Democracy – Protest = Police State

A fundamental vestige of dictatorship is the existence of a largely untrained and grossly undisciplined armed operatives belonging to a dysfunctional policing institution whose operatives formed the dominant segment of the tools deployed by absolute dictators to unleash violence on a larger scale on the civil society.

For many decades that military dictatorship existed in Nigeria before the transition to civilian rule in 1999, the Nigerian police force was progressively destroyed by the powers-that- be who had consistently relied on the police operatives as agents of coercion and attack targeted at the civilian populace that resented any unpopular policy imposed on them by the dictators.

For the better part of the Generals Buhari, Babangida and Abacha years of military dictatorship from the early 1980's to late 1990's, the remnants of what are left in the progressively destroyed policing institution, joined their colleagues in arms in the armed forces of Nigeria to stifle popular protests and civil disobedience activities used as potent tools by democratic forces to oppose military tyranny.

Among the notorious military regimes, those of Generals Babangida and Buhari were known to have frontally confronted press freedoms which are necessary for any successful protest by the civilian populations to take place.

It is on record that these two notorious dictators listed above also rolled out series of draconian decrees to emasculate fundamental freedoms including right to free protests.

Several pro-democracy campaigners who dared them were sent to various terms of confinements in the largely dysfunctional prisons and other detention centers. The late Chief Gani Fawehinmi (SAN); Chief Femi Falana (SAN); Chief Olisa Agbakaoba (SAN) Comrade Shehu Sani were some of those who were brutally dealt with by these military despots for daring to stage one form of protests or the other against dictatorship.

But the suppression of press freedoms and other essential democratic rights by the then military rulers did not stop popular discontents and formations of platforms that championed the restoration of civil rule.

Going through several literatures on how press freedoms and rights to peaceful assembly were curtailed by the military, the historical record in seems attractive.

On the suppression of press freedom, the writers who did a piece titled: “Press and military Rule in Nigeria”stated thus; “To show that every paraphernalia of military dictatorship is involved in the oppression of the press, the Nigerian Army as an institution warned journalists, on the 4th of May 1990 that it would ruthlessly deal with any media house that publishes news items which intentionally or unintentionally embarrasses or seem to embarrass the military or members of their family, relations and friends.”

The writers of this website also noted that overall, the members of the press were arrested, detained or killed for exposing corruption, nepotism, insincerity and brutality of the military as typified by General Ibrahim B. Babangida's junta.

"Apart from caging the press by way of denying the press freedom, government licensing of the electronic media, that is, Radio and television services was a very strong control mechanism, considering the potency of both media in mass education and mobilization among Nigerians; majority of whom are illiterates and rural dwellers. Hence, for a long time and indeed throughout the military era in review, only government owned the electronic media. The workers of such outfits were usually turned into propaganda machine often against the dictates of their conscience with demotion, stagnation and outright termination of appointments as the price for choosing to uphold your conscience and ethics of the profession. A case of he who pays the piper dictates the 'dance' not only the 'tune.'", they further stated.

Sadly, the civilian government officials that benefitted from the sacrifices of organizers of popular protests that chased out military rulers since 1999 have also demonstrated their dislike for popular protests.

From 1999 to 2007, Chief Olusegun Obasanjo who as military dictator in the late 1970's was responsible for the military attacks against popular dissents such as the overrunning of the late Fela Anikulapo Kuti's shrine in Lagos, also used the police and other members of the armed forces to suppress popular protests.

But a major irony of the hatred against protesters by the civilian politicians is what has being happening with the current president Goodluck Jonathan's regime which largely gained legitimacy when ordinary Nigerians protested against the failure of his then boss (Late Umaru Musa Yar'adua) to hand over to him to a act while he (Yar'adua) was away on medical grounds.

It therefore follows that it is in the self enlightened interest of the President Jonathan's government that he must check the excesses of the Inspector General of police and the state commissioners of police who have lately unleashed a reign of brutality and physical torture against innocent protesters some of whom are only voicing their dissents against rising cases of official corruption and economic crimes in Nigeria.

