What I have considered is that the state, through the police, recognises the fact that Nigerians have the right to protest peacefully. And I hope the government will not reverse itself. However, the government is saying “we are clamping down on protesters this time around because they used the word ‘revolution’. But the protest has also been carried out by the Bring-Back-Our-Girls campaigners at the Unity Fountain Abuja because, since the Chibok girls were captured in 2014, that organisation has been protesting daily to remind all of us that Chibok girls, Dapchi girls are still in captivity of terrorists. The government says no, “we don’t want those rallies.” The Shiites were also protesting peacefully to demand compliance with a court order releasing their leader and his wife. The government said no! But now, we are being told that rallies are allowed in Nigeria and they must be peaceful. That’s the first lesson. The second and painful one is that protesters who are not armed, placard-carrying people, are being brutalized. It does not portray us a civilised people and we can avoid that. What the law says, I am talking of the Electoral Act, amended as of March 27, 2015, is that the police shall provide security for protesters. That is the law because we have won the battle against obtaining police permit as a condition for rallies and protests in Nigeria. Incidentally, it was a case we won for General Muhammadu Buhari and other political leaders of the ANPP and about ten other opposition figures some time ago. The point was made that peaceful protests are part and parcel of freedom of expression guaranteed by the Constitution and freedom of assembly and that when they are protesting, the police and other security forces must provide security. That was not what we witnessed yesterday (Monday).
So what do you think informed this kind of situation because before becoming President, just like you mentioned, Buhari was one of those who protested peacefully and there was not any arrest?
No! That is not correct. In 2003, September 22, the ANPP leaders, led by General Muhammadu Buhari and the late Chuba Okadigbo, had a rally in Kano, because there was going to be series of rallies to protest the rigging of the election that year. The Obasanjo regime asked the police to clamp down on the rally. And of course, the police did so, violently and tear-gassed the conveners and participants. In fact, three days later, on Sept 25, 2003, Okadigbo passed on and it was speculated that his death arose from the dose of teargas inhaled by him because he had a respiratory problem. And notwithstanding the fact that there is judicial recognition of the right to protest, on many occasions, the police and military clampdown on Nigerians who are protesting. Last year, there was an incident where about 50 Shiites were killed by security forces in Abuja for protesting and demanding the compliance to a court order.
What do you think is responsible for this situation?
It is the failure to recognise that we are free people. We are being ruled as a conquered people. I have tried to make the point over and over again. Chapter 4 of the Constitution which spells out the fundamental rights of Nigerians cannot be violated or abrogated without a procedure permitted by the same Constitution. Be that the case, if you are going to take the life of any citizen, there must be a trial. Since death penalty is still a part of our law, a person must have been tried, convicted and sentenced. You cannot engage in an extrajudicial killing. If you are going to detain Sowore, you can’t detain him for more than 24 hours in a place like Lagos and not more than 48 hours where you do not have a court within a radius of 40 kilometres. Section 35 of the Constitution says if you are going to detain Sowore beyond 24 hours, you must go and get a court order. If you are going to violate my rights in any way, if you are going to seize my account, passport, you must get a court order. These will show that we are a civilized people. If you have the right information that the “RevolutionNow” was planned to disrupt the peace of the country, and you had the information for about two weeks which is required by the law, it is not a threat to commit treason or you are a terrorist, the police will approach the court.
So, you are saying government erred?
Oh yes, for sure. The police will approach the court and say “this is the information we have”. I have seen some of the papers circulated. No! You cannot engage in a media trial. You put somebody in detention; you are circulating information saying Sowore wanted to overthrow the government, that he has taken money somewhere to overthrow the government. Please charge him. If you have information that Mr Falana wants to cause disruption, go to court; you cannot sit down in your office and conclude that this is a treasonable felony. No! No police, the security officer has the power to make such a declaration. In all of these, you are saying government erred and, of course, the protesters are saying they will continue.
Meanwhile, the Presidency says the revolution has failed, that people should go about doing their businesses. Has the revolution failed?
