Why Nigeria’s democratic space is shrinking – Activists

Pael of discussants at the parley tagged ‘One Year After #EndSARS, 35 years After Dele Giwa And The Quest To Remake Nigeria held at NECA House, Alausa, Ikeja in Lagos on Tuesday, 19 October 2021. ( All photos by Ayo Efunla)

By Nehru Odeh

The parley couldn’t have been more timely. Though organized to mark the one year anniversary of  #EndSARS protests and 35 years after  the brutal assassination of Dele Giwa, editor-in- chief of Newswatch magazine, at the end of the day the activists present  agreed that  Nigeria’s democratic  space is shrinking under President Muhammadu Buhari’s watch and the nation is teetering on a precipice, what with mindless killings, kidnappings, extra-judicial killings, sprouting of secessionist groups and illegal detention and culture of impunity that occur on a daily basis in the country.

That indeed was the submission of activists, journalists and academics present at the parley tagged One Year After #EndSARS, 35 years After Dele Giwa And The Quest To Remake Nigeria which held at NECA House,  Alausa, Ikeja in Lagos on Tuesday, 19 October 2021. The event was organized by African Centre for Media and Information Literacy, AFRICMIL with the support of the Open Society Initiative for West Africa and Ford Foundation.

Distinguished guests present included Professor Pat Utomi, political economist, management expert and former presidential candidate; Mr. Femi Falana, human rights lawyer and activist; Mr. Kunle Ajibade, Executive Editor, TheNEWS magazine; Mr. Richard Akinola, Chair of Centre for Free Speech ; Lanre Arogundade, Executive Director, International Press Centre;  Dr. Akiyode Afolabi, Founding Director, Women Advocates Research and Development Centre, WARDC;  and Dr Chido Omumah, Coordinator, African Centre for Media and Information Literacy

Femi Falana speaking at the parley tagged ‘One Year After #EndSARS, 35 years After Dele Giwa And The Quest To Remake Nigeria held at NECA House, Alausa, Ikeja in Lagos on Tuesday, 19 October 2021.

The guests not only passed a vote of no confidence on the Buhari-led administration but averred that the nation needs an overhaul to prevent it from imminent collapse; while bemoaning the fact that Buhari, who rode on the back of activists to achieve his presidential ambition is ironically restricting individual liberties and press freedom, what with the daily harassment of journalists and activists, the unnecessary use of force and the notorious ban on Twitter in Nigeria

“For someone who benefited so much from free press and the social media, it was widely expected that the president would be the least person to contemplate constricting the civic space by restricting the media, both press and digital.

“Yet that is where we are today with considerations for national security taking precedence  over the rights to free expression and holding of opinions. As it is today, President Buhari has banned Twitter and there are also other bills in the parliament seeking to regulate social media,” Chido Onumah, coordinator, AFRICMIL, said, setting the tone for the parley,

In his welcome address, Onumah maintained it was important to cast a critical eye on the #EndSARS protests that rocked the country last year  and see what critical lessons had been learnt and what needed to be done going forward.

“In October, 2020, Nigerian youths protested against police brutality, calling for the dismantling of the dreaded police unit, the Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS). The protest was marked met with vicious state State  repression, Onumah, author of the controversial book, We Are All Biafrans, said.

“The protests manifests the power of social media. They showcased the determination of our youths to lead and stand tall in the face of intimidation. One year later, there are important questions regarding the protests legacy. The question then is, how do we build on the momentum and the potential for real change that epitomized the campaign.

Prof Pat Utomi speaking at the parley tagged ‘One Year After #EndSARS, 35 years After Dele Giwa And The Quest To Remake Nigeria held at NECA House, Alausa, Ikeja in Lagos on Tuesday, 19 October 2021.

“It is important to reflect on the event and discuss how to push back against the attack on citizens as well as the shrinking civic space in Nigeria,” Onumah urged.

