Nationwide Protest: Falana Writes FG, Says NLC Not in Contempt of Court

·      Insists Nigerians don’t require permit to demonstrate in public interest matters

·      NLC accuses government of planning mayhem against workers

·      Reuben Fasoranti urges Yoruba to shun demonstration

·      Orji Kalu begs organised labour to shelve action

Emmanuel Addeh, Onyebuchi Ezigbo, Alex Enumah and Sunday Aborisade in Abuja

Mixed reactions have continued to trail the planned nationwide protest by organised labour, with lawyer to the Nigeria Labour Congress (NLC) and Trade Union Congress (TUC), Mr. Femi Falana (SAN), faulting the position of the Attorney General of the Federation (AGF) and Minister of Justice, Lateef Fagbemi (SAN), that the proposed action over the current harsh economic conditions was in breach of the order of court.

Following astronomical increase in the prices of basic necessities occasioned by the free fall of the naira in relation to major foreign currencies, the umbrella body of workers in Nigeria, NLC, had scheduled a nationwide protest for February 27 and 28.

NLC yesterday accused the federal government of perfecting plans to attack its members that would participate in the scheduled peaceful rallies across the country, barely 24 hours from now.

But the Yoruba social-political organisation, Afenifere, called on the Yoruba, in particular, and Nigerians, in general, not to participate in the nationwide rallies being planned by the union.

Responding at the weekend, the federal government, through the AGF, warned against the planned demonstration, arguing that it is in violation of a court order and would amount to contempt of court. The AGF gave the warning in a letter dated February 23, which was addressed to Falana.

However, Falana in his reply to Fagbemi, dated February 24, argued that there was no order restraining labour from embarking on the February 27 and 28 protest over worsening economic conditions.

The rights activist argued that the threat of the AGF was baseless, since he had withdrawn the contempt proceedings filed against NLC and TUC for embarking on public protest on August 2, 2023.

Falana stated, “We submit, without any fear of contradiction, that the proposed public protest of the NLC is not contemptuous of the two exparte orders of the National Industrial Court (NIC). In particular, the issue of contempt does not arise, as the NLC has challenged the jurisdiction of the NIC to entertain the substantive case.

“It is further submitted that the NIC has not restrained the members of the NLC from exercising their fundamental rights to freedom of assembly and freedom of expression to protest against the excruciating economic pains being experienced by the masses.”

The senior lawyer recalled that following the removal of fuel subsidy by President Bola Tinubu on May 29, 2023, the federal government had commenced negotiations with the two workers’ unions, as the subsidy removal policy had brought untold hardship to Nigerians.

Falana recalled that while the negotiations were in progress, the Federal Ministry of Justice rushed to the NIC to file suit No NICN/ABJ/158/2023 between Federal Government of Nigeria & Anor. v Nigeria Labour Congress & Anor in respect of the same issues.

He stated, “On June 5, 2023, Justice Yemi Anuwe granted the application of the federal government for an exparte order to restrain the NLC and TUC from embarking on strike against the removal of fuel subsidy. Although both the NLC and TUC complied with the exparte order, they promptly filed an application to set aside same for want of jurisdiction.

“They equally asked for a stay of execution of the order exparte pending the determination of the motion. The application to set aside the exparte order filed by the defendants and the motion for interlocutory injunction filed by the claimants have not been considered, as parties resolved to settle the case out of court.

“Even though the parties signed a 16-point memorandum of understanding, the federal government did not implement all the terms of the agreement. Hence, on August 2, 2023, both NLC and TUC held a peaceful protest throughout the country.”

Falana also pointed out that instead of implementing the agreement the government initiated contempt proceedings against NLC and TUC at the industrial court, whose competence the unions challenged.

He explained, “However, the federal government turned round to withdraw the application for contempt. On November 10, 2023, the federal government filed another suit, No NICN/ABJ/322/20 23 between Federal Government of Nigeria & Anor. at the National Industrial Court against the NLC and TUC, notwithstanding the pendency of suit no NICN/ABJ/158/2 023.

“On that same day, the president court, Justice Benedict Kanyip, granted an ex parte order to restrain the NLC and TUC from embarking on the planned strike. However, His Lordship directed that the case file be transferred to Justice Yemi Anuwe, who is handling a similar labour dispute between the same parties.

