A Nation Still in Search of Freedom

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When Nigeria got Independence on October 1, 1960, the celebration and jubilation were unlimited because it was thought that it would bring freedom to the people but 59 years after, it has remained an illusion, write Rebecca Ejifoma and Sunday Ehigiator

Independence Day means freedom but in the clutches of this present government are its citizens who are not free despite court judgements. Welcome to Nigeria, where flagrant disregard for rule of law and democracy reigns supreme.

When Nigeria gained its independence on October 1, 1960, it was supposed to be a gateway for peace, freedom and everything good for the citizenry. Over the years, the hopes and aspirations of our freedom fighters continue to filter down. Some might say the situation is even worse today.

Post Independence

In the simplest term, independence is regarded as freedom from the control or influence of others. It is also the freedom to make laws or decisions without being governed or controlled by another country or organisation.

In the Nigerian context, the nation was granted full independence on October 1, 1960, under a constitution that provided for a parliamentary government and a substantial measure of self-government for the country’s three regions.

From 1959 to 1960, Jaja Wachuku was the first black Speaker of the Nigerian Parliament, also called the House of Representatives. Wachuku replaced Sir Frederick Metcalfe of Great Britain. Notably, as first Speaker of the House, he received Nigeria’s Instrument of Independence, also known as ‘Freedom Charter’ on October 1, 1960, from Princess Alexandra of Kent, the Queen’s representative at the Nigerian independence ceremony.

The federal government was given exclusive powers in defence, foreign relations, commercial and fiscal policy. The monarch of Nigeria was still head of state but legislative power was vested in a bicameral parliament, executive power in a prime minister and cabinet and judicial authority in a federal supreme court.

The nation would however grapple with military regime for 16 years before the emergence of a democratic Nigeria in May 1999 saw Olusegun Obasanjo as the president. However, the emergence of President Muhammadu Buhari makes him the third successive democratically elected president of Nigeria since the leadership of Obasanjo.

Juxtaposing Democracy and Rule of Law

Efebeh Vincent (PhD), of Political Science Department, Delta state University, Abraka, in an online material published in 2015, posited that, “Democracy and the rule of law are inseparable concepts that make it possible for modern societies to function effectively and thus guarantee peace, harmony and egalitarianism in the society.

“The democratisation project is therefore, regarded as the age of civilisation that every society should strive to attain rather than a political option among many others. Democracy has thus become known to be the only moral and legitimate way by which a society can be ruled”.

Thus, democracy adequately understood, is a theory that sets some basic principles and standards according to which a good government, whatever its form, should be operated. Such principles include those of justice, equity, freedom, liberty, accountability, openness and transparency in government.

In most countries today, it is these principles that are used as criteria for distinguishing between good and bad governments. Thus, democracy not only prescribes how political power should be acquired but also what to do with it or how it should be exercised.

On the other hand, Vincent said “the rule of law is the legal principle that should govern a nation, and not arbitrary decisions by individual government officials.

“It primarily refers to the influence and authority of law within society, particularly as a constraint upon behaviour, including behaviour of government officials.

“The rule of law implies that every citizen is subject to the law of the land, including lawmakers themselves. In this sense, it stands in contrast to autocracy, dictatorship, or oligarchy where the rulers are held high and above the law.

“Lack of the rule of law can be found in democracies and dictatorships, this can be as a result of neglect or ignorance of the law, corruption, lack of strong institutions or lack of corrective mechanisms for administrative abuse, such as an independent judiciary with a culture of the rule of law, a practical right to petition for redress of grievances, or elections.

“A government’s decision to obey preexisting legal rules can provide the key to gaining widespread supports and general acceptance. Such respect for laws of the land as recorded in a constitution and in laws adopted through a credible democratic process is the hallmark of the rule of law.

“The rule of law therefore, makes democracy to thrive because law is the collective will of society, making possible equal rights, social order and justice.

“Certain elements make up the rule of law; these are order and security, legitimacy, checks and balances, compliance to court orders, fairness, effective application, integrity and the supremacy of the rules.”

It is therefore apt to state from the forgoing that the rule of law is the bedrock of modern constitutional democracy. This was underscored by its role in bringing about transitions from authoritarian or totalitarian regimes to constitutional democracy in Nigeria, and elsewhere in the world.

