Democratic limits to the inalienable right to protest

(Photo by PIUS UTOMI EKPEI / AFP)

I was just about writing this article when someone from Nigeria phoned to say he called me “severally” yesterday. I pretended not to understand what he meant until he said he called me five times. “Severally” has been the posh word in town, especially for those who would want to save words by not saying “several times.” You could hear actors and actresses say it over and over again, even supposedly educated academics may not be an exception. With great humility, may I tell whoever cares to know that “severally” does not substitute for several times and a generation of Nigerians working on their English Language should not be confused by those who seek to rewrite the language.

Now, to the very important subject of public protest I seek to write about. Except in an autocracy or dictatorship, the right of the citizen to protest against those in authority is both constitutional and democratic. It is inalienable in that the state cannot take it away from them. Protest represents a feedback to the activities or policies of those who govern. The concerns of individuals outlined during a protest should constitute a new input into the process of governance. Such a new input could generate another feedback that resolves a potential crisis situation.

However, what constitutes the inalienable right of one group could also infringe on the rights of another. Your right to free speech, free association, or free anything, could encroach on the rights of another if not regulated by the state. In a civilised political environment, those with an interest in protesting whatever to them is an injustice seek permission to stage their protest.

In Britain, for instance, those who seek to protest and would be marching through the streets apply to the police for permission. The police would demand for the names and addresses of the organisers, and could decide on the time frame and the route the protest can take. Police presence is inevitable lest what is assumed to be a peaceful protest degenerates into something else.

There is a world of difference between a protest and a revolution. The latter connotes the involvement of violence and an outcome that could possibly overturn an established order. Those who have opted for a revolution do not have to seek permission from the state, not least because what they have set out to achieve is anti-state. In this regard, it would be naive to assume that state authorities, in the name of democratic expression, would condone a revolution in whatever guise it presents itself. Of course, a protest can go out of hand and graduate into a revolution. Examples abound in history and that history of revolutions is one cause for political leaders, especially in highly volatile states, to be jittery and suspicious of the intentions of political activists.

The much-talked about recent attempt at a revolution or protest by Omoyele Sowore and others, might have worried those in authority for a couple of reasons. The scale of insecurity in Nigeria today is unprecedented. Not many would wish for a more chaotic environment than we already have. There are the Nnamdi Kanus of Nigeria praying fervently for the breakdown of law and order, not least because it is in such a situation that their dreams of a disintegrated Nigerian state can be achieved.

It can also be argued, just as many have done, that the protest by Sowore and his comrades, no matter how well-intended, was ill-timed. We are yet to settle into serious governance after a presidential election whose outcome is being contested. Mr. Sowore was a candidate in that election. There might be those who would assume that his intention of a revolution was to walk into the presidency via a chaotic route, having been rejected at the polls. Sowore has no history of experience in governance, at any level, quite enthusiastic in referring to a history of protests and placard carrying. I said this in one of my commentaries after the 2019 presidential election.

Be that as it may, the Buhari-led administration now has on its table a list of grievances that should not be swept under the political carpet. Issues of insecurity, unemployment and general poverty are more than serious issues the administration must be seen to be addressing with greater urgency.

There would be no need to keep Sowore in detention lest the government is anxious to make a Mandela out of him. We must have rules that govern public protests, just as those in positions of authority must also respect and actualise the aspirations of well-meaning Nigerians. We are all governed by rules of engagement.

•Akinola wrote from United Kingdom.

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