It is incomprehensible that under a democratic government that actually gained popular legitimacy and support by protesters on the streets of major towns and cities, that the police can now turn a new dictatorial colour to fight protesters.

Some scholars have through their extensive research discovered some of the bases for the current fear of peaceful protests and assembly by the citizens as demonstrated by the Nigerian police that have angrily broken peaceful protests by Nigerians using military might and brutal force.

Brian Martin who wrote a beautiful piece titled “Protest in a liberal democracy”, that was published in philosophy and social Action, volume 20, Number 1-2 of January – June 1994, pages 13 – 24, said the fear of the unknown and indeed the resolve to maintain status quo is at the core of the hatred shown by armed security operatives against peaceful protesters.

His words: “Challenging the status quo is a difficult business. Dominant groups have various ways to limit the effectiveness of challengers, including promoting a narrow conception of 'acceptable protest,' channelling dissent into appeals to the government and, if necessary, using repression. The very idea of 'protest' should be considered suspect because it diverts attention away from the routine activities of powerful groups.”

Brian argued that in the minds of the powers-that-be, the idea of 'protest' typically evokes images of a dissident minority taking a public stand, as in rallies against particular wars or blockades against logging of a rainforest. Protest is usually associated with groups that are outside the mainstream, that lack inside connections with the wielders of power, he said.

Protest according to Brian, is often 'against' something or other, an attempt to stop a policy or practice which would otherwise go ahead unquestioned.

His words: "To many people, protesters have a bad image: the rabble in the streets. Although the vast majority of protest activity in liberal democracies is nonviolent in reality and intent, an aura of actual or potential violence commonly accompanies media presentations and popular perceptions of protest. These images are part of an overall view which balances the 'right to protest' against a need for 'law and order.'

In his intellectual assessment, Brian stated that the conventional presentation of protest by the media, by government and by academics (cf. Gamson, 1975; Mauss, 1975) focuses on political activity by a particular segment of the population.

"Protest activity is assumed to be problematical, whereas other political processes are taken as less so. To gain a wider perspective on what is normally called protest, it is useful to step back and take a look at the whole political system", he argued.

On how the powers that be limits and controls protests, he wrote; “Defining protest in a narrow fashion is one way to ensure that it poses no threat to established institutions and social relations. Debates about protest are relevant here. Is civil disobedience ever justified? Must civil disobedience be nonviolent? Do disobedients have a responsibility to accept punishment according to the law? Can the liberal state survive in the face of widespread challenges to its legal authority? These are the sorts of questions that exercise political philosophers.”

In his 748 page scholarly book titled; “Protest and freedom: uprising as a universal religion”, Shehu Sani, the renowned Nigerian civil rights activist, stated the obvious when he averred that peaceful protests are imperative for the sustenance of civil rule and necessary for viable democracy. He thus provided intellectual responses to the posers posed by Brian Martins aforementioned.

His words: “The protection of freedoms that facilitate peaceful dissent has become a hallmark of free and open societies.”

With the above facts in mind, it is inconceivable therefore to note that apart from the operatives of the Nigerian police Force that have done everything to oppress peaceful protests, the members of the senate of the Federal Republic are on a suicide journey to pass a legislation that promulgates 7 years jail term for critics who make use of social media to mobilize peaceful protests. This piece of legislation is said to be at the final stage of passage.

The Senate President and the hierarchy of the legislature must stop forthwith any attempt covert or overt that seeks to undermine civil protests and civil dissents because freedom of speech is the bedrock of democracy. Nigerians must collectively say no to this bad piece of legislation targeted against freedom of speech in be it through the instrumentality of the mass media or the social media.

How can the same National Assembly that passed the Freedom of Information be the same persons that seek to deny these fundamental human rights through the passage of this draconian anti-free speech legislation? Wonders indeed shall never end with Nigerian politicians.


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Articles by Emmanuel Onwubiko