Disregard for Rule of Law and Democracy

Adherence to the rule of law has been a Herculean task for various Nigerian governments since independence in October of 1960. In fact, according to the late Chinua Achebe of blessed memory, part of the reason the January 15, 1966 coup planners gave for staging the coup was that “corrupt and undisciplined ruling class” has become the order of the day in governmental circle (Achebe, 2012).

This identified nature of the Nigerian ruling class was in display all through subsequent regimes, military and civilian alike that have governed the country before 1999. Thus, one would have thought that the experience politicians have gathered over time, particularly during the long spell the country had under military regimes, would have transformed them to become apostles of the rule of law.

However, the reverse seems to be the case, as this current administration is still marred with several instance of outright disregard to the rule of law and democracy. From disobeying court orders, arrest of persons considered to have opposing views about the government and its decisions, media suppression and oppression, shooting and killing of harmless protesters, illegal arrest and detention of human rights fighters, the score keeps dragging.

Speaking with THISDAY on these concerns, Executive Director, Rule of Law and Accountability Advocacy Centre (RULAAC), Okechukwu Nwanguma said, “In Nigeria’s political history, except perhaps, under the Buhari to Abacha military dictatorships, no regime has been characterised more with the level of perchance for executive lawlessness than the current President Muhammadu Buhari government.

“The level of brazenness with which this government disobeys court orders is most appalling and despicable. It recklessly flaunts its contempt for the rule of law. The executive has not hidden its contempt for the judiciary and the rule of law. This became clear when the federal Attorney General arrogantly and explicitly stated before the Senate that the executive has the powers to decide which court orders to obey or not.

“As the chief law officer of the government, the AG ought to advice the government legally and not to give illegal counsel and advice. His conduct and utterances constitute the worst disaster that would ever happen to the legal profession. He is not only misrepresenting that noble profession but also denting its image. This ought to attract sanctions from the NBA.

“The disgraceful statement at the Senate, during the ministerial screening that the executive disobeys court orders because of national security was clear evidence that the Buhari government is totalitarian and believes it can choose which court orders to obey and which ones to ignore.

“And the entire Senate saw nothing wrong with that gaffe and went ahead to confirm him. That’s one clear indication of further executive capture of the legislature which ought to exercise its oversight powers over the executive. Unfortunately, both the legislature and judiciary, to other co-equal arms of the government, have been captured by the executive who is also working hard to close the civic space by the repressive and brutal attacks on the media and civil society.

“The recent ruling by the British Supreme Court judges that Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s decision to suspend Parliament for five weeks was unlawful is a lesson and an example of how an independent and effective judiciary under a democracy should be and how fearlessly it should exercise its powers.

“But Buhari has made a caricature of our democracy. The judiciary is cowed. The legislature is effectively under the control of the executive with pliant and compromised leaders at the helm of affairs at both chambers. The basic freedoms associated with democracy have been erased. Repression, harassment, victimization and persecution of critical voices are rife and clear evidence of his fascist proclivity typified by intolerance for criticisms and alternative views which every democracy needs to grow.

“The greatest threat to national security is subversion of the rule of law especially disobedience to court orders. It should be left for the court, not the president or Attorney General, to determine what national security is. Hiding under the subterfuge of national security to disobey court orders or to decide which court order to obey or not is a threat to the rule of law and disservice to democracy. Now that the Federal High Court has ordered the president to release Omoyele Sowore immediately, it is our hope that this clear order will be promptly complied with,” he added. Sowore hasn’t been released as at the time this report was filed.

Also speaking with THISDAY on the disregard for rule of law by democratically elected leaders, Executive Director and Founder Social Intervention Advocacy Foundation (SIAF), Segun SEGA Awosanya said, “No sociopolitical architect that is worth his or her onions will describe Nigeria as a democratic republic based on the current trajectory.

“The people are besieged on every side with career criminals occupying critical offices to perpetuate the agenda of a few. Personality as they say drives behaviour and behaviour drives decision making. This alone is the summary of the story of our current theatre of lucid absurdity.

The rabid attempt by demagogues lurking in balkanised institutions, especially national security outfits, is worrisome to say the least, as they have attempted severally to abort us from the womb of our imperfect democracy in the past years with their unconscionable and unprofessional conducts towards a political agenda against the unity of Nigeria as a sovereign nation.

