Harsh reactions have continued to trail the indiscriminate arrest, persecution and harassment of Nigerians perceived as organisers of the recent #EndSARS protest. Already, some members of the panels set up to find a lasting solution to Police brutality, lawyers, rights activists and members of civil society have described the move as unnecessary, unethical, hypocritical and an action alien to the Nigerian constitution and capable of derailing the activities of the panels.
They also held that government’s paradoxical attitude to the issue was an indication of its insincerity to citizens.
Recall that Nigerian youths had engaged in peaceful protests across most states of the federation to draw government’s attention to cases of police brutality and extra-judicial killings. The peaceful protest was later hijacked by hoodlums, who unleashed mayhem, leading to the destruction of lives and properties, including the death of Police officers and burning of Police stations.
The protest was brought to an abrupt end by the shooting of unarmed protesters at the Lekki Toll Gate in Lagos on October 20.
Consequently, the Federal Government directed states to set up judicial panels of enquiry to receive petitions from alleged victims of Police brutality and issues leading to the shooting and arsons that occurred in most states.
Unfortunately, while the panel is still meeting and some state have barely constituted the panel, government, through its agencies and persons perceived to be acting on its behalf, came down on some protesters by freezing their bank accounts, arresting and detaining them and even infringing on their freedom of movement.
To Lagos-based lawyer, Jiti Ogunye, the move “is reckless, unwarranted and indeed unlawful, because we have we’ve not been told the specific offence the organisers of #EndSARS protest have committed. There was a general agreement on all sides- government, organisers of the protest and the general public- that the protest was peaceful, but at a particular point, hoodlums and some other persons hijacked or infiltrated the protest and started causing damage.
“Nobody will argue that those engaged in the heinous crimes, such as arson, destruction of properties, looting, stealing and killing of people, including law enforcement officers, stealing or snatching of weapons (arms) from Police stations, should be prosecuted if they are known. Nobody will argue against that.
“Things happened in Lagos and other parts of the country. An iconic court building was burnt to ashes, court documents were destroyed irretrievably and people generally suffered losses. If and when those who embarked on the massive destruction of government and private properties are identified, they ought and should be prosecuted and brought to justice.
“But for the #EndSARS protest organisers, whose bank accounts have been targeted and frozen, the question to ask is, ‘What offence have they committed?”
He argued: “To the best of my knowledge, there is no offence that is known to the law that prohibits using your money to participate in or organise a protest that everybody saw and said was peaceful. It is not a criminal offence to use bank accounts owned by organisers of the protest that warrant it to be frozen. It is not being suggested by the government, at least no evidence of that has been brought forward.
“It has not been proven that these accounts were used or being used for illegal or unlawful acts or that they received in recent times, monies for terrorism or illicit money, such as drug or human trafficking that would warrant they’re being frozen.
“The mere fact that the accounts were used to generate money and receive donations to organise a protest, and let us break it down, to hire musicians or loudspeakers, cook food, bring people from one point to another by transporting them, provide vests and T-shirts and all that, is not for an illegal purpose. The money was not used to acquire weapons or firearms. So, there is no lawful basis for the government to act in the way it has acted.”
He recalled that some Nigerians in the United Arab Emirate (UAE) were arrested and sentenced by a lower court, which was confirmed by an appellate court in that country for wiring thousand dollars to terrorists in Nigeria, saying, “The #EndSARS protesters are not being accused, so there can be no basis for what the government has done.
“What the government has done basically was to look at their accounts to say, ‘let’s punish them, let’s have a witch-hunt there; let’s persecute them for having the effrontery to use their own resources or those generated by them lawfully to support or organise a protest.’
“In any case, I would be surprised if all the money in these accounts were monies meant for protest. Don’t forget that these accounts are personal accounts and that of an organisation(s). The #EndSARS movement, to the best of my knowledge, has no such money.
“Nigerians are aware that it was only when a protest has gathered momentum and after the Lekki shooting incident that the organisers began to talk about how to have a structure and formal organisation. There is a right to the association under the law. As far as we know, there has not been any registered #EndSARS organisation with the Corporate Affairs Commission (CAC). Otherwise, it would have been deregistered.
So what government has done or is doing is devoid of legality.”
A member of the Enugu State panel, Osmond Ugwu, decried subtle moves to harass and prosecute leaders of the protest, saying such action could threaten the peace envisaged in setting up of panels across the country.