“Both NLC and TUC challenged the competence of the fresh suit on the ground that it constitutes a gross abuse of court process, inter alia. The application has not been heard and determined by the NIC.”

Falana maintained that having withdrawn the contempt proceedings filed against the NLC and TUC for embarking on public protest on August 2, 2023, Fagbemi ought not to have threatened the NLC with contempt of court over its plan to hold rallies against the astronomical cost of living in the country.

Citing the case of Inspector General of Police v All Nigeria Peoples Party (200 8) 12 WRN 65, Falana observed that the Court of Appeal upheld the fundamental right of Nigerians to protest on matters of public interest without police permit.

In the lead judgement of the court, Olufunmilayo Adekeye JCA (as she then was) held inter alia, “The right to demonstrate and the right to protest on matters of public concern are rights which are in the public interest and that which individuals must possess, and which they should exercise without impediment as long as no wrongful act is done…

“If as speculated by law enforcement agents that breach of the peace would occur, our criminal code has made adequate provisions for sanctions against breakdown of law and order so that the requirement of permit as a conditionality to holding meetings and rallies can no longer be justified in a democratic society.”

According to Falana, since the freedom of speech and freedom of assembly are part of the democratic rights of every citizen of Nigeria, the Court of Appeal further held that the legislature must guard these rights jealously as they are part of the foundation upon which the government itself rests.

He stated that consequently, the National Assembly had ensured that the right of aggrieved citizens to protest peacefully for or against the government was protected.

Falana said section 83 (4) of the Police Establishment Act 2020, which provided that where a person or organisation notified the police of his or its intention to hold a public meeting, rally or procession on a public highway or such meetings in a place where the public had access to, the police officer responsible for the area shall mobilise personnel to provide security.

He added in the letter, “While we have advised the members of the NLC to conduct the rallies scheduled for February 27-28, 2024 in a peaceful manner, we urge you to use your good offices to direct the IG to provide adequate security to the conveners and participants in the protest in line with the provisions of Section 83(4) of the Police Establishment Act.”

The AGF had urged the NLC to shelve its proposed nationwide protest on the grounds that the protest would amount to contempt of court.

On February 16, NLC announced a nationwide protest scheduled for February 27 and 28, in response to the economic challenges facing the country. This decision followed the expiration of a 14-day ultimatum issued to the federal government regarding the widespread hardship.

But Fagbemi, in a letter addressed to Falana, reminded NLC of a subsisting order restraining the union from embarking on any industrial action, saying it is antithetical to the mediatory engagements leading to the execution of the agreement.

However, NLC, in a statement yesterday, alleged that the federal government had perfected plans to attack its members that would participate in the scheduled peaceful rallies across the country, but said workers remained resolute, determined and prepared to express their pain and grief in a peaceful manner as Nigerians

A statement signed by NLC President, Joe Ajaero, identified the Nigeria Civil Society Forum (NCSF) as one of the groups being primed to attack the protesters during the peaceful rallies.

The labour movement urged international human rights bodies and the governments of the African Union (AU) and the United Nations (UN) to note that the right of the people to peacefully protest was being threatened.

Aside the economic hardship, NLC had also cited the federal government’s non-implementation of the agreement reached on palliatives to cushion the effects of the removal of fuel subsidy on workers and the general public.

The statement said, “We would want to inform Nigerians that the state has perfected plans to attack our peaceful rallies across the country. One of the groups being primed to attack our peaceful rallies is by a nebulous name, Nigeria Civil Society Forum (NCSF).

“NCSF is one of the emergency groups put together, funded, promoted and remote-controlled by government to cause violence against our members for electing to peacefully protest against the hunger in the land.

“We would want the state to know that the solution to our horrible economic situation and hunger is not by  suppressing peaceful dissent or inflicting violence on peacefully protesting citizens, as the government did in Minna and other cities where its agents tear-gassed and beat up women before locking them up for raising their voice against hunger.

“It does not lie in the deployment of state-sponsored terror. The pangs of hunger cannot be cowed by bullets or tear gas.”

NLC added, “In light of this, we at the NLC and civil society allies are moving ahead with our protest rallies against economic hardship and insecurity in line with the decision of the National Executive Council (NEC).

“As citizens, we have a fundamental right to peaceful protest and history bears us witness that our protests are always peaceful, except in instances of state-engineered violence.”

