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The security agencies succeeded in stopping what was billed to be a nationwide, massive protest against the President Muhammadu Buhari administration through a crackdown on the protesters and arrest of the leader of the initiative tagged #RevolutionNow, Omoyele Sowore. In this report, Akani Alaka examines why some Nigerians are not happy with the Buhari administration soon after the 2019 general elections, in which Buhari was declared victorious.

It’s doubtful if Omoyele Sowore had anticipated that his call for massive protest against the government of President Muhammadu Buhari over perceived failures to meet expectations of Nigerians will end up with him being slammed with a court sanction 45 days detention in the custody of the Department of State Services, DSS. As expected, the permission granted the secret police to detain Sowore, a former students’ union activist, publisher of the popular Sahara Reporters website and the candidate of African Action Congress, AAC in the 2019 presidential election has become another layer in controversies trailing the  #RevolutionNow protests, which he spearheaded.  

The detention order followed the arrest of the former presidential candidate in an abduction style by operatives of DSS in Lagos in the early hours of Saturday, 3 August over the planned #RevolutionNow protests scheduled to begin two days later. He was then moved to Abuja on Sunday morning.

“If we are operating as a responsible security organisation and someone is calling for revolution in Nigeria, we must understand the meaning of revolution. Primarily, it means a revolt, it means insurrection, it means insurgency, it means forceful takeover of government and we are operating democratic system in Nigeria,” the Public Relations Officer of DSS, Mr. Peter Afunanya later told journalists on the reasons Sowore was arrested in Abuja.  “Nigeria is not a banana republic and cannot suddenly be made one. So, the DSS will not just sit by and watch individuals or groups wanting to rise and threaten the peace and unity of the country,” he added.

The agency had consequently approached the court to avoid running against the provisions of the law, which stipulate that an accused cannot be detained for more than 48 hours, asking for an order to keep Sowore for the next 90 days. DSS had in the motion ex parte filed at the court under Section 27(1) of the Terrorism (Prevention Amendment) Act, accused Sowore of engaging in acts of terrorism. But Justice Taiwo Taiwo exercised his discretion and granted the Service only 45 days. He, however, noted that the intelligence agency could apply for a renewal of the detention order for another 45 days. “The return date shall be 45 days from today, August 8, 2019. It, therefore, means that this suit is adjourned till September 21, 2019,” he added.

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Rage Against Terrorism Act

In the motion ex parte it filed before the court, the DSS relied on Section 27(1) of the Terrorism (Prevention Amendment) Act. But Lagos lawyer and right activist, Femi Falana said in an interview after the court ruling that the Terrorism (Prevention Amendment Act), which was enacted by the National Assembly in 2011 and amended in 2013 had never been invoked before now against ‘placard-carrying protesters.’

The invocation of the Act against Sowore, he noted, provided an opportunity to challenge its provisions, especially, the 90-day permission for detention of suspects: “No doubt, the Sowore case provides an opportunity to test the constitutional validity of the 90-day detention period. Even under the worst military dictatorship in Nigeria the maximum detention period was three months subject to renewal by the detaining authorities. Our situation should not be worse under a democratically elected government.” 

Tayo Oyetibo, a Senior Advocate of Nigeria also argued that the provision in the Act that allowed the State to keep a man for 45 days without being charged to court was offensive to the constitution.

Chief Mike Ozekhome put the blame at the doorstep of the judge, who according to him, should have allowed Sowore to defend himself against the move by Federal Government to detain him.  “What was the extreme urgency in the matter (usually the main ground for granting ex parte orders) that the Judge couldn’t order the government (who in any case was already detaining Sowore) to put him on notice? The court could also have ordered Sowore to show cause why he should not be detained for 45 days,” the Senior Advocate of Nigeria argued in an article.

“The court-ordered detention of Omoyele Sowore on the application of the Federal Government is bad news for democracy and human rights, especially because the application was made and granted ex parte (behind Sowore’s back). I think it was discretion wrongly exercised, not having been exercised judicially and judiciously,” he added.  