He stated that the country might not gain from the move by any individual under whatever guise to call to account, those that organised the civil disobedience, insisting rather that efforts should be made to address outcomes inherent in the exercise.
Ugwu cautioned that prosecuting the leaders of the protest could impede the activities of the panels across the country, as well as trigger off more crises.
“Developments following the inauguration of the panel by various states are not encouraging in any way and portend serious threats to the envisaged peace that will accompany the objective implementation of the #ENDSSRS demands.
“Just few weeks after the inauguration of the panels by various states, in compliance with a resolution of National Economic Council (NEC), which, was one of the conditions for the suspension or end or call off of the #EndSARS protest, the Federal Government turned around and started hunting or prosecution the key players in that civic engagement exercise by taking steps to strangulate the individuals and group members of the movement.”
“As that is happening, freedom of movement of some of the members are being restricted by the seizure of their travelling documents.
“As if these are not enough, an orchestrated criminal action is being brought against many of the key leaders of the protest.”
He added: “Even though it is reported that the court action is being filed by a private citizen in the guise of activism, it is the opinion of many that the so-called activist is being used as machinery by the Federal Government to file action as a way of intimidating and cowing down the spirit of those people and their supporters and to discourage them from future activities of that nature.
“The role of the so-called complainant/activist in this case against the leaders of the #ENDSARS protest is akin to those that came under the jab of human right organisations to bring action against the organised Labour during the struggle against the increase in the price of petroleum products and electricity tariff.
“The Federal Government should know that consequences of these actions are so enormous and are capable of triggering off serious social crises that may have the potential of disrupting the peace process and mechanisms for the consolidation of the peace process, like the judicial panels.
“Taking into consideration that the matter touches heavily on the interest and sensibility of a volatile class, like the youth, the government should focus on measures that will effectively improve on the quality of governance and welfare of the masses, as well as improve on the functioning of social institutions and operations of the actors in the corridors of power, thereby instilling strong confidence on Nigeria youths and the masses at large.”
Secretary of the panel in Imo State, Isaac Oguzie, advised that such move if actualised, could be an “exercise in futility.”
He told The Guardian, yesterday in Owerri, that such would not deter the Justice Florence Duroha-Igwe panel from sitting, in line with its terms of reference, disclosing that it had received 52 petitions by Thursday.
He said no court of competent jurisdiction would undermine the panels and entertain such matters, adding: “Nobody is pronounced guilty until found guilty by the court of competent jurisdiction. The court knows that the panels are sitting. I don’t think any court will entertain such a case.
“That thing will be an exercise in futility. In Imo State, we are not disturbed; we are sitting.”
Meanwhile, some legal practitioners have flayed the government for its show of insincerity in the entire process. One of them, based in Abuja, Mr. Daniel D. Makolo, said government’s action has raised suspicion that it was behind or in support of Police brutality and as such, it was not comfortable with the way and manner the youth exposed their actions.
“I said so because I don’t see any reason the protesters should be chased around while those found fueling attack on protesters is not investigated. We watched how men in SUVs brought armed boys to disrupt peaceful protests, but the authority did not see that.
“If I have my way, I will urge the youth to continue with their agitations. Older people like us are willing to join them and contribute money to them.”
Makolo insisted that the protesters did not break any law by their peaceful protests, insisting: “They only complained about the killings, and everybody supported them because we have all been victims of Police brutality one way or the other unfairly.
“The Nigerian Police don’t care about going to the court to obtain an order, and these protesters have just drawn the government’s attention to the fact that the country is going down. All over the world, people commended the organisers of the protest. It will be unfortunate and unpardonable for the government to continue the way it is going.
“I cannot find anywhere they have committed any offence in the law book. It is only in a crude system that such a thing can happen, not in a civilised democratic system, where it is an aberration; it is an anomaly if the truth is to being said.”
He also described as unfortunate, the prosecution of about 48 protesters at the Abuja Magistrate Court, saying: “I don’t know the kind of lawyer that helped him (Plaintiff) in drafting that charge. It is unethical, unprofessional and wrong. It is even wrong for a lawyer to put his name to it.
“It is unknown to law or our jurisprudence that you sit down and arrest people on the ground of speculations that they led the #EndSARS protests.
“Of the multitude that participated in the protests, you singled them out because they are prominent. It will amount to malicious prosecution because that case cannot stand our jurisprudence, all things being equal.”