NLC further advised the Nigerian state to put on its thinking cap and find solutions to the pains it had continued to cause the people instead of further dehumanising them. It stated that if the state was irrevocably set on the path of violence against labour and other peace-loving Nigerians, it would be making a costly mistake.

NLC explained that if the protesting workers were attacked, there would be a total shutdown via withdrawal of services by workers.

It stated, “Let no one be deceived, we and other deprived Nigerians cannot easily be intimidated. Lest those in power now who may have forgotten be reminded, we faced a more resourceful and resilient adversary in order to have democracy.

“All we are saying now is that let there be food for the people, let the people live in safety, let the people live a life of dignity devoid of suffocating  IMF/World Bank economic policies.”

NLC reiterated its call on international human rights bodies and the governments of the AU and the UN that the right of the people to peacefully protest and demand for freedom from economic slavery and hardship was being threatened by the Nigerian state.

The union stated, “We, however, remain resolute, determined and prepared to express our pain and grief in a peaceful manner as Nigerians come 27th and 28th of February 2024.”

Meanwhile, the Afenifere leader, Pa Reuben Fasoranti, appealed to the Yoruba and Nigerians to shun the protest, in a statement in Abuja yesterday.

While acknowledging the hardship faced by the people, Fasoranti said the economic measures being implemented by the government, though difficult, were part of a larger strategy to foster long-term economic stability.

Fasoranti stated, “As the national leader of Afenifere, and leader of the Yoruba, I address all and sundry today with a deep understanding of the challenges facing our dear country at this critical time.

“The outcry over the hardship, hunger, and price hikes is not unexpected, yet we must come to terms with the realities of our national challenges which the present administration of President Bola Tinubu is striving to resolve.

“While acknowledging the hardships faced by our people, it is important to recognise that these economic measures, although difficult, are part of a larger strategy aimed at fostering long-term economic stability.”

He added that the government’s commitment to implementing the measures was a testament to its dedication to addressing the root causes of Nigeria’s economic challenges, inherited from the ills of the previous years.

The Afenifere leader stated, “As a responsible leader, I appeal to every Yoruba man and woman, young and old, and our fellow citizens across the nationalities, to exercise patience and refrain from engaging in protests or actions that may escalate tensions.

“Understandably, the immediate impact of these economic reforms is challenging to everyone, but it is crucial to allow the government the necessary time to realise the intended benefits.

“It is important to note that the removal of fuel subsidies and the floating of the naira was not undertaken lightly, as we all know the great damage done to our national prosperity through the nefarious activities of the agents of darkness within the oil and financial sectors.”

Fasoranti maintained that Nigeria could not afford a preference for the euthanasic approach of painless death to the nation, where it was propped up with loans and subsidies until a total collapse into a failed state.

He stated that Nigeria had the opportunity of painful healing through treatment with multiple surgeries that would guarantee not just survival, but restored health, vigour and thriving life. 

According to Fasoranti, “We must endure today’s hardship for tomorrow’s prosperity. I implore you to trust in the government’s commitment to the welfare of our nation. Let us engage in constructive dialogue and contribute positively to the ongoing economic reforms.

“I want to assure you, as the leader of Afenifere, that we are actively engaging with the government to address the concerns of our people.”

Former governor of Abia State, Senator Orji Kalu, also appealed to organised labour to shelve its planned strike and return to talks with the federal government.

In a video made for the purpose, Kalu appealed to the NLC to see reason why negotiation was a better answer to national problems than protests

He stated, “I know that protests are also part of maintaining the democratic process, but this is not the time. Labour leaders should go back and dialogue with government.

“I plead with them because the time is so difficult. What I have told Nigerians in 2015 is also what I am going to say today.  I told them that President Muhammadu Buhari then wasn’t the owner of Nigeria.

“I am still telling them today that President Bola Tinubu is not the owner of Nigeria. He’s just a trustee of our collective dream. So, people should take it easy.

“I know there’s hunger all over Nigeria, but the executive, legislature and judiciary are working very hard to see what we can do.

“Nobody wants to leave Nigeria apart. I plead with Nigerians that it is not the time for demonstration, it is not the time for damaging national assets. This is the time for the unity of all Nigerians, to pursue our goal.” 

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