I wish the government well. But if they are sure that the revolution has failed, or going to fail, why bring out the army, police, to do what? The protesters did not say “we are going to cause such a disruption” as stated, that nobody will move. If you are having a rally at the stadium, not on the street of Lagos, why should any government feel so disturbed? No! You can’t do that. Under President Obasanjo regime, there was a time the Labour Congress was going to go on strike and the government confronted them for mobilizing for the strike across the nation. Then, the government approached a court in Lagos in the dead of the night and got a court order that the strike should not hold. Comrade Adams Oshiomole, the current APC National Chairman, was the President of the Nigeria Labour Congress NLC then; Peter Esele was the President of the Trade Union Congress TUC. They were confronted with the order the following day. One way or the other, the order was served. And so we had a dilemma. The late Chief Gani Fawehinmi and I had to spend 6 hours at the Sheraton Hotels in Lagos to convince the Labour leaders, but they said: “This is a black market injunction”. But they had to obey, because next time their members were arrested, the government will say “you didn’t obey court order”. And that is what the rule of law is all about. They obeyed the order and we said: “give us a week to be back to the drawing board and set aside the order”. And based on that assurance, the strike was postponed and we were able to vacate the order. So, we don’t treat Nigeria as an isolated case. There has been a mass protest in the United States over the shooting of students and we saw how the government handled it including other places with similar cases.
What do you say about the way the government is handling this case now?
Sowore was ‘captured’ on Friday night. I used that word ‘capture’ deliberately because I warned in 2016 when some judges were arrested in the dead of the night: You don’t do it because criminals might take advantage of the people wearing a mask in the dead of the night like officials of government wearing a mask in the dead of the night. Criminals will take advantage and kidnap people and you will be told it is done by the DSS. You must learn to be civilized because it is dangerous not to do so. And in the case of Sowore, Sowore kept them for over an hour because he didn’t know who they were until Sowore got confirmation from DSS office and Sowore obliged.
So, what do you expect to happen?
It is going to be difficult for the government to stop protests. Once, you have not recognised that Nigerians have the right to protest. You are now convinced that there was no revolution yesterday when the protest was violently stopped. I have warned the security forces to stop the embarrassing government, particularly the President who had called the security chiefs to recommend the Egyptian revolution to Nigerians.
Do you say the President is not aware of what is happening?
I am not saying the President is not aware. But I am saying that the President is being challenged with his own involvement in the protest in the past. Nigerians are saying there must be consistency on the part of those who are in government. Some of them were in NADECO. They took part in protests with us. On their part, the last rally the APC leaders organised was on the 19th of November 2014 to protest insecurity in the country. If other Nigerians are protesting against insecurity in any part of Nigeria, you cannot clamp down on them. And that’s what Nigerians are saying, that Mr President should recognise our right as yours was recognised then. I am sure you have looked at this situation objectively.
Is there any justification for what the government is doing right now?
There is no justification. But I also want to assume that in some of these crackdowns, the government has not been exposed to sound legal advice. The last time we had this kind of harassment of Nigerians over the use of the word ‘revolution’ was in 1948 when some young Nigerians formed ‘Zikism Movement’ without Dr Nnamdi Azikiwe after being disturbed that the politics of Nigeria was being ethicized. So, they formed that body saying “we are going to elevate Nigerian politics”. They launched the movement to demand revolution here in Lagos at Glover Hall and the lecture was delivered by Osita Agunna. The Chairman of that programme was the late Chief Tony Enahoro, young people in their 20s and 30s. The second one was held and they were arrested for calling for revolution; charged, convicted and sentenced to imprisonment by the colonial regime for a period ranging from six months to three years. They were not charged with treasonable felony or terrorism. They were only charged with sedition. And seditious publication charge was then under provisions of criminal code which was declared illegal in July 1993 by the Court of Appeal. I am talking about cases decided here in Nigeria. So, you can’t charge anybody with treason for saying “we are going to cause a revolution”. That is part of freedom of expression.