Opinion: Clampdown on protesters and the regression of democracy
By Ayo Olukotun
“They (the police) attacked me when they saw me filming them, as they were assaulting the STV reporter, Amadin Uyi; they took my camera and dragged me on the ground” –Silverbird TV journalist, Femi Togun
A volley of condemnations from a wide swathe of civil society actors, the Senate and the Nigeria Labour Congress, has greeted the brutalisation, by the police of the ongoing #ResumeorResign protests.
The demonstrations employing sit-in and peaceful assembly tactics were called by a coalition of civil society organisations, such as Foundation for True Freedom and Leadership, “OurMumuDonDo movement” among others to compel President Muhammadu Buhari to either resign or resume duties. Buhari, it is known, has spent close to 100 days on a marathon medical vacation, at an undisclosed London hospital, although he took care to transmit power to Vice-President Yemi Osinbajo, who has been Acting President since May this year.
Given that opinion is divided on the substance of the demands of the protesters, with the Senate insisting that Buhari has broken no law, the #ResumeorResign protest, at first attracted little attention. Indeed, but for police brutalisation and consequent escalation of the event on Tuesday, it might even have fizzled out in a country where the first order of business for the citizens is to survive the recession.
Last Monday, all went well, and the police even wisely lent their auspices to ensuring that the protests remained peaceful, by escorting the protesters. Tuesday, as the opening quote sourced from traumatised Silverbird TV cameraman, Femi Togun, shows, was a different kettle of fish altogether.
Police deployment far in excess of the small scale gathering seized centre stage as tear gas, and other toxic chemicals were fired at the assembly. Well-known artiste, Charles Oputa aka Charly Boy, one of the arrowheads of the protest, slumped twice, presumably from inhaling an overdose of tear gas. Journalists covering the event were manhandled, with one of them, Amadin Uyi of STV, by his own account, “slapped and dragged on the ground by eight policemen”. (The PUNCH, Wednesday, August 9, 2017).
The police claimed that they acted to prevent hoodlums from hijacking the protest, although it was difficult so far, to justify the substance of the alleged threat perception, especially as no photo clips were provided in support. Besides, as many will recall, national outrage trailed a similar brutalisation by the police in February of a civil society protest, in contrast to the dignified and welcome handling of a pro-Buhari rally ( see, ‘A tale of two protests, The PUNCH, February 17, 2017). The courteous handling of a pro-Buhari rally suggests that the police, if they were so minded, can be civil and friendly; they can also, as Tuesday’s siege on a lawful assembly shows, remind the nation of the jackboot culture of Nigeria’s detestable autocratic past.
It is a matter for concern that the administration is fast building a culture of the forcible suppression of human rights and constitutional liberty, more so as it is now openly victimising journalists in the course of duty. Recall, for example, that The PUNCH State House correspodent, Olalekan Adetayo, was expelled from Aso Rock Villa in April over a story which has proved uncannily accurate, regarding Buhari’s ill-health.
At the heart of democracy is the freedom to generate and sustain competing narratives. However, when a master narrative is created, and all competing ones are suppressed or forced underground, democracy and the public sphere are the poorer for it. In autocratic societies, only one narrative is allowed, namely, that of the political authorities. The recent clampdown on protesters indicates that the administration is increasingly intolerant of opposing views and dissent, however constructive.
There is no justification whatsoever for the reckless assault on the protesters who are merely exercising their rights of free expression and lawful assembly.
The Code of Conduct of the police stipulates that the police will refrain from any action that inflicts pain or suffering on citizens or engage in cruel, degrading or inhuman treatment of any persons. What happened on Tuesday is a far cry from the standard of crowd control or comportment described in the foregoing statement.
The police code is also replicated in various international conventions, to which Nigeria has subscribed. Their behaviour is even more astonishing, given that the organisers of the protests are well-known citizens who are only trying to press home a point of view.
Before pursuing the matter further, this writer craves the readers’ indulgence to digress in order to enter a short take.
The passing, earlier this week, of Abulduraufu Mustapha, Professor of African Politics at the University of Oxford, England, sadly diminishes the already badly depleted ranks of radical scholars in the Nigerian academic firmament. Mustapha cut his academic milk teeth as a member of the critical political economy school, which flourished at the Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria in the 1980s. As known, that vibrant school featured the likes of Yolamu Barongo, Bala Usman, Patrick Wilmoth, Yusuf Bangura, Adebayo Olukoshi and Bjorn Beckman. After his Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees and a stint as a junior member of the faculty in Zaria, Mustapha proceeded to Oxford, where he earned his doctorate and stayed on to become a professor at the Department of Government. Mustapha made interesting contributions to the politics of rural society and to identity politics, ethnicity and religion. An editorial board member of the refreshingly critical journal, Review of African Political Economy, Mustapha will be remembered for lasting contributions to, and reformulations of orthodox African politics. His scholarship and perspectives obviously gained impetus from the collaboration of his wife, Kate Meagher, who established a firm identity in development studies, especially in such areas as the informal economy, cross-border trade, and non-state governance. Introverted and soft-spoken, Mustapha wore his learning lightly and was quite easy to get along with, exuding as he did, an affable mien. Coming so soon after the passing of another political scientist of the critical tradition, Prof. Abubakar Momoh, Mustapha’s loss to cancer constitutes a devastating blow to the efforts to rethink received concepts in the study of African states and societies.
To go back to the discourse on official clampdown on protesters, it is important to note that what stands out is not whether the agitators are right or wrong, but the fact that we ought to build a system in which the rights of all to air their points of view are maintained and sustained. Our current democracy was fought for long and hard, it will be a tragic pity if we are to lose it through intimidation or official high-handedness and forcible suppression of free expression.
It was bad enough that the current medical conundrum at the highest level of government, though avoidable, was foisted on the Nigerian people by a political class that opportunistically refused to see beyond winning the next election. To now insist that everyone must toe the line of complacency or garrisoned silence in the face of the mess created by the same politicians is to turn political folly into a long running nightmare.
Apologies must be tendered for the show of shame of Tuesday and the nation’s fearful descent to autocracy must be reversed. Punch