In a proper democratic setting, there is separation of powers. And that is very important if the rule of law must continue to guide democracy away from authoritarian tendencies in governance. It is the rule of law that fundamentally restricts arbitrary exercise of power by subordinating all authority to established, well-defined laws. And it is against this backdrop that the recent alleged display of raw power by Nigeria’s secret police has obviously created the impression that the country’s fragile democracy is under a serious threat.
That latest bizarre show of power immediately took on a global dimension. Video clips went viral of the state security service allegedly wrestling down Omoleye Sowore and re-arresting him right inside a courtroom even after a high court judge ordered that he be granted bail. Sowore, the publisher of New York-based ‘Sahara Reporters’ and a presidential candidate during this year’s presidential election, was the the convener of the #RevolutionNow protest.
In a swift reaction to the development, American Senator Robert Menedez who is a member of that country’s Senate Committee on Foreign Relations condemned the re-arrest and said it had put a strain on America’s relationship with Nigeria which his country would need to review. In a press conference he jointly addressed with Sowore’s wife, Opeyemi, Senator Mendez said: “We are watching and will be reviewing our relationship with the Nigeria government.” Menedez, a Democratic Party senator representing New Jersey, warned the Nigerian government that any harm that comes to Sowore would attract consequences.
Sowore was released from the Nigeria Secret Police otherwise known as the Department of Security Service (DSS) detention after a court gave a 24-hour ultimatum to release him. The court also awarded N100, 000 costs against the prosecution for failing to comply with a court order requesting the release of Sowore and for not serving the defence counsel with necessary documents early enough. But operatives of the DSS re-arrested Sowore barely 24 hours after his release.
After the resumed hearing, there was a stampede in the courtroom occasioned by DSS operatives who allegedly cocked their guns to scare away the judge, lawyers, journalists and Sowore’s sympathizers before Sowore and his co-defendant Bakare were re-arrested and returned to custody by the DSS.
Menedez described the alleged incident as a “blatant miscarriage of justice” which was “symptomatic of closing political and media space in Nigeria.” The US senator said he would engage directly with Mary Beth Leonard, the US Ambassador in Nigeria to raise Sowore’s case at the highest level of the Nigerian government “so that the Buhari administration gets the message that we are committed to defending Sowore’s rights and securing his release.”
Sowore is not an isolated case. Nnamdi Kanu, leader of the Indigenous People of Biafra (IPOB) had the same experience of being retained in DSS prison after several courts had ordered the DSS to release him on bail. The same goes for retired Colonel Sambo Dasuki, former National Security Adviser of President Jonathan who was accused of diverting funds meant for the purchase of arms for fighting Boko Haram. And then, there is the case of Sheik Ibraheem El Zakzaky, leader of the Islamic Movement of Nigeria who has been in detention since December 2015, a few months after the Buhari government took control. He has been in detention since then, despite the courts ordering that he and his wife be granted bail to at least attend to their ailing health.
It would be an understatement to say many Nigerians were not happy with the way the DSS continued to give the impression to the world that it was above the laws of the land by flagrantly flouting court orders or trying to get around them by some weird argument that only exposed their disregard for the rule of law and the tenets of democratic governance.
The excuse had always been that the alleged culprits were a threat to national security. But the question is: who defines what constitutes national insecurity, the law courts or the DSS? And so, from recent events in the country, it is clear that the DSS has become so self-opinioned that it is actually turning itself into a threat to the rule of law, to democracy and by inference the national security it was established to protect.
The DSS Public Relations Officer (PRO) Dr Peter Afunanya has said categorically that the circulation of the video on the alleged re-arresting of Sowore right inside a courtroom was the handwork of mischief makers, meant to serve as propaganda machine to bring the DSS into disrepute. According to him, Sowore stepped out of the courtroom and sighted operatives of the service within the premises. He ran back into the courtroom. In a bid to shield him from an “imaginary arrest”, his uncontrollable supporters mobbed him as they chanted “you can’t arrest him”. Pandemonium ensued.
Dr. Afunanya said “a critical look at the videos in circulation would convince any objective viewer that there was no DSS personnel during the entire period the crowd of Sowore supporters acted out its orchestrated drama. DSS personnel were never, at any time, involved in the incident. In actual fact, it was his people who seized him.” But the argument doesn’t add up. What could possibly have caused a pandemonium if all the people in the courtroom were on the same side of Sowore? In other words, it is only in a situation of conflict that a pandemonium can take place.
Afunanya said the eventual re-arrest of Sowore was effected outside the courtroom adding that his counsel had affirmed it. This informative contention only confirmed that Sowore’s fear of being re-arrested was not “imaginary” after-all as Dr. Afunanya alleged. It was real. Both Sowore and the crowd that supported him knew that the DSS was up to something cocky. Even looking at the video clip, it will be quite difficult to determine whether or not DSS operatives were there because some of them operate incognito, in mufti dresses.
The irony of this dramatic event, however, was that rather than mitigate the anxiety aggravated by the protest plan, the arrogant attitude of the DSS facilitated the actualization of protests by Sowore #RevolutionNow sympathizers. The DSS practically moved the sympathizers into action. And as usual, the police was there to clash with the protesters.
So many Nigerians were not happy with these and similar developments and expressed their opinions on what they thought was really happening.
In a series of interviews by editors of the Vanguard newspaper edition of 8 December 2019, they debunked the role the security operatives played in the Sowore saga. Chief Akuma, a legal luminary and Senior Advocate of Nigeria (SAN) said that what police did by descending on harmless Nigerians was an infringement of their fundamental rights to freedom of movement. The protest could not have been treasonable as alleged by the police. They only tagged it treasonable in order to find a reason to truncate the protest.