Crackdown On Protesters

Just as Sowore lawyers have been busy looking for a way to get him out of detention, some of those who heeded his call for massive protests in some parts of the country were also battling to get themselves out of police detention. Mohammed Adamu, the Inspector-General of Police (IGP), had also days before described the planned protest as an “act of terrorism” with ”the sole aim of forcing a regime change in the country” in a statement issued on his behalf by the spokesperson for the Nigeria Police, Frank Mba.  

The Police had consequently promised a crackdown on the protesters operating under the aegis of Global Coalition for Security and Democracy in Nigeria. Living up to this promise, the Police had early last Monday morning deployed heavy detachment of officers in its anti-riot unit to wait for protesters as they arrived the various places announced as the takeoff points for the protest in some parts of the country.

Thus, the Police wasted no time in dispersing the protesters with tear-gas while some of those they deemed to be recalcitrant, including some journalists were arrested in various parts of the country. This was the scenario at the National Stadium in Lagos where protesters who began to mass as early as 8 a.m. were confronted with a battery of armed police officers, over 20 police patrol vehicles armoured personnel carriers, civil defence officers and operatives of the Military Joint Taskforce. At least, eight of the protesters were arrested.

Also, a combined team of security operatives from the police, Nigerian Army, the Civil Defence took over the entrance of the University of Ibadan to preempt the protest in Oyo State. In Abuja, with the Police takeover of the Unity Fountain announced as the venue for the takeoff of the protest in the capital city, the protesters who were few in number gathered in front of the National Human Rights Commission’s office.

Apart from denouncing the current state of affairs in the country, they also asked for immediate release of Sowore like the other protesters in other parts of the country. “We have gathered here because we know that Nigeria is in danger. There must be freedom to voice our dissatisfaction and let the government know when it goes wrong. We have decided to go on with the process because we know that Rome was not built in a day. The freedom Nigeria needs is not one that can happen if we all fold our hands and watch,” one of the protesters identified simply as Comrade Raphael said while addressing his colleagues.

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The Road To #RevolutionNow

Sowore and his group had begun their call for “revolution” using the social media and short videos posted on Youtube.  In a video posted on Facebook in July, the publisher of Sahara Reporters had advocated for,  “a very clean, quick, succinct revolutionary process. That will put an end to the shenanigans of government, that will put an end to oppression, the corruption of government.”  

Ahead of the August 5 national protest, which the groups said was “against ruling class, its policies,” the Global Coalition for Security and Democracy in Nigeria and the African Action Congress had listed its key demands to include payment of the N30,000 minimum by government all levels, abolition of tuition fees in universities and secondary schools, a stop to killings going on in the country and the sack of all service chiefs, end to estimated billing by the power companies and provision of pre-paid meters for free, immediate release of all political prisoners now, including Ibrahim El-Zakzaky and his wife and provision of employment for the youths.

Sowore was quoted as saying that the massive protests have become inevitable because opportunity to carry out a revolution through the ballot box was hijacked by lack of credibility in the 2019 general election. We didn’t choose to go for revolution; they chose it by ensuring that there was no level playing field in the last election.  

“As you know, they did it in Sudan and it was started by some women. They were making fun of them but they did not stop until doctors joined them, the labour union joined them and what started with five people became 5,000 and 500,000 and became 5,000,000 and the regime fell. So don’t let anybody deceive you that in asking for a better government or country, you are committing any illegality. The biggest illegality being committed in Nigeria as of today is the rigging of election in 2019,” he was further quoted as saying at a meeting of the executives of his party.

With such huge ambition, it was understandable that the Presidency was excited that the protest did not or was not allowed to gain the expected traction.  “Today, millions of Nigerians went about their businesses: work, seeking employment, attending school/college and caring for their families. By doing so, the millions defended our country’s hard-won democratic rights – by ignoring calls on social media to join a phantom ‘revolution,” the Presidency said in a statement in Abuja signed by the Senior Special Assistant to the President on Media and Publicity, Mallam Garba Shehu.

