HUMAN rights lawyer Inibehe Effiong has said security operatives are not constitutionally empowered to disrupt protests in Nigeria.
He said this while speaking as a panelist at the Civic Space Guard Conference organised by the Wole Soyinka Centre for Investigative Journalism (WSCIJ) in Abuja on Thursday.
“The police, the military does not have the power to prevent, interrupt or to disrupt protests under the toga of national security, under the pretext of intelligence reports,” he said.
The conversation revolved around civic spaces in Nigeria. Other panelists include the Lagos State Police Public Relations Officer (PPRO) Benjamin Hundeyin and Executive Director, Spaces for Change Victoria Ibezim-Ohaeri.
Journalist with The Nation Newspaper Olukunle Akinrinade and brutality survivor and entertainer Debo Adebayo (Mr Macaroni) were also in attendance. Bukola Samuel-Wemimo served as the moderator.
Most panelists bemoaned the shrinking of civic spaces in the country. Ibezim-Ohaeri attributed the development to the Nigerian government copying bad practices from other countries.
She also noted that most suppression cases were attacks on press freedom, adding that journalists were targeted due to the media’s vast audience.
“The civic space all over the world is shrinking. One thing that you will notice is that there is a lot of copy and paste of bad practices happening all over the world,” she said.
Ibezim-Ohaeri also noted that governments were thirsty for more power and as a result are hiding behind the façade of national interests to clamp down on freedom of expression.
“This mantra that they call national security or national interest, it is the most popular that is used to justify crackdown on the civic space. Once they put anything under that mantra of security, whatever – no matter how legitimate – they can suppress it,” she said.
Referring to the #EndSARS protests, she added, “What is happening in the country is that anything can be stretched to rope security dynamics into it. Look at the #EndSARS. The protesters were charged with terrorism financing. That is another way of overstretching issues that have nothing to do with security and roping it in,” she said.
Adebayo had also noted that the civic space was shrinking despite Nigeria being a democracy.
“Nothing has changed because we do not enjoy our basic human rights. There are fundamental human rights that the current government – not just this one, the ones that have been there before – continually step on,” he said.
Also referring to the #EndSARS protests of 2020, Adebayo said the government had violated the rights of several Nigerians.
But Hundeyin disagreed, saying that while the civic space in Nigeria had opened up after military rule, it was probably not free enough.
“I believe it has opened more than it used to be. A time there was, this place would have been invaded by the SSS. I’m not bringing up fiction, this used to happen. Even if it wasn’t invaded, by the time you are going out, people would be picked up,” he said.
He also noted that only a tiny percentage of officers abuse power and engage in police brutality, but it seemed to be magnified due to the large population of policemen in the country.
Hundeyin also said that protests were often dispersed by police officers acting on reliable intelligence that they could be hijacked.
However Effiong disagreed, saying that disrupting peaceful protests was above the constitutional rights of the police.
Effiong noted that Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari protested in 2007 after his then political party, the All Nigerian Peoples Party (ANPP) lost the 2003 presidential election, claiming it was rigged.
“Then Buhari believed in the right to protest. They were attacked. Mr. Femi Falana represented Buhari pro bono in court and the court declared that Nigerians do not require the permit of the police to protest under any circumstance. You do not need the consent of anybody to protest,” he said.
He said rather than dispersing protests based on attacks by hoodlums, the role of the police was to ensure that such attacks do not occur.
Speaking on the clampdown on free speech by governments and security agencies, Akinrinade urged journalists not to relent in doing their jobs while protecting the sanctity of the civic space.
Effiong also noted that journalists should not be afraid of threats of frivolous court charges by the government and urged heads of media organisations to sue government institutions when their employees are harassed.