Onumah also bemoaned the fact that Nigerian authorities have continued to harass the media and activists. “Nigeria has a sordid history of attacks on the media, and now these attacks have extended to citizens who use social media as a form of expression. Nigerian authorities have continues to harass journalists while perpetrators and collaborators of attacks on the press, most often state actors, including security forces are seldom sanctioned or brought to justice.

In a fiery speech, Falana spoke about how the Nigerian government instigated violence against the people during the #EndSARS protests that rocked the country last year. “The violence was sponsored by the government. Criminal elements in Abuja shot at protesters, at Alausa in Ikeja, a bus load of armed thugs were unleashed on protesters. The people who are now in government took part in some of the rallies we had in the past,” he said.

 Falana also faulted the police for demanding that Nigerians obtain permit before protest. He averred that it is the constitutional right of Nigerians to protest, adding that the police does not have any power backed by the constitution to stop citizens from protesting or grant them permit. Rather, according to the human rights lawyer such powers rest with the governor of a state.

“Under the public order act, it is the duty of a governor in every state to control rallies, processions and public meetings, whereas we are required to obtain a license from the governor or from the commissioner of police if the power has been delegated by the governor to him.

“In the case of ANPP against the police, the court affirms that police permit for rallies in Nigeria is illegal, so if you have no power to give me a permit, where have you got the power to say that I cannot meet,” he said.

He added, “What the law is saying is that the police or the governor cannot stop a rally in Nigeria. If the governor or police commissioner desires to stop a rally, he will have to approach the court. In recognition of the rights of Nigerians to protest, the law has imposed a duty on the police and I am talking of section 83 (4) of the police establishment act of 2020, to the effect that during protest the police shall provide adequate security so that the so-called hoodlums will not hijack the protest. If that law had been applied last year there wouldn’t have been the violence.”

L-R: Femi Falana, Anike Ade Funke Treasure, Mr. Kunle Ajibade at the parley tagged ‘One Year After #EndSARS, 35 years After Dele Giwa And The Quest To Remake Nigeria held at NECA House, Alausa, Ikeja in Lagos on Tuesday, 19 October 2021.

Falana also questioned why Buhari does not allow protests when he himself had participated in protests in the past.  “Buhari and others protested with us before against Jonathan in 2012,” he said, adding that he had provided legal services pro bono to Buhari, Chuba Okadigbo and the members of the All Nigerian Peoples Party when they were teargased during a protest.

He also debunked the lie being peddled by the federal government that there were no casualties at the Lekki Shooting that signaled the end of the #ENDSARS protest on 20 October 2020. According to him, there was strong evidence that many people were killed at the Lekki Toll Gate and other areas in Lagos.

“In Lagos alone, people were killed. John Obafunwa, the renowned pathologist himself, said that out of the 99 bodies dumped at the Lagos mortuary, three were from the Lekki Toll Gate and 20 were brought from the prison and were marked as unknown.“It is impossible for dead bodies from prison to be marked as unknown.”

Falana, narrating Dele Giwa’s last moments after he had been bombed at his Talabi Street, Lagos residence, however, said the killing of Dele Giwa marked the beginning of bombing in Nigeria.  He also said though former military president Ibrahim Babangida started the act of bombing in Nigeria, the late dictator, Sani Abacha perfected it.

Mr. Richard Akinola speaking at the parley tagged ‘One Year After #EndSARS, 35 years After Dele Giwa And The Quest To Remake Nigeria held at NECA House, Alausa, Ikeja in Lagos on Tuesday, 19 October 2021.

“The killing of Dele Giwa marked the beginning of bombing in Nigeria by the government. Before the Boko Haram sect took to bombing people, the military junta headed by General Ibrahim Babangida decided to launch bomb attacks on Nigerians. His murderers wanted to make a point, they wanted to scare the people by engaging in the most savage and brutal nature of murder,” he said.

Utomi, the Chairman at the event, on his part reiterated the need for citizen participation. He said democracy is shrinking in Nigeria because of lack of citizenship, adding that government has arrogated so much powers to itself so much so that the people are now afraid of their leaders instead of the leaders afraid of them.

