by Mark Amaza
For the past couple of weeks, the most dominant topic of conversation has been the planned rallies being spearheaded by afro-pop star, Tuface Idibia to protest against the state of affairs in the country, from the economic recession to insecurity, especially with respect to the recent killings in Southern Kaduna.
Protests are not new in Nigeria, especially over the past few years. However, this particular rally planned for the 6th of February is big news not just because of the personality of Tuface, who is the face of the protests, but because it might be to the Buhari administration what the Occupy protests was to the Jonathan administration: a negative turning point in public perception of the administration from which it might never recover.
Naturally, we do not expect that the government and the ruling party will be enthused about the protest, but they have smartly stayed away from making negative comments about it. This is because they seem to understand that protests, as long as they remain peaceful, are a legitimate form of expression in a democracy. Also, many members of the current government were part of protests against the previous administration, from the Occupy protests to the Bring Back Our Girls daily sit-outs.
However, it appears that the Lagos State Police Command has not gotten the memo of protests being a legitimate form of expression in a democracy, with the Police Commissioner Fatai Owoseni saying that he has “advised” the planners of the rally in the state to shelve it.
To drive home his point, he curiously quoted the constitution allowing freedoms of expression and the right to peaceful assembly as not being ultimate and the police having the right to curtail these freedoms if they will affect the freedom of others and public safety.
This is a rather curious interpretation of the constitution by the police commissioner: while the possibility of people with sinister intentions taking advantage of the rallies to carry out evil cannot be ruled out, it is not an excuse for the police to try to stop the entire rallies, especially as there are no specific threats to the rallies.
A more logical expectation for the police and other security agencies, would be for them to provide security to the rallies and ensure that they do not lead to breakdown in law and order. This is how it is done in other climes and what Nigerian security agencies have also done in other similar protests and rallies.
To attempt to cancel entire rallies, however, on the possibility that they could lead to a break in public safety, without any knowledge of specific plots and threats, would be tantamount to saying that there should be no public gatherings of any kind. The implications of this are enormous: it would mean no markets, religious gatherings, cultural festivals, etc. because all of these could attract persons of nefarious character.
It looks as though the police commissioner is too eager to please his bosses in Abuja that he has wandered into the territory of the absurd by his statements. Not only does this taint his name, it also taints the character of the Buhari administration as it could be interpreted that he is doing its bidding in muzzling voices of dissent.
That said, it is important that the Federal Government and all agencies under it state their support for freedom of expression and the right to peaceful assembly as the rallies intend to be, and that security agencies live up to their responsibility by providing the needed security to it.
This is a democracy, and all voices matter, even the ones we do not like.