The 1999 Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria guarantees the right of the citizens to peaceful protests, while the Nigeria Police and other security agencies are paid to enforce law and order in the country. This clash of interests between citizens and security operatives has resulted in scores of deaths. Sulaimon Olanrewaju examines this contradistinction.
WITH the benefit of hindsight, students of Nasarawa State University, Keffi, would have exercised restraint and avoided embarking on the ill-fated protest they had last Monday which resulted in the killing of four of them by security operatives with seven others currently nursing gun wounds.
The protest, which was to draw the attention of the state government to the students’ plight on campus, ended up drawing the ire of security operatives who rained a sleet of live bullets on them. According to the students, the campus had been without water and electricity supply for some time. With several appeals to the school authorities being futile, they decided to stage a protest and barricaded major roads in the town. But what they got in return was clearly beyond their imagination as security operatives drafted to quell the unrest resorted to shooting sporadically. At the end of the exercise, four of the students had been felled by the bullets of those paid by the state to maintain the peace.
Although both the Nigeria Army and the Nigeria Police have engaged in a ding-dong over which of them was responsible for the killing, what is crystal clear is that the lack of tact by one or two of the agencies and the failure to have a demarcation between a protest and a war situation resulted in the needless waste of lives.
However, the killing and brutalisation of Nasarawa State University students is not an isolated case as it is the norm for security operatives to unleash telling terror on protesting Nigerians.
In October last year, following the killing of scores of students at the Federal Polytechnic, Mubi in Adamawa State, about 50 students of the polytechnic who hailed from Akwa Ibom State had assembled at the entrance of the Akwa Ibom State Government House with placards bearing various inscriptions calling on the state government to give them admission in the state-owned tertiary institutions as they were unwilling to return to Mubi to continue their education for fear of being victims of terrorist attacks.
But that act struck a wrong chord in the security operatives attached to the Government House as they descended on the harmless students with whips and boots. They brutalised the students who had gone to their governor with cardboards to express their concerns. When they were not satisfied with the result of their horsewhips and jackboots, they fired several canisters of tear gas at the students and arrested 11 of them.
Commenting on the development, the Secretary General, National Association of Akwa Ibom Students (NAAKIS), Mubi Chapter, Iberedem Inyang, said, “If we managed to escape from a place where almost 50 of our colleagues were murdered in cold blood, why would we be subjected to such brutality and even threat to our lives even at home? If we survived death outside our state, why would the security operatives want to kill us in our state?”
The state government had to apologise to the students for the unwarranted violent act by the security operatives against defenceless students.
Students of the University of Lagos also had their own brush with security operatives following their protests against the move by the Federal Government to rename their institution as Moshood Abiola University, Lagos. Following the announcement on June 12, 2012, the students trooped out daily with a view to pressurise President Goodluck Jonathan to rescind that decision. However, on the third day of the protest, one of the policemen who had been deployed to put the protesters in check fired teargas at the students with the effect that a female student fainted and almost died. That incident and the authorities’ resort to shutting down the institution put paid to the protests.
The January 2012 protest against the withdrawal of fuel subsidy was not without its casualty as a 23-year old, Muyideen Mustapha, was shot dead by security operatives in Ilorin. In the same vein, one Ademola Aderinde was shot dead in Lagos. There were also several unconfirmed shooting and killing of protesters in different parts of the country.
The attempt by residents of Lagos State to protest against the introduction of a toll gate on the Lekki-Epe expressway in Lagos was stiffly resisted by the policemen drafted to the scene as they tear-gassed, pushed, shoved and beat protesters.
But the experience of protesters in other climes, especially Europe and North America, is different as the police in those places refrain from attacking protesters. In the rare cases of the police attacking protesters, it is to protect the destruction of lives and properties and they do not use live bullets.
On April 1, 2009, while the G20 meeting was holding in London, there was an anti capitalist and climate change demonstration by some people to demand action on poverty, climate change and jobs. Although policemen were around to guard against the visitors being molested, none of the protesters was attacked, whipped, booted or shot.