Makolo, however, regretted that with the kind of candidate jurisprudence practised in Nigeria, anything could pass through the back door.
In his reaction, Festus Ogwuche condemned the Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN) for meddling in Nigerian politics rather than addressing the financial crises confronting the country.
He queried CBN’s freezing of bank accounts of 20 alleged protesters through a court order, wondering if the protesters were charged for money laundering.
“Is the money frozen proceeds of crime or terrorism? Of course, they are not! They did not fall within these categories. So, why should a court of competence grant such order in a most dubious manner?
“I think it is the court that should be blamed and they have to wake up to reality because the world is watching.”
He maintained that the only recourse to those people being victimised is to challenge the order in court, querying: “Why to single them out; the killings were unconnected with the #EndSARS protests.”
Ogwuche stressed that not only is peaceful protest enshrined in the constitution, but it is also equally guaranteed by other international conventions of which Nigeria is a signatory, including the African Chatter, the Covenant of Civil and Political Rights, the Covenant of Economic, Civil and Social Right, as well the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
On the likely outcome of the panels’ sittings, he said the ‘tailored’ panels are not interested in the killing of innocent Nigerians involved in the peaceful protest.
“Lagos State Governor Babajide Sanwo-Olu has gone to President Muhammadu Buhari to give a report of restructuring of properties; human lives and those hacked down in Lekki had little or no emphases. The Inspector-General of Police, Adamu Mohammed, has asked his officers to defend themselves without putting words to how they should treat human beings in the most humane manner.”
He, therefore, called on the government to retrace its step to forestall the emergence of more serious protests in the near future.
Executive Director of Access to Justice, Joseph Otteh, condemned the hounding of alleged leaders of the protest, describing it as “dishonest, unfortunate and a slap in the face of democracy and justice.”
He lamented the fact that the CBN allowed itself to be used by the government for nefarious purposes, saying power belongs to the people and not representatives elected to serve the people.
Otteh stated: “It’s unfortunate when you realise that a democratic government is criminalising the expression of free speech. The effort at prosecuting #EndSARS protesters will undermine the way people, particularly young people, will come to evaluate the government’s sincerity about reform when it called for an end to the protests.
“The reprisals, in the form of prosecutions, probably give a better reflection of the authentic feeling of the government towards the protests, not the compromise it negotiated under ‘duress.’
“Now the knives are out. The CBN order freezing accounts of persons associated with the #EndSARS being one of the first, but provocative shots fired.
“The Police also say it won’t allow any further protests, which is another form of this repression in an indignant rebuff of court judgments affirming that people have the constitutional rights to organise and express themselves.
“When agencies of the executive branch of government begin to look at courts in the eye and say, ‘we will disobey your judgments,’ that should create some panic among us.
“But Nigeria belongs to the people, and not the government. The constitution says sovereignty belongs to the people, from whom government derives its powers. What is unfortunate is that the government is inverting that constitutional proposition to make it read that sovereignty belongs to the government through whom the people are ruled.”
To Executive Director of Socio-Economic Rights and Accountability Project (SERAP), Mumuni Adetokunbo: “Nigerians have a right to peacefully demonstrate and express whatever they feel is their grievance in a lawful and non-provocative manner.
“However, Nigerians do not have a right in an attempt to say they are dissatisfied to start destroying or demolishing properties. So, if the government thinks any Nigerian has committed an offence known to Nigerian law, it should be ready to prosecute such Nigerian(s) with legally admissible evidence, promptly and effectively. To say you want to prosecute them and then detain them endlessly will not be in line with democratic principles.
“Government says it is addressing the issues raised during the protests, but when crimes are committed, they must be effectively prosecuted. Nobody will allow a state to be turned upside down, because a government that is not able to maintain law and order is a band of armed robbers.”
Rights lawyer and Executive Director of Women Advocates Research and Documentation Centre (WARDC), Dr. Abiola Afolabi-Akiyode, said the constitution supports people’s rights to assemble and peaceful protests, saying government’s action is like taking the country back to the dark days of the military.
‘Government arresting and detaining peaceful protesters, charging them to court, seizing their passports, freezing accounts are acts of intimidation to frustrate the #EndSARS movement.
“Rather than government responding to legitimate issues raised by the youth, it has resorted to arbitrary arrest and prosecution. This might ignite another protest and any government that targets its youthful population and sends youths to prison over protest is bound to be unpopular.”