“Their effort to criminalise protests against Sections 30 and 40 of the 1999 constitution as amended, which recognise our fundamental rights to assemble with others towards the expression of our approval or otherwise of government and their policies as at when due, is criminally obvious.

“The disruption of peaceful protests across Nigeria by armed police deploying excessive force doesn’t show we are dealing with authorities that recognise the critical role of security institutions at this point in our democracy.

Acute corruption is revealed when security institutions become partisan appendages to political parties as currently balkanised, thus, executing the scripts that see genuine call for accountability and transparency as the machinations of opposition seeking to topple their administration even without any shred of evidence of militarisation. This identity politics of hate (populism) has gone too far.

“Many active citizens are being harassed and threatened, while some are held under detention for daring to speak. Dadiyata went missing having being a strong critic of the Governor of Kaduna.

Steven Kefason has been remanded in prison over a Facebook post. Federal High court after refusing to grant the challenge of Omoyele Sowore on his detention by DSS finally gave in to pressure.

“Whether DSS will obey court orders is too early to call as bail conditions were met on September 25, 2019 (They have disobeyed the court order). Jalingo et al are also in prison over same political persecution by people who have made themselves tyrants over the people they ought to serve.

“We have suddenly become a country that persecutes critics with frivolous charges and even attempt to pin treasonable felony on citizens simply because the demagogues drowning in the pool of idolatry can’t stand the criticism of their man made gods, occupying political offices, as a display of loyalty.

“It even gets worse to realise that for the right price security operatives can arrange extradition order for anyone abroad baselessly or over trivial matters as simple as domestic disputes. No doubt the criminal justice system is rotten, expired and dysfunctional but the path to formidable change remains the collective resolve of all and sundry to demand accountability and transparency in order to build a nation where peace and justice shall reign.

“We at the SIAF will continue to lend our voice and stand by all citizens regardless of their creed, clan, clout, or craze, in collaboration with other civil society organisations. The agenda is to raise a critical mass of transformational youthful leaders and enlightened followers, who are easy to govern, difficult to rule and impossible to enslave to deliver the future of Nigeria.

“It will take the input of all of us, for all our children’s sakes. The current trajectory is not sustainable and the repercussion of the current dangerous precedents is ominous. We must keep demanding for the unconditional release of all political prisoners under this administration. It is our duty as active citizens for the sake of all our children. Do not be silent and do not be violent.”

Arbitrary Arrests

Nigerians are gradually getting used to reading in the papers of the arbitrary abduction of critics who dare challenge the status quo of any state government or reports on alleged corruption. This is done with the help of the Department of State Services (DSS), a creation of the law.

Among such persons that have disappeared into ‘thin air’ with continuous detention are journalists, government critics and vocal oppositions – the true conscience of the society. A list piling from 2017 till date shows that some of these men are still in DSS custody against their democratic right.

Austin Okai- A vocal opposition and government critic in Kogi state, Usman Austin Okai, according to Sahara Reporters, was arrested on February 22, 2017 on the alleged orders of Governor Yahaya Bello for circulating reports of his alleged inflation of contracts to acquire vehicles for traditional rulers and his commissioners. He was however released 21 days later.

According to the charges while the blogger was arraigned in court, he was alleged to have falsely accused the governor of buying cars worth 12million dollars, which led to rumours of the governor’s death and inciting the public against the governor.

Jones Abiri- Publisher of local newspaper, Weekly Source, Jones Abiri was arrested by DSS following a report he wrote on July 10, 2016 on how ‘Top Army Officers’ who were plotting to unseat President Mohammadu Buhari had approached Niger Delta militants under the aegis of the Joint Niger Delta Liberation Force (NDLF) to intensify the bombing of oil pipelines, which would be used as a justification to overthrow the Buhari administration.

Abiri was held by the DSS over alleged links to rebel in the Niger Delta as well as threaten oil companies. He was held for two years and was released only to be re-arrested nine months after amen was charged with terrorism.

Luka Binniyat- On July 1, 2017, the former Bureau the Chief of Vanguard Newspaper, Luka Binniyat was arrested and arraigned in court on allegation of false publication on the killings of five students of College of Education. He regained his freedom after spending over 90 days in prison.