“Democracy is supposed to be people holding government accountable. But the kind of democracy we run here is that people fear the government instead of the government fearing the people. Until we can make government fear the people, we don’t have a democracy.

“We need a democracy because we don’t have one. We need the voice of the people to be respected. We need political parties that can crystallize the desires of the people, and socialize young people into being able to offer them in service.

 “Right now political parties are just machines for grabbing power usually for displacing public goals with private goals. Look at the mess that happened last week in the name of congresses by political parties because what is at stake is not how a country moves forward but how individual rush for whatever purposes they perceive,” he explained.

However, the political economist pointed out that the #EndSARS protest marked the beginning of citizenship in Nigeria.  Speaking further, he said: “We need to build citizenship and raise citizens – people who have a passion for a shared humanity. At the bottom of society’s ladder are idiots, people who care just about themselves, and at the next level are tribalists who care only about people who share the same blood or language. For tribalists, everyone who does not share in their parochial base is an enemy.

“When these people move up and become citizens, a shared humanity will drive them to do things that are for the common good of all. This is why the #EndSARS protests, for me, marked the arrival of citizenship in Nigeria,” adding that the youths needs to be encouraged to participate actively in politics.

However, Utomi regretted how government clampdown on student unionism in Nigerian has prevented leaders from emerging from the universities. “If you look at the leaders of the world today, they are young people, and majority of them were groomed from their days in university.

“The majority of us here are products of unionism. Majority of the leaders that have ruled started as youths as well,” he added.

“What we need to do is learn to organize and what we must do now is convert all these young people to community organizers … We do not need 10 years to plan, everybody in Nigeria is fed up.

“If youths of Nigeria organize they can make this current order an ancient history, and I want to tell you all to try and do that,” he concluded.

Utomi also said that

Pthe programme was organized to present a book that crystallizes the memories of nation building, stressing that the country has a deep history of protest and progress.

Inihehe Effiong, human rights lawyer and activist however recommended not just a total overhaul of the polity but also that Nigerians seek an alternative to the two major political parties, the Peoples Democratic Pary, PDP and the Action Progressive Congress, APC. He also said Nigerians needs a revolution and that Nigerians must be prepared to seize power from these current set of political leaders. According to him, history has shown that that political leaders do not relinquish power easily. That is the reason Nigerians must seize power through peaceful protests since their votes don’t count.

Mr. Lanre Arogundade speaking at the parley tagged ‘One Year After #EndSARS, 35 years After Dele Giwa And The Quest To Remake Nigeria held at NECA House, Alausa, Ikeja in Lagos on Tuesday, 19 October 2021

However, Afolabi said Nigeria’s problems are structural, adding that unless there is a total overhaul of the system, the nation will keep repeating the same mistakes and facing the same challenges. The lawyer and women’s rights activist maintained that what Nigeria needs is not just a change of leadership but a systemic change and called on the youth to rise up to nation building.

Arogundade, who was once a student union activist and had himself been a victim of political repression debunked the notion that youths have never assumed leadership positions in the country. He maintained that there was need for a change of political narrative and for the youth to move into the political space.

Arogundade also regretted the fact that many journalists have been killed in Nigeria by security operatives in recent times. In a speech that was backed with statistical figures, he quoted the number of journalists that had been attacked and killed.

Lamenting that journalists are no longer safe, he urged that not only should their safety be guaranteed, they should be allowed to work in a safer and more conducive environment.

Akinnola, author of  “Murder of Dele Giwa: The Answered Question” recounted his experience when he was detained for many days in the Ikoyi Prisons. He spoke about how he was able to survive the harsh prison environment by striking a friendship with the junior prison officials, who ran errands for him and made sure he had a comfortable stay at Ikoyi prison.

Akinola also pointed that there have been many cases of disobedience of court orders by the Buhari-led administration, stressing the need for another report on executive lawlessness to be published. He also called for more programmes and fora such as this to keep the memory of the past alive and enlighten the next generation.