“The Global Coalition for Security and Democracy in Nigeria’s attempt to incite citizens into a revolution against their own democratic rights and interests has failed – as will all attempts to take away from the people their hard-won rights and freedom to choose who leads their country,’’ the Presidency added in the statement.

Indeed, the ruling All Progressives Congress, APC and some of its leading members had accused Sowore of attempting to get from the backdoor what he could not get from the front door with his defeat by Buhari in the 2019 presidential election.  

Protests Constitutionally Guaranteed, But…    

But Nigerians interviewed by The Nigerian Xpress last week agreed that the citizens had the right to demonstrate against the government or any of its policies they deemed not favourable. This right, they, however, argued does not extend to attempting to overthrow a democratically elected government.  

“You cannot forcefully overthrow a democratically elected government.  And as long as nobody is trying to act in that direction, citizen’s rights to protest should be guaranteed in any civilized society,” Mr John Dara, a former presidential aspirant on the platform of Social Democratic Party told The Nigerian Xpress.  

While also recognizing protests against perceived government failures is a constitution right that cannot be taken away from the citizens, Mr Chris Agiri, founder, Flag Foundation of Nigeria, faulted the tag “revolution now” attached to the initiative as well as the messenger. “The person heading it, I had my doubts about him because he is a politician. He contested for the office of the president and the controversies surrounding him and his party leaves much to be desired. His language is a bit faulty and naturally, if I am in position of President Buhari, somebody who contested against me and I have beaten him and for him to be coming out in this way, I will also put him under caution. These are fundamental things that we must note if we want to balance the views. The man calling for revolution, some of the language he used, I fault it personally.”

Tope Fasua, economist and a presidential candidate of Abundant Renewal Party in the 2019 general election said such protests are necessary to achieve change in the society as it has been proven in other countries: “By every means, Nigeria needs to be rejigged, it doesn’t have to be violent. And of course, you can choose your words. In places like Thailand people do sit in. They will sit down- thousands of them, and they will say we are not leaving here today until our demands are met. They can sit anywhere.  That is how nations change.”  

The Case Against Buhari’s Government

They also agreed that they are many failings of the Buhari government, which Nigerians must rise up and protest against. They cited insecurity, rising poverty, killings among others as issues agitating Nigerians.  “There are many, many reasons why Nigerians should be angry. The insecurity in the country, the slow approach to governance that we see in the administration of Buhari, the delay, he took so long to appoint ministers, especially for a president who,  overwhelmingly, the people he nominated are returnees, there is no reason at all for the sluggish approach to governance,” says Dara.

Eze Onyekpere, Lead Director, Centre for Social Justice, CENSOJ said most Nigerians are not happy because the President had failed to live up to expectations that he would outperform his predecessor in terms of meeting their needs. “Has the insecurity not increased? Before, we were talking of Boko Haram, but now we have bandits. We were talking about bandits in the Northwest and Fulani herdsmen all over.  

“They are even negotiating with the bandits and police are taking selfies with criminals who have killed hundreds of thousands of people and they are giving conditions before they disarm or stop killing people.  

“Who can be happy with that? Or is it the RUGA that he wants to take across Nigeria? So, Nigerians have 1001 reasons to be out there in the streets to tell Mr. Buhari and his team to either do the right thing or get out,” he told The Nigerian Xpress.

Speaking in the same vein, Agiri argued that most people in government are disconnected from the people:  “Anybody that knows what is on ground will be a bit weary. You will find out that the people are not happy because they are in hunger, lives and property are endangered, and government appears not to be in total control – Being in control means raising people’s hope.

