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Alabi Williams

What June 12 didn’t envisage By Alabi Williams

June 18, 2024

As Nigeria prepared to celebrate the 31st anniversary of June 12, some citizens decided to mark the day with anti-hardship protests, to remind this government that the system in place and the manner it is operated is not the democracy the people envisaged.

The hardship in the land is uncommon in the history of the country. Some of the protesters were active participants in the pro-democracy struggles that chased the military back to the barracks. They contributed to the enthronement of this democracy and feel entitled to complain when things are going south.

Using the ‘Take It Back Movement’ appellation, the organisers announced a format for the protests across states. To be sure they were not into some illegitimate business, they advertised take-off and meeting points in 18 states. These activists did not hide their identities. They expressed disappointment with 25 years of mismanaged democracy. Among other demands, they requested for an end to hardship in the country; an end to insecurity, police brutality and kidnapping. They also lamented the high cost of electricity tariff and an end to attacks on press freedom.

As it is with their operations, the Department of State Security (DSS) and police issued threats and warnings to the campaigners, and in a tone that reminded one of the communication mannerism of the military – to intimidate. Nothing has changed with the DSS and the police, as they are haunted by imaginary enemies, who are forever planning to cause mayhem.

After 1999, huge sums and a great deal of time were expended in trainings to get law enforcers reorganise their minds to the fact that the military had left. Unfortunately, generations of officers still see the civilian population as enemies of the state. They get more brutal and hostile to every shade of legitimate opposition.

In their response to the planned protests, the DSS on June 11, claimed some non-state actors had determined to “incite mass disaffection through demonstrations” that could turn violent, urging Nigerians to “resist any persuasions to be lawless or cause disorder and anarchy in the nation.”

The DSS, in the release signed by the Director of Public Relations and Strategic Communication, Peter Afunanya, added: “The protests are designed with sinister objectives to coincide with the Democracy Day celebration. While citizens may have rights of assembly and expression, such freedoms should not be used to undermine public safety and national security… Consequently, the DSS reaffirms its unequivocal position to protect the country from inimical acts being orchestrated by disgruntled groups to cause a breakdown of law and order.”

Despite democracy, the secret police do not think citizens have the rights to demand accountability and good governance from their elected leaders. Every gathering of non-state actors is labeled as an affront to the ruling party and their government. That is a carry-over of military mentality, useful in those days by soldiers who didn’t enjoy popular trust among the people. They trusted in the force of arms and had little time to engage and persuade. The victory of June 12 did not envisage that another set of oppressors have come to lord it over the masses.

The police added their threat in this manner: “While the NPF is committed to protect the rights of those on peaceful protests, it will not look on to see the rights of others being violated in the name of mass protest. Those who want to stage a peaceful protest are advised to inform the police and request for police protection. Those who do otherwise should be ready to face the full weight of the law.”

Same language, same militaristic disposition aimed at denying citizens the right to express themselves. Whether in government or outside, the people need some leg-room to ventilate their frustrations and pains. The Constitution of the Federal Republic (1999), acknowledges this and has generously provided for citizens’ freedom to assemble.

Legal opinion has since rested the debate over the requirement for police permission before people engage their government in peaceful, civil protests. They do not need to ask for protection from the police. Without being asked, it is the duty of the police to ensure that peaceful protesters are safe as they carry out their civic obligation.

At the end of the day, the protests were feeble. Protesters carried only placards that expressed dissatisfaction with government’s lack of empathy and its reckless imposition of obnoxious policies. No mayhem as contemplated and amplified by the DSS and the police took place. Five protesters were arrested in Ibadan, the Oyo State capital, by overzealous state actors. Nothing serious.

In another recent outing, the police tried to justify what has been reported as a noticeable and systematic clampdown on the press. The police, from faraway Enugu came all the way to Abuja, to abduct a senior journalist over a defamation allegation by a private citizen. The police that have refused to arrest and handover former governor of Kogi State, Yahaya Bello, to the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC), for prosecution on corruption allegations, now boast of having capacity to arrest journalists.

