‘The Ship of the Nigerian State, is Sinking’

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The new consciousness raised by the #ENDSARS protest has left in its wake, a new set of challenges, victims and heroes. One obvious victim, is Truth. This was further driven home when the International Television News Station, Cable News Network (CNN) came out with a damning documentary of what they believe transpired at the Lekki Tollgate, and the adverse consequences. One of Nigeria’s foremost Human Rights Lawyers, Femi Falana, SAN, in an interview with Onikepo Braithwaite and Jude Igbanoi, gave his perspective of what led to #ENDSARS, the initial denial that soldiers weren’t present at the Lekki Tollgate on October 20, 2020, Nigeria’s embarrassing threat to sanction CNN, and why he thinks the ship of the Nigerian State is not only wobbling, but sinking

You have been a Human Rights Activist for decades, and been a part of numerous protests over the years, especially during the military era. Was the recent #ENDSARS protest by the Nigerian Youths just another usual protest, and if not, what set it apart from those of the past? What is your opinion of Government’s reaction to the protest? Do you think the Panels of Inquiry will yield any positive results?
Frankly speaking, it was an unusual protest in many respects. First, all strikes and mass protests were led by the labour unions in recent years. The Federal Government had succeeded in aborting the September 28 planned strike, by the nation’s central labour unions. So, while rejoicing over the Pyrrhic victory, the Federal Government dismissed all citizens who were aggrieved over the fuel hike and increase in electricity tariffs.
Second, there was the feeling in official circles, that Nigerians had been cowed and conquered. Third, not a few Nigerians had called the youths a ‘yahoo yahoo’ generation.

In fact, President Buhari once characterised them as a lazy generation. Some public officers even arrogantly said that, Nigerians could never stage a successful mass protest or revolution. Fourth, the youths had been completely written off as agents of change. Fifth, the #ENDSARS campaign had commenced in 2017, without any tangible results. Hence, no one expected any nationwide #ENDSARS protests in 2020. But, out of the blues, the protest took the nation by surprise due to the failure of the intelligence agencies to gauge the mood of the nation. Hence, the Government, thought that it would fizzle out and therefore, adopted a rather lackadaisical approach towards the resolution of the demands of the #ENDSARS protesters. What marked out the protest, was that it was carried out without any recognised leadership. Being a leaderless revolution, it was difficult to negotiate with the representatives of the group. What also marked out the #ENDSARS protest was the level of organisational capacity, the level of organisational coordination, and the level of determination of the participants to achieve their chosen objectives. The youths wanted an accountability mechanism to expose police brutality in the country. The revelation of horrendous brutalisation of victims of police brutality, has justified setting up of the panels of inquiry. The exposure of brutality, is the first stage of the process. The second stage is the implementation of the recommendations of the judicial panels, including payment of reparation to victims, and prosecution of indicted murder suspects and other torturers.

For the first time, Nigerian youths came out massively to protest nationwide against the unprecedented violations of human rights by the Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS) of the Nigeria Police. As one who has for many years defended the rights of victims of Police brutality, what are your takeaways from the historic event which ended on a rather sad note in which lives were lost? Would you say the protest achieved any meaningful purpose?

As I did say, the #ENDSARS campaign commenced in 2017. At the material time, a Presidential Panel was set up to probe police brutality. The campaign did not succeed, as the Government refused to release the report of the Panel. But, the Government has begun to implement the decisions of the Presidential Panel, which had been dumped. During the youth revolt, violence was introduced by sponsored thugs who attacked the protesters in Lagos and Abuja, with apparent connivance of security forces. Since the thugs were treated like sacred cows as they were not arrested and prosecuted, other thugs took control of the situation and embarked on looting and burning of public and private properties. The thugs then became hoodlums, in the lexicon of the ruling class.

It is hoped that, the Nigerian people will demand for the ban on the use of thugs by the political class. Before the protests, Nigerian youths were not organised to defend the rights of the people. The patriotism of the #ENDSARS campaigners, has proved that the youths can play a vital role in the struggle for a new society. But, in concrete, the gains of #ENDSARS protests, include the abolition of SARS and replacement with SWAT; investigation of police brutality by judicial commissions of inquiry; At the Federal level, the National Human Rights Commission has instituted a Committee to investigate allegations of human rights abuse. The Federal Government has announced plans to implement the report of the recommendations of the 2018 Presidential Panel for the dismissal of 37 Police officers, trial of 24, and investigation of 22 others. The Central Bank has earmarked the sum of N75 billion, as soft loans for the youths from 2021-2023. President Buhari has directed the Salaries and Wages Commission to embark on an upward review the emoluments of Police personnel.