Similarly, when in November 2012, about 10,000 students demonstrated in London to express their frustration at the financial and other burdens they were facing and to kick against the planned move of the government to increase tuition fees in universities, the police only watched on the sideline, they allowed the students to register their displeasure and were neither shoved nor molested.
Even the violent Tottenham riots, which later cascaded to other parts of London, had police officers remaining very civil in the face of serious provocations and attacks. The rioters engaged in wanton destruction of police vehicles, magistrates’ court, double-decker buses, many civilian homes and businesses. They also looted many supermarkets and other business outfits but the police were out to curtail the rioters and minimise the destruction, not to kill or maim them. They refrained from being violent against the violent rioters. As a way of discouraging such acts, the state did not waste time in arresting and arraigning those found culpable. At the end, no fewer than 1,566 people were charged to court in connection with the riots and looting with some of the convicts being sentenced to eight years imprisonment.
On March 20, 2010, there was a protest in Washington by thousands of Americans who were opposed to the continuous war waged against Afghanistan and Iraq by the United States of America. The protesters marched past the White House with some of them bearing coffins draped with various flags to symbolize fatalities of the wars.
The protesters were allowed a field day as there was nobody who pushed or shoved them. They were not even denied access to the White House.
On February 17, 2013, about 40,000 people who wanted the US government to stop the expansion of the Keystone Pipeline, a pipeline system of transporting synthetic crude oil and diluted bitumen, marched to the White House demanding action on Climate Change from President Barack Obama and the US Government.
It is, however, a different ball game in Nigeria where security operatives go all out to unleash mayhem on protesters which is a flagrant disregard of the 1999 Constitution of the country which gives aggrieved Nigerians the right to protest as a way of expressing their displeasure.
Commenting on the rights of Nigerians to stage peaceful protests, Mr Segun Alawiye, a lawyer said, “It is an unalienable right of every Nigerian, who is displeased by one government policy or the other, to stage a protest either alone or in concert with others. Sections 39 and 40 of the constitution provide for this.”
The lawyer who practises in Abeokuta, Ogun State, added that “Articles 9 to 11 of the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights, which is also a domestic law in Nigeria, gives the people the power to assemble to protest. So, it is out of place for any policeman to attack or arrest protesters. The police have nothing to do with protesters at all. If anything, the police should see to it that protesters are not disturbed in carrying out their protest. But like many other things in Nigeria, this is observed in the breach.”
Speaking in the same vein, Mr Chuks Akpamgbo, a civil society activist, said any attempt by the government or any of its agencies to stop the people to ventilate their views on developments in the society would be tantamount to repression.
“Kicking against protests is a vote against human beings because the freedom of assembly and association are basic human rights. No government is empowered to take such away from the people. So, neither the police nor the military should be used against people who have gathered to protest against any government policy or position,” Akpamgbo said.
He added that security operatives should team up with protesters instead of being used to attack them “because the protesters are working for the interest of the people. When in January 2012, we protested and were able to get the government to cut back the price of fuel, it was not only the protesters that benefited from this but the society at large. Therefore, the police and the military should not allow themselves to be used in quelling any protest because they are also beneficiaries of the fruits of the protests.”
But police authorities have always claimed that they use firearms because protesters and rioters almost always go violent against the police, adding that they would be at the mercy of the protesters if they are not armed.
Alawiye, in his reaction to the claim, said “the police are meant primarily to protect lives and properties, not to kill. They cannot hide behind the finger of the possibility of being attacked to kill defenceless people. While not conceding that the police killed the four Nasarawa students that were killed in the mayhem of last week, what kind of weapons could the students be carrying that would warrant live ammunitions being used against them? The police and other security operatives should desist from using live ammunitions against protesters. If at all they will carry arms, it should be arms with rubber bullets.”