He also blamed the delay by the president in constituting his cabinet as part of the reasons for the tension in the country. “There is hunger, people are afraid for their lives and the economy appears not much improved. So, in such hopeless situation, what would the people do? At the same time, people who are advocating for all sorts of things are not conscious of the possible consequences of breakdown of law and order. I was seven years old when the civil war ended, I saw what war means. Most of the people talking anyhow, including those in government are not conscious of the consequences of the breakdown of law and order,” he said.

“What do the people need anymore? The youths don’t have work to do- the big men have put their children everywhere, the youths are joggling around, deceiving themselves that they are in entrepreneurship, the schools are not functioning, hospitals are death traps, what more do we need? Is this where we are supposed to be?,” Fasua queried while emphasizing that the problems facing the country are beyond the president:  “I may not agree with Sowore in terms of his modus operandi, but that is his own idea. Most of the people talking up and down can’t dare to do one tenth of what Sowore has done. That’s the truth.

“We have the Ganis of this world, they went to prison many times for this country, the Felas, the Bekos of this world, where are they now? Can we mention one person who is ready to do similar thing for this country? When God was going to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah, he looked for five people, he couldn’t find. It is the same thing, Nigeria has become the modern day Sodom and Gomorrah, we can’t find five people to stand up for the downtrodden in this country.

“I personally will not call for revolution against Buhari. What is on ground now is beyond Buhari. You can call for revolution against the ongoing system and politics can no longer solve the problem.”

Can’t Wait Till 2023

They also dismissed arguments by officials of the Presidency that Nigerians should wait for the next cycle of election to effect a change in the current system. 

If President Buhari is not abiding by the constitution, he has no business staying there one day longer.  

According to Onyekpere, the whole essence of government is to secure the welfare and the security of the people and if the president cannot fulfil the constitutional responsibility, he should not remain a day longer in power: “We gave him (Buhari) a mandate, if he is not performing, he should get out. Nigerians did not elect him to be there for four years, no. It was on condition that he is doing what is right. If he is not doing what is right, he has no business continuing there one day longer.”

On his part, Fasua alleged that the manner the 2019 elections were rigged indicated that it might be difficult getting the desired change through the ballot box for now. “We have reached a reflection point in this country and from now going forward, we should have improvement. Part of the process is what we are seeing. The government can quash the protest, but it doesn’t mean that one or two things have not been sown in the minds of the people. And of course, what they are saying is that we want an engagement with government,” the former presidential candidate said.  

“Unfortunately for Buhari, maybe he is the one that is there now. Of course, also, he too has not kept his promise. He is supposed to be an anti-corruption government, what is he doing with all those people that have EFCC cases, those that have AMCON debts? Even, the MD of AMCON is saying that recalcitrant AMCON debtors are being appointed as ministers. That is what they called hijack of the state power which is one of the flaws of democracy. Nigerians cannot wait for the next four years,” he added.  

No Confidence In New Cabinet

On the ability of the new cabinet, which is to be inaugurated later in the month to meet up the expectations of Nigerians, Agiri said most of the minister-designates are people familiar to Nigerians. Nevertheless, he expressed hope that there will be a change this time around: “Well, we expect an innovative, creative, ingenious leadership from these ministers. Not in the same way they have been doing, that will not take us another mileage.

“Those of them with all the controversies – whether real or perceived should also know that politics, campaign, blame games are over. Let’s us do new things that will inspire hope in the people. Let’s come up with ideas that will give our country a sense of national direction, enough of excuses.”

“Majority have been there before, what are they doing – show me the economist, the innovator in that team, the entrepreneur with a brilliant mind in that team; you have the run of the mill persons with nothing new to offer and at worst, undertakers. We are not expecting anything,” Onyekpere said of his expectations.    

But ANRP presidential candidate said while it is doubtful if the new ministers can put up any sterling performance, Nigerians should be cautiously optimistic: “We cannot judge a book by its cover. There may be two or three superstars among them who can do things differently. But going by empirical evidence and if the past is anything to go by, it is going to be really tough for these guys to spring any sort of surprise.”