I had thought that the Federal Government, would follow up on such gains. But, to show that it has not been defeated, the neo-colonial State is fighting back by seizing the passports and freezing the accounts of the leaders of the protesters. Having sufficiently drawn attention to Police brutality, the youths should ensure that the rights guaranteed by the Constitution, African Charter on Human and People’s Rights Act, Administration of Criminal Justice Act, Police Act, Gun Shot Act, Legal Aid Act and National Human Rights Commission Act, are respected at all times.

Do you know what really transpired at the Lekki Tollgate on that fateful Tuesday, October 20, 2020? The accounts which we are hearing from bodies like Amnesty International, are totally different from that of Government and the Nigerian Army. Where does the truth lie? Do you think Government is trying to change the narrative? How do you think we can establish the true facts of what actually occurred? Would it require external assistance deploying the use of sophisticated technology?

The killing of protesters at Abuja, Benin, Lagos and Ogbomosho, preceded the Lekki Gate incident. But, Lekki has become a metaphor for the brutal killing of protesters, because of the involvement of soldiers. The whole world was flabbergasted, when the authorities of the Nigerian Army denied the presence of soldiers at the Lekki Tollgate. That is what President Donald Trump would call, fake news. Then the Army turned round and admitted that soldiers were at the Lekki Tollgate, but that they did not fire at the protesters.
While not preempting the ongoing probe, it has been officially confirmed that two people were killed, while scores were treated for gunshot injuries. Some had bullets removed from their bodies. One of the victims, has had his right leg amputated. Since the life of every Nigerian matters, the Nigerian Bar Association decided to probe the killings in Oyigbo in Port Harcourt, Rivers State. The investigators were chased out of the town. I am aware that the Alliance on Surviving Covid-19 and Beyond (ASCAB) has instituted a Panel of Inquiry, headed by Mr. Chino Obiagwu, SAN to investigate all the killings in the country, and has commenced work.

The local media houses, are probing the killings. CNN has just published its own account of the Lekki Tollgate illings. It is interesting to note that, the Federal Government has threatened to sanction the CNN. Can you believe the joke? Initially, the Government claimed that the riots claimed 55 lives. The figure has now increased to 100. But, there are others who insist that the figure of casualties is much higher than the official account.

We don’t need to import experts to determine the facts and circumstances surrounding the brutal killing of protesters, hoodlums and security personnel. At the end of the day, the truth will emerge.
You were recently petitioned against to the International Criminal Court (ICC), over what some see as frivolous allegations against you. As a foremost human rights activist and the only Nigerian Lawyer who has handled so many cases at the ICC, how does it make you feel? Who and what would you say is behind the petition which has drawn so much attention in the media?

On May 22, 2003, the Police violently disrupted the political rally of the defunct All Nigerian People’s Party in Kano and teargassed General Muhammadu Buhari, Dr. Chuba Okadigbo and other leaders of the party. A couple of days later, Dr. Okadigbo gave up the ghost on account of the smoke of teargas inhaled by him, since he was asthmatic. On the instructions of the ANPP and 10 other political leaders, I challenged the constitutional validity of Police permit for political rallies in Nigeria. In her considered judgement, the Honourable Justice Chikere declared Police permit illegal and unconstitutional. The Court of Appeal affirmed the judgement.