Professor Ojukwu, another legal luminary and Senior Advocate of Nigeria emphasized that the Nigeria police got it all wrong to stop civil protests whether or not they were dubbed revolutionary. The Nigerian constitution and laws guaranteed citizens’ freedom and that included the right to assemble, to protest and express self. The reality, he said, was that anti-democratic forces still controlled the Nigeria police and the police itself was an offshoot of Nigerians steeped in sycophantic amnesia, always trying to please their principals. They must understand that they serve the people. “I have sympathy for the police which has failed woefully to tackle the massive security challenges facing the country. Their energy should be focused on these security challenges. They should not dissipate energy on chasing and harassing law abiding citizens whose only call was for peaceful protests”, he said. Professor Ojukwu said Nigeria’s democracy and governance and in fact the existence of the nation would be challenged if the police was not pulled back from “their journey on a road to nowhere.”
Human Rights lawyer, Femi Aborisade seriously condemned the police attack on unarmed protesters. He said: “I am sad that the exercise of democratic and fundamental right to protest peacefully is being criminalized and protesters are being brutalized in ways that did not happen even under military dictatorship. I am sad because those of us who made modest contributions and sacrifices to terminate military dictatorship did not make such sacrifices only to have the worst form of government, worse than the most vicious military regime. We are not slaves in Nigeria. Those in control of this government must be ready to pay for crimes against humanity at the appropriate time. Sections 37 and 41 of the criminal code that provide for the offences of treason and treasonable felony, respectively, do not categorize peaceful protest as offences. Sections 39, 40 and 41 provide for the right of freedom of expression, right of association and free movement as fundamental rights. This regime must be compelled to resign through peaceful constitutional right. Apart from the right to life, the next most important right is the right to peaceful protest. Criminalizing freedom of peaceful protest is akin to deprivation of life. We reject it.”
Another Lagos-based lawyer, Israel Mbaebie, said the way and manner the Nigerian Police Force descended on unarmed “RevolutionNow” protesters was bereft of any logical reasoning or explanation. For one, the actions of the police must have sent a very wrong signal to the international community that what we had in place in Nigeria under the watch of Gen. Muhammad Buhari was nothing short of a glorified military junta. Section 39 (1) of the 1999 Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria (as amended) provides thus; “Every person shall be entitled to freedom of expression, including freedom to hold opinions and to receive and impart ideas and information without interference.” On the other hand, section 40 of the same Constitution goes further to provide as follows: “Every person shall be entitled to assemble freely and associate with other persons, and in particular he may form or belong to any political party, trade union or any other association for the protection of his interests.”
Barrister Ikenga Imo Ugochinyere, former President of the National Youth Council of Nigeria and Senior Assistant on Youth and Student Matters to Dr. Saraki when Saraki was Senate President had his own experience in 2016. He was detained by the DSS on 25 April of that year on account of a running ‘battle’ with the Minister of Sports, Solomon Dalong. About the latest incident, he said: “What happened was part of Buhari government recklessness. This has had a pattern over the years which is, to hell with the courts, to hell with human rights, to hell with the rule of law. How do you have a President who is elected through a constitutional means and under his watch a court gives a judgment and the DSS constitutes a panel to review whether or not the judge was right in giving that judgment? Nigerians have become cowards and weak people. That is why the people doing these things have kept on doing them every day. It is not all about Sowore. This administration is taking down every institution of government one by one. They took down the parliament. They took down the judiciary. They are about legislating death penalty for hate speeches and an anti social media bill. And now they want to take down human rights. All these are to ensure that they install full-blown dictatorship. I do not want to believe that the Nigerian Bar Association, NBA and the National Judicial Council, NJC, have been compromised. What are they saying? What are they doing?”
But it seemed that not all those who spoke to journalists were in favour of Sowore and those who protested at his instance. One lawyer, Olanrewaju Ajanaku said his take was that Sowore brought the ugly situation upon himself and by extension, on his #RevolutionNow protest followers. He said: “I understand revolution to be an unplanned, spontaneous or instantaneous uproar against a government at any level. I bet that the reason the government descended on the #RevolutionNow protesters was simple. Their leader, Sowore said he would shut down the government and there was an intention between him and his followers where common minds met. Sowore had said earlier that by Monday 5 August 2019, there won’t be any Department of State Security called “DSS’. Everyone knows that Lagos is a volatile state. If the protesters were allowed a field day, the ‘protests’ might get out of hand and spread to other locations which may be difficult to contain. All in all, catastrophe was held in check. You don’t carry your liberty too far. Certain issues can arise that would curtail that liberty temporarily as it has happened.”
What every Nigerian must understand, however, is that there is always a tendency for overzealous workers in government, especially in the various military and paramilitary establishments, to go the extra mile to execute what they consider their responsibility in the defence of their principals, even when the boss has no idea what was happening. That is what Professor Ojukwu calls “Nigerians steeped in sycophantic amnesia, always trying to please their principals.” It happened in Abacha’s regime and even in Buhari’s time as a military head of state. I guess that this is exactly what is happening. These overzealous workers create an aura of fear on the populace and in such a way, they convince themselves they were paving the way for their boss to be regarded as a sacred cow who is somewhat above the law. But this attitude of the agencies is scarcely democratic as it pitches directly against the rule of law. And that is where a Responsible Opposition comes in.
What is the Peoples’ Democratic Party, PDP, doing to ensure that the ruling government is actually working in the interest of the people? It is the responsibility of the shadow government to ensure that the institutions of democracy are respected by government and that government agencies do not constitute themselves into a threat to national security by disrespecting the rule of law which is the heartbeat that propels democracy. Nigeria’s shadow government should live up to its responsibility.