Just replay in your mind that spectacle of shame on the day the EFCC laboured in vain to capture Yahaya Bello and weigh the reputational damage on this government. Let the Inspector General of Police, Kayode Egbetokun, recall that scene and do some introspection.

For emphasis, if you must arrest journalists for suspected misdemeanour, summon the courage to proceed with the prosecution if you have the evidence. Don’t engage in media trial as the police spokesman, Olumuyiwa Adejobi, attempted when he alleged a case of extortion. Let the court decide.

If you spent taxpayers’ money to abduct a journalist and fly him from Lagos to Abuja, blindfolded, you owe the people an explanation why you put their resources to such misplaced use. If you do not prosecute the man after you tormented him for 14 days at some underground dungeon, and you come to a press conference to talk down on hapless correspondents, that’s intimidation. June 12 didn’t envisage that.

They only tried to intimidate the journalist, whose phone his interrogators forcefully stole and spied his records to fabricate statements for him to sign, more by coercion and without legal representation. Then you warned and sent him home dehumanised. How is that different from what the military did in their days?

Whereas President Tinubu confessed his love for democracy and its ideals, as he glowingly and passionately spoke on the journey of June 12 last Wednesday, some of the men working for him have no respect for the rule of law. Some of his front officers are doing things that undermine democratic rule. They’re procuring brute force to suppress transparency and accountability. That cannot be allowed.

According to President Tinubu in his June 12 Democracy Day address, “true democracy shines its light into the daily lives of the people who live under its nurturing wings. It affords us the freedom and liberty to think as we want, live where we want and pursue whatever legitimate endeavour that suits us.”

Many Nigerians couldn’t have asked for a better declaration of faith in democracy. Tinubu and his script writers were at their best. Never mind that many radio commentators thought it was a poor outing and a waste of their time. They wanted to hear about rice, minimum wage and how soon government was going to lift the poverty it has imposed. They missed the metaphor. The Democracy Day message is more of a confessional statement. We’re hoping to see the President and people in government apply this understanding in their daily activities.

The message also applies to followers and supporters who have since weaponised outcomes of the 2023 elections to fan embers of hate and ethnic bigotry. Going forward, they need to memorise this paragraph and put it to heart. Democracy is about freedom and liberty, for people to vote candidates of their choice and not be tormented thereafter.

Here is another memorable paragraph. “Democracy does not assume some false or forced unity of opinion. In fact, democracy assumes that conflicting ideas and differing opinions shall be the order of the day. Given the diversity and variety of human experience, there must be diverse perspectives and viewpoints.”

Henceforth, citizens need to support these lofty ideals and hold the President to account in the quest to deepen democracy. Many young people are yearning to see gains of democratic rule. They were told in history books that the reason military rule did not succeed was because it was anti-people. Now there is democracy, they can’t see the difference. This government still has opportunity to turn things around. But it must walk the talk and fulfil endless promises.

For this government to be trusted, the President must make his stance on corruption known to all. Citizens are still waiting for a report on the eight years and roughly six months of the Ministry of Humanitarian Affairs and Poverty Alleviation. The last minister charged with managing the Ministry was suspended on January 8 and mum has been the word, but citizens do not forget.

In the spirit of transparency and before a new minister is appointed, citizens expect details of the investigations and prosecution. You can’t sweep all of that garbage under the carpet in the guise of plea bargaining.

To allow for a plurality of ideas as espoused on June 12, let President Tinubu put a stop to the lawlessness in Rivers State. Let the Judiciary not further muddle the waters. The 27 lawmakers who exited PDP did so of their own volition. To now attempt to use legal subterfuge to reverse that could be suicidal for democracy. June 12 did not envisage such shenanigans.

Another one. Let the President reform the electoral system. The last elections did not “establish a good tradition for holding transparent, open and fair elections”, as purported in the presidential address.

Let’s admit failures and repent. Our dear President must lead by example!

Note: This article was originally published by The Guardian Newspaper, Nigeria.

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