YNaija Editorial: What happened to the right to peaceful protest?

On Saturday, the security forces were at it again.

Peaceful protesters, under the joint action force, had gathered to officially mourn the lives that were lost during the #OccupyNigeria rallies. Many of those lives were lost following police brutality across the country from Lagos to Kano.

Unfortunately, without any justification, policemen not only obstructed the peaceful protests but also proceeded to be violent with the protesters including Gani Fawehinmi’s son, Mohammed who came in a his wheelchair to join the mourners demanding good governance in Nigeria.

This is worrisome. It is worrisome in itself and even more so because it has become a trend.

In January, after weeks of a media offensive and persuasion failed, many Nigerians watched in shock as President Goodluck Jonathan, who has prided himself on opening democratic spaces, closed them in visible panic by unleashing soldiers on Lagos to keep Nigerians from exercising their constitutional right to associate freely. Soldiers began to harass people who were seen as supporting the movement against fuel subsidy removal and for responsible governance, and didn’t leave for one week until all protests were quelled.

There was a case to be made, not that the government actually made it, that the administration panicked over the possibility of violent outbreak after a sustained historic 7-day protest, but since when did the ambiguous threat of violence supersede the legally binding tenets of a democratic society?

A subsequent rally in Lagos that had as participants eminent Nigerians including 80-year Prof Ben Nwabueze and Dr. Tunji Braithwaite amongst was also summarily dismissed with gunshots and teargas, in a sad and saddening reminder of what Nigerians faced under the government of General Sani Abacha.

Emboldened it appears by the successes of these military occupations, the government appears to have found the recourse to preventing citizens from public dissent a path to follow. We cannot say enough of our disappointment at this lazy option to governance. There is even the strong stench of hypocrisy as Nigerians distinctly remember that the president allowed widespread protests two years ago when they were to terminate in his being sworn in as president.

Is the president now afraid of his own citizens? Is the government so unsure of its standing with its citizens and so paranoid about the relative opposition to its unpopular policies that it has decided it must crush opposition whenever and wherever it sees it – even where 80-years old gather?

There are those close to power, godfathers and fixers, who have certainly recommended this tried-and-tested formula for breaking the will of the people. It is entirely possible that they have advised the president that this is the only language dissent understands. Unfortunately, theirs is a case of near-sightedness – as this will surely backfire.

It is not for lack of access to national security apparatuses that other leaders in democratic societies do not use violence against their people – it is because the whole idea of democracy forbids it. Leaders in a democracy should inspire followership, should easily win the hearts and minds of the people; should be able to sell their agenda for popular acceptance.

Resorting to violence when this does not work is not a sign of a strong leader; it is in fact a disappointing show of weakness. It is the absence of confidence in one’s own ability to lead – it is the absence of creativity and imagination in managing one’s citizens. It is ultimately the sign of a leader who cannot trust his own strength of character.

Unfortunately, the issues arising from this chain of events go beyond the personality of Dr. Jonathan. This is about a democracy and human rights that Nigerians died for across the country. It is a hard won democracy.

Therefore, this new trend of suppression of dissent is not something Nigerians can take lightly. It is an even more dangerous series of actions than the ill-advised removal of fuel subsidy.

We cannot afford a president whose seeming insecurities obscure his larger sworn duty to protect the constitution, which guarantees the right to peaceful protest. In any way or under any excuse, in a constitutional democracy, it is unacceptable.

 

 

 

 

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