect to all Nigerians – so that Nigerians can be fully aware in whose name this ‘revolution’ is being proposed and who the beneficiaries may be.” The ballot box, the presidency added, “is the only constitutional means of changing government and a president in Nigeria. The days of coups and revolutions are over.”

While we do not know exactly what the ‘RevolutionNow’ means and how the proponents intended to achieve their objective, there can be no denying that there are far too many things in the country that should ordinarily compel action. As we have reiterated repeatedly on this page, by voluntarily entrusting to a few elected officials the responsibility of governing their affairs, the people have not relinquished their power. They can invoke that power at periodic elections or by staging public protests over any issue on which they may feel dissatisfied.

It is unfortunate that those who man the security agencies 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 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. Therefore, scuttling and abridging citizen rights, most often on spurious grounds, is a relic of decades of military autocracy which even the presidency admits in its statement is now over.

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. Besides, 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. Therefore, peaceful strikes, lock-outs, non-violent positive actions and others are well-known legitimate weapons of expression in a democracy.

Given the foregoing, we urge the authorities to release Sowore without any preconditions. We also urge the federal government to desist from actions that are akin to dictatorship. Until our political leaders and those who manage the security apparatus of state appreciate that, our democracy will remain imperilled.