The people have the right to a peaceful protest

The war of words between the Directorate of State Services (DSS) and the Nigeria Labour Congress (NLC) over the two-day protest planned for this week is unnecessary. While we understand the fears of the former, the latter is equally right to insist that Nigerians cannot be barred from expressing their grievances against “the unprecedented high cost of living despite the suffering in the land, spiralling inflation, and deepening poverty.’’

As a newspaper, we endorse, at least in principle, the economic reforms of the current administration. But we contend that the reforms could have benefited from better sequencing and consultation. In addition, we submit that it is difficult to expect the people to continue to make sacrifices without adequate and thoughtfully implemented remedial measures and commensurate sacrifice from government officials. That is what feeds the current anger in the country.

The NLC decision is predicated on the alleged failure of the federal government to implement the agreements reached last October, following the removal of fuel subsidy, and floating of the naira which have triggered higher inflation and general increase in costs of living, including prices of food items. Although the Trade Union Congress (TUC) has backed out of the planned protest on grounds that the NLC took a unilateral decision, and the whole exercise could fail like previous ones, we do not want the federal government to misread the mood of the nation. One, most Nigerians are experiencing unprecedented hardships occasioned by soaring inflation and general insecurity. Two, civil protests should not be criminalised under any guise.

Peaceful strikes, lockouts, non-violent positive actions, etc., are legitimate means of expression in all societies, especially in a democracy. It was John Dewey, an American philosopher, who stated that just as we need a shoemaker to make shoes, we need a shoe wearer to say where the shoe pinches. Since the people are the ones that directly bear the full brunt of recent policy actions, those in authority ought to conduct their activities in line with the aspirations of and feedback from the people. Besides, the right to peaceful demonstration is a fundamental human right protected under our Constitution.

However, against the background of how the 2020 EndSARS protest drifted into anarchy across the country, we understand the basis of the fear by the DSS. The violence in Lagos and across the country led to the death of 23 police personnel and the destruction of more than 200 police stations. Nor can we forget that many protesters and innocent bystanders lost their lives in what started as legitimate protests against arbitrariness and high-handedness by the police. Those are facts of recent history.

In as much as we do not advocate a repeat of that tragedy, the authorities must understand that there are certain inalienable rights of citizenship that no government can abridge. One of them is the right of citizens to publicly air their grievances through non-violent demonstrations. In other societies, the police work with organisations planning civil protests to ensure that there is no breakdown of law and order. Unfortunately, that seems not to be the preferred option of the current administration. By using the court and other underhand methods to scuttle legitimate civil protest, we risk degenerating into a regimental enclave.

We encourage the NLC leaders to exhaust alternative means of making their point, given the precarious security situation in the country. However, if they think street protest is necessary, they must cooperate with law enforcement agencies to ensure that a constitutionally guaranteed exercise does not degenerate into violence or get hijacked by hoodlums or others with political motives. Instead of unnecessarily trading words with the labour unions, DSS on its part should invest its creative energies into ensuring that citizens’ rights to self-expression and dissent can be upheld without a descent into chaos. The two can, and must, co-exist in a democracy.

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