Steven Kefason- Swiftly on the heels of Binniyat arrest on July 1, 2017, vibrant journalist, Steven Kefason was also arrested in Port Harcourt on May 8, 2019. His offence was because he vented his displeasure on the unlawful arrest and detention of his colleague Binniyat, on his Facebook wall.

He was also accosted for his allegations against the Kaduna State government that some teachers in Kaduna were protesting over unpaid salaries.

Kefason, an indigene of Kaduna State and staunch critique of the Kaduna State government, is now five months in custody.

Abubakar Idris aka Dadiyata-Few months after the arrest of Kefason, another vocal government critic, lecturer and a staunch supporter of Rabiu Musa Kwankwaso, and the publisher of online news outlet, Cross River Watch, Abubakar Idris (aka Dadiyata), was purportedly ‘abducted’ on August 2, 2019.

Fears abound that his abduction may be linked to his post on his Twitter handle on March 9, 2019 over the missing ballot papers by APC allies. According to allegations, a senior politician was spotted at the scene of the crime. His whereabout is yet unknown till date.

Agba Jalingo-20 days after the disappearance of Dadiyata, the publisher of online news outlet, Cross River Watch, Agba Jalingo was arrested on August 22, 2019 in Lagos.

Officers with the Special Anti-robbery Squad (SARS) were said to have been behind his abduction. The following day, he was transferred to a detention facility run by the anti-cult and anti-kidnapping police in Calabar, the Cross River state capital.

According to the charge sheet in court, Jalingo was charged with disturbance of public peace and treason for his writings and social media posts about Cross River Governor Benedict Ayade. He is still in custody.

Omoyele Sowore- Bent on leading a protest he tagged #RevolutionNow movement, journalist, and presidential candidate of the African Action Congress (AAC), Omoyele Sowore was arrested by the DSS on August 3, 2019 without a warrant.

The heavily armed men from the DSS invaded his apartment at 1:25am, held him in confinement before moving him from Lagos to Abuja the next morning.

Other members of the #RevolutionNow movement who went ahead with the planned protest weren’t spared by men of the police and Nigerian Army.

While a handful of them were equally arrested and locked-up, few others suffered bruises from harassments, and gunshot injuries.

Subsequently, it was followed by use of military and police apparatus to suppress further resilient attempts of the group to re-convey and demand for a better governance and freedom of those illegally held in custody.

Heavily armed military men, and policemen, were constantly deployed by the government to lay siege on the #RevolutionNow proposed venues for further peaceful protest, among which, includes Freedom Park Ojota-Lagos, National Stadium, Surulere-Lagos, and the office of the Committee for the Defense of Human Rights (CDHR) located in Ikeja, Lagos.

In a ruling on August 8, five days after his arrest, the Federal High Court in Abuja permitted the DSS to hold the political activist in custody for 45 days, without pressing any charges.

This detention period was granted with room provided for further extension after its expiration on September 21, should the DSS request for extension.

However, three days after the expiration date, on an account of the DSS failure to request for extension, Sowore was granted bail, on a condition of him submitting his traveling documents to the court within 48 hours. He still hasn’t been released.

Way Forward

Speaking on the way forward, Constitutional Lawyer and Human Rights Activist, Tope Akinyode, said, “In a situation where orders of courts are flouted with loose regard, where citizens are being arbitrarily detained and punished in anticipation of an offence as we have seen in this present administration, democracy is really the looser.

“We need to deeply reflect on democracy in Nigeria today and make salient proposals. First, I am of the view that henceforth, the presidency and officials of the federal government should be thoroughly schooled in the fundamentals of democracy and rule of law upon assumption of office.

“I also believe strongly that the laws governing the judiciary need to be urgently revisited to entertain two specific innovations. Veto should be vested in the national assembly to appoint and confirm appointment of justices of various federal courts.

“Financial autonomy and dependence should be vested in the judiciary. In doing this, budgetary allocations should go directly to the NJC which will then cater financially to the judiciary.

Furthermore, I am proposing that laws should be enacted to place all public officers on minimum wage. Governance should not be made enticing to criminals or fraudsters whose interests are only in financial gains. These suggestions, I believe will help in building structures against untamed display of power and inept governance.”