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OPINION: Muzzling Right to Protest: A Threat to Nigerian Democracy, By Oluwarotimi Erukilede

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The repression of protests to mark the first anniversary of an abortive demonstration called by Omoyele Sowore’s RevolutionNow by the Buhari-led administration is a damning indication of the government’s increasing intolerance for critical voices in the country. The intolerance of the President Muhammadu Buhari to peaceful protest is uncalled for as democracy thrives in an atmosphere where divergent opinion is allowed and discussed for the common good of the society.

Protests are part and parcel of democracy which should be managed strategically not by use of force. Muzzling the right to protest in a democratic regime is like wrapping fire in the paper; sooner or later the fire will consume the paper. In Egypt, Mohammed Morsi rose to power on the back of a popular protest to become the democratically elected government in Egypt.

One year afterward, his attempt to repress opposition voices and protests on the streets of Cairo led to the eventual demise of his government. Unlike Morsi, the French President Emmanuel Macron in 2017 during the Green vest protest bowed to the pressure of the protesters engaging them in a debate with the view to finding solutions to their legitimate demands while also dealing with troublemakers.

In sum, protests cannot be de-coupled from a democratic regime just as thunderstorms cannot be de-coupled from rainfall. What is worrisome in Nigeria however is that the current administration is becoming more and more intolerant of opposition and criticism and gradually dragging the country towards becoming a police state?

It is fast becoming the norm cracking down critical stakeholders in the nation’s democratic process by the state security operatives leading to a brutal encroachment on the citizen’s right to freedom of expression which is guaranteed by Nigeria’s grand norm, the 1999 constitution as amended.

Apart from the forceful dispersion of the #RevolutionNow protesters in Osogbo, Lagos and Abuja, the Buhari-led administration has either arrested or invited for questioning a few human rights activists in the recent time. In Katsina, Nastura Ashir Shariff was arrested and moved to Abuja. His crime was that he successfully led a peaceful protest in Katsina against the killings of helpless and defenseless citizens by bandits.

The former Speaker of the House of Representatives, Ghali Umar Na’Abba was invited by the Department of State Services, (DSS) for allegedly making inciting remarks as a guest of a television station and it took the efforts of Coalition of Northern Groups (CNG) and other prominent Nigerians to get him released from the confines of the state security outfit.

The brutal nature by which opposition voices are suppressed give credence to the popular belief and position of international media that the country’s democracy is being replaced by dictatorship. By its continuous attempt to suppress the existence of the right to freedom of expression which includes the freedom to hold opinions and to receive and impart information and ideas without interference by the public authority, President Muhammadu Buhari administration is exposing its failure and weakness which opposition warned Nigerian against in the run-off to the 2015 elections.

President Buhari should be alive to the fact that he once benefitted from such protests in the past. In 2014, President Buhari, along with the National leader of the ruling party, Asiwaju Bola Tinubu, the former Chairman of APC, John Oyegun and a host of other Buhari’s cabinet members protested against the misrule of the government of President Jonathan.

It is high time President Buhari allowed people to freely criticize him to ensure the delivery of the dividends of democracy. If the Jonathan administration brutally clamped down on protests, perhaps, President Buhari would have lost the 2015 general elections. It is saddened that the beneficiaries of the previous administration’s tolerant disposition are denying others the same right they enjoyed.

While protests have largely come from concerned Nigerian media and intelligentsia, it is time well-meaning Nigerians rose and told this administration without mincing words that her disposition towards constructive criticisms and opposition will no longer be tolerated. The government must put an end to the harassment and intimidation of individuals and groups that legitimately criticize government action and policies. The use of state security agencies to impose restrictions on citizens’ fundamental human rights as guaranteed under the constitution is unacceptable.

In sum, for some of us that contributed our bits towards the emergence of this government because of our determination to put a stop to the many infractions of the Jonathan regime, this administration has repaid our loyalty and commitment with treacheries. But all hope is not lost, there is still time for the administration to change course and listen to the critical voice fighting for our common good rather than the naysayers that are only interested in massaging the government’s ego for their pecuniary gains. The government need not wait for mass protests before acting on the issues raised by small-number protests.

Erukilede, is a Legal Practitioner and a Public Affairs Analyst.

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