In 2014, I also challenged the ban on peaceful protests in the Federal Capital Territory by the ‘Bring Back Our Girls Campaigners’. The Honourable Justice Aladetoyinbo, set aside the illegal ban. Based on the campaign of the human rights community, the National Assembly amended the law to compel Police to provide adequate security during protests. The purpose is to prevent lumpen elements, from hijacking protests. Since President Buhari and Vice President Osinbajo publicly conceded that the peaceful protest by the #ENDSARS campaigners was in order, I called on the Government to direct the Police to provide them with adequate security. On July 25 this year, the Federal High Court presided over by Justice Aikawa, ruled that apart from the North East region, soldiers cannot be involved in internal security without compliance with Section 217 of the Constitution. These are the reasons why it is said in the frivolous petition to the International ICC, that I was supporting protests before and during the #ENDSARS protests. I know that the Federal Government is not happy with me, for seeking to protect the fundamental rights of the #ENDSARS campaigners. As soon as an interim order was made restraining the soldiers from subjecting civilians to the security check on all roads in Nigeria, the authorities encouraged some people to demonstrate against me in Abuja.

Another reason why I have been targeted for cheap blackmail by the Federal Government, is that I have consistently stood against the extrajudicial killing of Nigerians by security forces. On behalf of the human rights community, Olisa Agbakoba, SAN and I visited Odi in Bayelsa after the military invasion which had led to the killing of hundreds of people, and the burning of the town. That was in 1999. In 2009, my colleague and I, challenged the military invasion of Gbaramotu in Delta State. In December 2015, the Nigerian Army engaged in the barbaric killing of 347 Nigerian citizens, whose bodies were buried in a mass grave in Zaria. A London based human rights group, petitioned the Special Prosecutor of the International Criminal Court.

The Socio-Economic and Rights Accountability Project, SERAP, had also petitioned the office of the Chief Prosecutor of the International Criminal Court in respect of the Lekki Tollgate killing. The ICC announced that it was looking into the case of the #ENDSARS protesters. The United Nations Secretary General, publicly supported the peaceful protests in Nigeria. After the killings, the United Nations dispatched a Deputy Secretary General to Abuja who condemned the attack on peaceful protesters. For reasons best known to the Government, I am being held responsible for the externalisation of the #ENDSARS protests. So, the petition was designed to divert attention from the investigation of the actual killers of scores of protesters in Lekki, and other places. We need to review the post-Lekki killing of hoodlums and looters and IPOB members in Rivers State, as well as the counter-attack and killing of Police and military personnel.

There has been this raging controversy over the severance allowances, salaries and emoluments of past Governors, especially those who are now serving as Ministers and Senators. On which side of the divide are you? Do they deserve these humongous salaries for life, as presently obtaining in several States?
The payment of double salaries to ex-Governors has exposed the hypocrisy of the Federal Government, which claims so loudly, to be fighting corruption. At the very least, all former APC Governors ought to have distanced themselves from the odious policy. Payment of double salaries is discriminatory and unjust, in any democratic society.

The Federal High Court has ordered the Attorney-General of the Federation to recover the illegal double payments made to ex-Governors who double as Senators. But, the Lagos State Government that started the illegality, has decided to repeal the scandalous pension for former Governors. The Kwara State Government, has also decided to abolish it. Last year, the Zamfara and Imo State Governments, had abolished the obnoxious pension laws. Our duty is to continue the campaign, so that all the pension laws are abolished in all States of the Federation.
The economy is in shambles. Security has collapsed. Even ransom is paid to by the Government to secure the release of public officers, including security personnel kidnapped by criminal elements.

It does appear that the ship of the Nigerian State, is wobbling. The economy is in dire straits, civil rights are threatened, and now, the pump price of petroleum which is a vital item in the economy, has been increased. This, is in addition to the over 300% increase in electricity tariffs. Many look up to Human Rights Activists like you, to take up the Government in this worsening state of affairs in the nation. What are your plans?
It is not just wobbling. The ship is collapsing, sinking. Another recession, is going to be declared very soon. Representatives of the Labour unions are negotiating with the Government, with a view to resolving the crisis arising from the rash of increases. But, while the talks are ongoing, the prices are jumping to the roof following the total dollarisation of the economy by the Central Bank of Nigeria. Unfortunately, the talks are not addressing the cause of the economic crisis, which is rooted in the implementation of neo-liberal economic policies by the Government. I have repeatedly made the point that, peripheral capitalism cannot lead Nigeria out of the woods.

