Security agencies must work without infringing on the rights of the people

We agree with the Department of State Service (DSS) that the freedom of expression, which democracy guarantees, does not include a license to plunge the nation into avoidable mayhem and bloodshed. In two statements within a spate of three weeks, the agency claimed to have uncovered plots by some group of persons to destabilise the country. The claim on a radio programme by a former Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN) Deputy Governor that a northern governor is leader of Boko Haram is being used by the DSS as justification for the alarm.

The primary role of the security agencies is to carefully demarcate between democratic freedom and a clear descent into recklessness that threatens us all. Since no responsible authority should tolerate a threat to national security, the DSS is perfectly in order to warn highly placed individuals whose utterances could cause problems for the country. While democracy entitles citizens to freedoms of expression and association, it is also true that every democracy has an obligation to mediate and modulate these freedoms in order to ensure the survival of the nation itself. We therefore denounce any acts by individuals or groups that are capable of fanning ethno-religious tension in the country.

However, while the DSS should be proactive in its intelligence gathering function, we caution it should learn to carry out its task without infringing on the fundamental rights of the people. The earlier security alert formed the basis upon which some socio-cultural groups were announced proscribed by the federal government and their certificates of registration vitiated by the Corporate Affairs Commission (CAC). Following the proscription, the CAC has vowed that in future, requests for registration by social-cultural groups will not be granted without a certificate of security screening and clearance of members of their Board of Trustees. The clampdown on socio-cultural organisations is an overkill.

While we understand that building an inclusive and egalitarian society in a federal arrangement is always a work-in-progress, the security agencies—whose primary responsibility is the protection of national security through managing and deterring threats to the unity and peaceful co-existence of our country—are also becoming part of the problem. Not only do they discriminate in the choice of culprits in moments of crisis, they are never even-handed in the application of the law. That has become a pattern under the current administration and has made many ethno-religious conflicts, especially in some northern states, very difficult to resolve.

It is also important for the DSS to understand that hate speech is not always self-driven. It sometimes erupts when signals in the political space dredge up buried subliminal impulses. The initial utterances of President Muhammadu Buhari energised certain subliminal impulses in our society. And some of his choices since then have not helped. In many ways therefore, the recent flourish of hateful and divisive utterances is primarily political. Key federal appointments have followed a parochial track while the body language at the apex of power unfortunately reflects a basic reluctance to relate to Nigeria as a constitutional republic. Political jobbers all over the country have since taken the cue and hijacked the narratives. And we now have nearly as many separatist groups as there are known zones of discontent in the country.

To deal with the current challenge, we need a new conduct of leadership that is evenhanded and inclusive so that citizens begin to hold government accountable for the things that unite us—education, health, employment, infrastructure, reasonable economic livelihood. It is the failure of governance and the irresponsibility of lazy politics that are at issue in the epidemic of hate and divisiveness currently on shameful display in Nigeria. That is what the authorities must begin to deal with.