Punch Editorial Board
Public protests erupted in Abuja and Lagos on Tuesday over the non-release of Omoyele Sowore and Olawale Bakare by the Federal Government in flagrant disobedience of a court order. The protesters had gone to the headquarters of the State Security Service in the Federal Capital Territory to demand their release. But the bullies, in whose custody they have been since August 3, dispersed them with tear gas, pepper spray and sporadic shootings in the air. Many people, including journalists who covered the event, were injured in the ensuing melee.
A democratic society gradually descends into rule of power when the system to ensure that the law is upheld by and enforced against both ordinary people and the government is under assault. And this is exactly what the Buhari government epitomises. Since he assumed office, President Muhammadu Buhari has regained his military era notoriety for intolerance by assaulting democratic values on multiple fronts, especially freedom of expression and the rule of law. His contemptuous attitude towards the judicial arm of government is especially disconcerting. There appears to be a creeping fascist tendency that is capable of shrinking the democratic space.
Sowore, charged on counts bordering on treasonable felony and money laundering, was granted bail by an Abuja Federal High Court on October 4. One of the conditions required that one of his sureties deposit N50 million; but his lawyer, Femi Falana, objected, citing a Court of Appeal ruling on its excessiveness. The varied bail conditions have since been met.
Yet, the SSS would not set the detained journalists free. It is a brazen act of impunity that has also kept many other Nigerians in solitary confinement illegally for years, to the detriment of their health, personal wellbeing and those of their family members. The victims include a former National Security Adviser, Sambo Dasuki; leader of Islamic Movement of Nigeria, Ibrahim El-Zakzaky, and his wife, Zeenah, who have been in detention since December 2015. According to Falana, a Senior Advocate of Nigeria, there are 40 other Nigerians unlawfully being detained by the Nigerian Navy. These citizens’ human rights being breached by the government are a clear violation of the 1999 Constitution, which Buhari swore to uphold.
Within and outside the country’s shores, concerns are being expressed. The SSS appears not to appreciate the opprobrium or image crisis its disregard for court judgements has created for Nigeria in the international community. Sowore’s comrades had earlier gone for his release only to be rebuffed for some laughable reasons. But, as the Nobel laureate, Wole Soyinka, put it, “the weaponry of lies” having exploded in their faces, they resorted to violence.
Soyinka excoriated the government and its agencies for their anti-democratic posture, stressing that they had crossed “even the most permissive threshold.” On Sowore’s continued incarceration, despite fulfilling his bail terms, the playwright said, “Such a development is not only callous and inhuman, it is criminal. It escalates an already untenable defiance by the state.” Therefore, he rallied civil society organisations to press the campaign to purge the Buhari government of this evil.
The United States Department of State 2018 Human Rights Report on Nigeria had expressed similar worry, with its observation that detainees were denied due process and subjected to arbitrary and indefinite detention in conditions that remained harsh and life-threatening. Amnesty International records are not different either.
Buhari’s penchant for riding roughshod over basic freedoms has yielded fatal encounters between protesters and security agencies on the streets of Abuja, Zaria and Lagos. These are avoidable deaths. Hundreds of El-Zakzaky’s followers are languishing in detention. For instance, during the Shi’ites invasion of the National Assembly in July which turned violent, the service gun of one of the police officers at the gate was snatched and used to shoot two officers; 40 suspects were arrested and 38 arraigned before a Magistrates’ Court. Before El-Zakzaky and wife were finally allowed to travel to India in August, the SSS had bandied about the sophistry that he was “being kept under protective custody.”
In any democracy, the law rules. World Justice Project says the principles of the rule of law are anchored on accountability, just laws, open government and accessible/impartial dispute resolution. Sadly, this government has observed most of these values in the breach. There is hardly any constraint on the Buhari government in exercising executive powers as the judiciary has almost been cowed to submission.
But there is no functional democracy where an individual, group or institution is above the law. This is a canon the United Kingdom and other western democracies, which Nigeria purports to emulate, periodically demonstrate. The UK Supreme Court, for instance, ruled in May, “It is ultimately for the courts, not the legislature, to determine the limits set by the rule of law to the power to exclude review.” A recent judgement by the same court declared as unlawful Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s prorogation of the House of Commons, just as it affirmed that the PM and government were accountable to the parliament. Johnson complied with it despite his discomfort with the judgement. That is the primacy of the rule of law in a democracy.
Similarly, in the United States, where President Donald Trump has tried to usurp some powers, the court has stopped him in his strides. A federal judge in Portland, Oregon banned his health care policy, which denied immigrants without health insurance within 30 days of entering and proof of ability to pay their medical bill from getting the country’s visa. Seven US citizens and non-profit organisations were the litigants in the case.
Sowore and all other citizens in illegal detention should be released. This democracy is greater than any elected official and must be guarded jealously by all. Buhari should, therefore, not be allowed to take Nigeria back or bestraddle the polity with the fangs of a dictator as he did in 1984/85 when he was a military head of state. Protest or the right of dissent is fundamental to democratic governance; it should not be abridged. The authorities here have huge lessons to learn from the reactions of governments to pro-independence advocates in Quebec, Canada and Scotland in the UK. They have not been clamped into detention. Even when such devotees are embroiled with the law, the court’s decision on it should be inviolable. This separates democracy from other forms of government, especially dictatorship.