Martins Hile, Editor, Financial Nigeria magazine

Follow Martins Hile

View Profile

Subjects of Interest

  • Governance
  • SMEs
  • Social Development

Is protest an endangered human right of Nigerians? 20 Mar 2024

On 21 February 2024, the Department of State Services (DSS) released a statement via its official X account directing the organised labour in Nigeria to desist from holding its protest slated for 27-28 February. Five days earlier, the Nigeria Labour Congress (NLC) had declared it would organise a two-day nationwide protest to express outrage over a range of issues, from mounting cost-of-living crisis to insecurity. The DSS framed its objection to the planned protest on the grounds that the action would disrupt "peace and public order."
The security agency's statement has been variously denounced, among other things because peaceful protest is a fundamental human right and benefits from constitutional protection. Still, there are reasons to seriously worry when law enforcement agencies and the officialdom in general continue to make statements or take actions that directly or indirectly curtail the rights of citizens, the implications of which are inimical to our democracy.  

Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines protest in the sense apropos to this context as “a usually organised public demonstration of disapproval.” In a more general sense, protest can also entail expressing verbal or written disagreement, disapproval, or opposition. It is noteworthy that the 1999 Constitution provides great latitude for expressions and actions that constitute peaceful protest. Specifically, the rights to freedom of expression, assembly, association, and movement are guaranteed for all Nigerians by the constitution.

The right to protest is enshrined in several international treaties and declarations, including the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and the African Charter on Human and Peoples' Rights. Recognising this right inevitably imposes an obligation on the state to facilitate protest, including by ensuring protesters are safe.  

Interestingly, the DSS said it recognised protest as the legitimate right of Nigerian labour unions. The security agency, nevertheless, maintained it was important to prevent a situation where some hostile forces would use the protest to "destabilise the peace of the nation." But while emphasising the need for vigilance in order to prevent violence, eloquently absent in the DSS’s statement signed by its Director of PR and Strategic Communications, Dr. Peter Afunanya, were steps it would take to facilitate and protect the citizens' right to protest.

Suffice to say that states have a duty to interfere with protests when there are legitimate threats to public safety. Organisers of protests also have a responsibility to avoid violent disruptions to the activities of non-protesters, leading to an infringement on their rights. But for far too long in Nigeria, there have been concerted efforts by the officialdom to prevent people from protesting against the many challenges and injustices in the country. Protests that have taken place happened by the sheer fortitude of the protesters, in spite of the myriad anti-protest tactics and restrictions put in place by the government.

For instance, the requirement of a police permit was used for ages as a tool to crack down on protest. Law enforcement officers would violently disrupt rallies and protests on the grounds that police permit was not obtained to enable them take place. But this tool has been taken away by the courts, which ruled that citizens can protest on any issue and in any part of the country without police permits. Since then, one of the new tools being used to stop protests is the elegant presentation of the need for public safety.  

Interminable court orders are also tools used to suppress the right to protest. The Attorney General of the Federation and Minister of Justice, Lateef Fagbemi (SAN), warned the NLC about the planned protest, stating it would amount to undermining a subsisting court order restraining the group from embarking on any industrial action. Some government officials reckon protesters would back down by shaming them and subjecting their causes to disrepute. President of the Nigerian Senate, Godswill Akpabio, said most of the protests against high cost of living that have taken place in different states are sponsored.

Other people who are against protests often mischaracterise protesters as unpatriotic citizens, except that a central attribute of patriotism is the bold recognition of one's rights and obligations. One of the most effective tactics for clamping down on the rights of protesters is attacking and arresting those at the forefront of protest movements. Last November, NLC President, Joe Ajaero, was assaulted by suspected thugs in Imo while leading an anti-government protest. Security operatives reportedly acting on behalf of the state government arrested Ajaero and handed him over to the group of thugs who beat up the unionist.

A report by Amnesty International in October 2023 said at least 15 protesters arrested during the October 2020 #EndSARS protests are still arbitrarily detained. The organisation said the majority of the detainees are still awaiting trial in Kirikiri Medium Correctional Centre and Ikoyi Medium Security Correctional Centre in Lagos.

Throngs of citizens who embarked on what have been tagged “hunger protests” across several states in the country last month were met with tear gas. Others were arrested and maltreated by security forces, including the South-South Bureau Chief of Galaxy Television, Dele Fasan, who was at the scene of a planned protest in Uvwie Local Government Area of Delta State.

The punitive attitude of the Nigerian state towards protesters has made it sure that many individuals and organisations are loath to join or publicly express support for social movements. If they must, they do so covertly. This usually limits the potency of the fight for human rights, equality, and economic justice, which are among the several causes that many protesters clamour for.  

Besides being a human right of great importance, protests are considered an integral part of democracy. They are a mechanism for citizens to voice their dissent from various policies and support for causes that are important to them. Sometimes government policies might be lacking in their efficacy, necessitating petitions for government to do more or change course completely as it is currently the case in Nigeria.

Sweeping reforms introduced by the administration of President Bola Tinubu, particularly the removal of fuel subsidy and liberalisation of the foreign exchange market, have inadvertently left many citizens in the throes of serious economic hardship. Consumer prices have continued to soar, with annual inflation rate rising to 29.9% in January, the highest level in 28 years. The surge in prices has left many people struggling to afford food, hence the "hunger protests" being staged in several states.

The prevailing narrative by the administration is that the reforms are necessary for the country’s long-term economic development. President Tinubu said last year that he understood the hardship Nigerians were going through, but that there were no other ways to address the long-running economic challenges of the country. Consequently, Nigerians have been asked to endure the hardship for the time being.

Indeed, it was never going to be easy for any government to fix the structural issues in the Nigerian economy, and the adverse conditions they had spawned. The only problem is that the short-term pain is being disproportionately suffered by the citizens and businesses, while public officials continue to govern and live "like it's 1999" or the good old days.

Nigerian citizens are not cannon fodders for politicians. We are part of the fabric of the Nigerian society, the engine of the economy. Hence, greater recognition ought to be given to the people and some of the ways to do this is by showing empathy for the difficulties citizens are facing and implementing people-centric policies. Showing empathy is not weakness. Neither does it undermine the effectiveness of leadership.

The protests in the country and those announced by the NLC are about the current insufferable conditions, which are unprecedented for the vast majority of Nigerians. They are a cry for help, for equal opportunity, for better living standards, and for the government to respond more effectively to the plight of the people. These protests are a clamour for justice in a country where upward mobility is exceedingly difficult.

Senator Akpabio and the National Assembly leadership ought to advocate for the protection of the citizens’ right of protest, not ridicule it through their rhetoric and actions. The DSS needs to maintain neutrality on labour disputes and other matters of public demonstration. The agency and other law enforcement bodies can work with credible leaders of social movements to fashion standard operating procedure (SOP) for peaceful protests and rallies. This will help in improving relations between citizens and the security agencies, while also fostering civic engaging and participation. The ugly violence and looting that marred the 2020 EndSARS protest is the reason state security should make public protests safe as opposed to disallowing them.

When people understand there is a safe environment to demonstrate solidarity, amplify their voices, raise awareness about important causes, and demand change, they will feel empowered to make a difference. When rights and freedoms are allowed to flourish, rather than being stifled, our democracy will be strengthened. For now, we must applaud the many Nigerians who have demonstrated considerable courage by doing what is prudent and expressing their right to protest online and in the street.

Martins Hile is a sustainability strategist and editorial consultant.