A Government that is committed to the promotion of a self-reliant economy for the promotion of prosperity, has to mobilise the masses to embark on production and industrialisation. But, mind you, human rights activists are not politicians. Their primary duty is to defend and promote human rights. Essentially, political and economic issues are outside the terrain of human rights struggle. However, the progressive extraction of the human rights community, is compelled to team up with the trade unions to fight economic policies that are considered inimical to the interests of workers and other oppressed people. I am aware that, groups are organising to fight for the protection of their economic interests. I can assure you that, the ASCAB is in the forefront of such mobilisation.

You are Omoyele Sowore’s Lawyer, who after a turbulent brush with agents of the Government over his ‘#Revolution Now’ campaign was granted bail on stringent terms. He recently cried out, alleging that he fears for his life, especially after the #ENDSARS protests. What is the state of his case? Is there any substance to his allegations, or reason for him to fear for his life? What has become of Sheik El-Zakzaky and his wife?
Mr. Omoyele Sowore has been having a running battle with the Government, over his radical approach to journalism. The Government had thought that the charge of treasonable felony, would silence him completely. But, that has not worked. He is restricted to Abuja, because of the pending criminal case. The Government was unable to add terrorism to the charge, while the charges of money laundering and cyber stalking have been withdrawn. The delay in the trial was initially caused by the Government before the lockdown, arising from the coronavirus pandemic.

Sowore is ready for the trial. He is anxious to have the case concluded. I want to believe that the trial will continue on December 8, 2020. I am aware that he has taken some precautionary measures, to keep himself safe. It is however, unfortunate that our country has been made unsafe once again, by the enemies of democracy.
After pleading not guilty to the charges, the trial court has dispensed with the presence of Sheikh Ibraheem Elzakzaky and his wife in court, on health grounds. At long last, the trial commenced last week in the Kaduna State High Court. The Prosecution has called six witnesses, who were cross-examined by the defence team. Further hearing has been adjourned to January 25 and 26, 2021.

Five and a half years into the Buhari Administration, how would you rate it, vis-a-vis its three pronged campaign promises of fighting corruption, insecurity and revamping the economy? What of its record in upholding the rule of law?

Without autonomy, the anti-graft agencies cannot function effectively. None of the anti-graft bodies is independent of the executive. The Presidential Panel on Recovery of Public Property, has been disbanded. The EFCC is being defanged. The Code of Conduct Tribunal, claims to operate under the Presidency. A few cases are prosecuted on behalf of the Code of Conduct Bureau by the office of the Attorney-General of the Federation. So, the Buhari administration has systematically, terminated the fight against corruption.

The North East zone is battling with terrorism. The North West, is confronting the menace of banditry. The remaining geopolitical zones, are being overrun by kidnappers and armed robbers. The Federal Government has failed abysmally, in addressing the challenge of insecurity.

Last year, the Federal Government constituted a team of Advisers on the economy. But, no advice can arrest the promotion of poverty by the anti-people’s economic policies dictated by imperialism. We are being told that, the Government is broke. ASCAB said that, given the political will, the Federal Government could recover N94 trillion, either diverted or withheld from the Federation Account. The Government has not been able to challenge our claim. We hope that the Government will listen to ASCAB, as Nigeria slides into the worst recession since 1987.

The question of upholding the rule of law does not arise, as the Federal Government has repeatedly maintained that, it has to give way to national security. Hence, court orders are routinely disregarded, while the Constitution and other laws are observed in breach by top government officials, to the detriment of political stability and national security.

Your son, Falz the Bad Guy, chose to follow your footsteps in human rights – fighting societal ills, but in a different way, through music. He is also a Lawyer, and many expected he would follow suit under your tutelage, learning the ropes of litigation. Are you and his Mother happy with his choices?
My wife and I had wanted Folarin to practice law, because it was crystal clear that he was going to be a good Lawyer. But, he decided to call it quits with legal practice, after about three years. I understand his decision to opt for music, but my wife did not quite agree with me. But, I am happy that she has no regrets whatsoever, over the young man’s decision.

Folarin decided suo motu, to study law. He has also chosen his own way of life. It is however, unfair to accuse me of using him to embarrass the Federal Government. In January 2012, he took part in the Occupy Nigeria protests at Ojota in Lagos. He was then, less than 22 years old. Since then, he has developed politically. The Buhari regime banned his “This is Nigeria”. It is therefore, fruitless, to subject him to any form of harassment over his involvement in the #ENDSARS protest.

Thank you, Learned Silk.