#EndSARS: Victimisation of protesters shows government’s insincerity, say lawyers
Nigerians have reacted to moves by the government to criminalize the #EndSARS protest organized by youths against police brutality and extra-judicial killings in the country.
The clampdown on some key players in the protests while judicial panels of inquiry set up in different states by the government to look into issues raised during the protests as well as the alleged shooting of protesters at the Lekki Toll Gate on October 20, were said to have portrayed government negatively.
It was also said to have rendered its earlier promise to constructively engage the protesters through dialogue to find lasting solutions to issues raised in the course of the protests as mere hypocritical and lacking insincerity.
Some recent cases of intimidation and victimization include freezing of bank accounts of 20 protesters through a court order granted the Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN), confiscation of travel documents as well as fresh arrests and detention.
For instance, the 20 youths whose accounts were frozen under Exhibit A application by the CBN have to wait for a period of 180 days pending the outcome of the investigation being conducted by the apex bank before they can have access to their money.
In fact, before the court order, CBN had unilaterally gone ahead to freeze accounts linked to #EndSARS protesters by reportedly ordering commercial banks and payment platforms to freeze accounts linked to persons associated with the protests.
Recall also that the International Passport belonging to a lawyer who offered free legal service to some protesters arrested by the police, Modupe Odele, was seized at the Murtala Muhammed International Airport, Lagos, on her way to Dubai.
Although the document was returned to her after one week, the action of the Nigerian Immigration Service (NIS) would have negatively impacted her activities and reasons for the aborted travel aside from the harassment that greeted such an act.
On November 6, five youths including a female journalist were arrested around the National Assembly area for participating in the protest and later arraigned before a magistrate court for alleged criminal conspiracy, unlawful assembly, inciting public disturbance, and public nuisance.
Several others were also arrested and detained in their states while so-called judicial panels were going on, a development described by some as an action against democratic principles.
Following the nationwide peaceful protests organized by youths to draw the government’s attention to reported and unreported cases of police brutality and for the abolition of the Special Armed Robbery Squad (SARS) unit of the police force, the Federal Government through the Vice President, Professor Yemi Osinbajo, had directed state governments to set up Judicial Panels of Inquiry to receive and investigate petitions leveled against the police.
The panels were to also look at alleged cases of extrajudicial killings and harassment brought against SARS officials, which was the original focus of the #EndSARS protests.
The Personal Assistant to President Muhammadu Buhari on New Media, Bashir Ahmad, who disclosed the directives through his Twitter handle, noted then that the panels have six months within which to receive petitions from victims or their families on alleged cases of police extra-judicial killings.
Although some Nigerians were skeptical about the government’s move, giving past experiences of failure to implement outcomes of such panels, it was perceived as the right step towards addressing issues highlighted by the protesting youths.
But shortly after the panels began sitting across states, some key actors in the protests raised alarm over the government’s persecution.
Rather than investigate the circumstances shrouding the killing and injuring of unarmed protesters, the government’s action suggests an attempt to gag them through frivolous allegations.
On whether the protesters violated any law by their peaceful gathering, a Port Harcourt-based lawyer, Chief Festus Ogwuche, reiterated that their actions were constitutional and lawful.
He held that it was very wrong on the part of the government to try to victimize those who gave bulwark to #EndSARS protesters.
“First, the #EndSARS protest has not been profiled to identify those who were the leaders. Secondly, the exercise was a constitutional right. When did giving a bulwark to support an exercise become a criminal offence?
“Except you want to bring them on trumped-up charges; what else would you want to charge them for? To me, there is a clear-cut distinction between #EndSARS protests and the criminality that ensued afterward such as the killings of police officers and the burning of police stations.”
For those that were arrested and charged, Ogwuche wondered the evidence prosecutors would put together to connect what happened in Lekki with the incidents of Mushin.
“So, it is a battle of evidence and I don’t think it is proper”, he said.
The lawyer however blamed judges for indulging such applications.
“My only problem is the judge or the presiding judicial officers who would indulge such applications ex-parte.”
Ogwuche noted that rather than motion ex-parte, it would have been better to hear the matter and decide on it based on its merit.
He advised that the court should be very wary of indulging the government whenever it brings such applications touching on fundamental rights of citizens as according to him, such actions can make the government bold towards dehumanizing people the more.
“Now that some protesters have been charged to court, how are you going to sieve the evidence to get them convicted? Even if you get them convicted, does that show that the government is committed or honest and sincere about its promises to Nigerians? Initially, everybody was clamouring that those arrested to be released but rather than that, what we see share blackmail and victimization. It is very unfortunate that the government finds itself in that situation.”
On the issue of accounts of 20 protesters frozen by CBN, Ogwuche wondered if they were charged for money laundering.
“Is the money frozen proceeds of crime or terrorism? They are not. They did not fall within these categories. So, why should a court of competence grant such order in a most dubious manner? I think it is the court that should be blamed and they have to wake up to reality because the world is watching.
“The recourse to those people being victimized is to go and challenge the order. Why single them out. The killings were unconnected with the #EndSARS protests.
“The protest was peaceful and well organized, and it is their constitutional right to do so.”
Barrister Ogwuche stressed that not only is peaceful protest enshrined in the Constitution, but it is also guaranteed by other international conventions of which Nigeria is a signatory, including the African Chatter, the Covenant of Civil and Political Rights, the Covenant of Economic, Civil, and Social Right as well the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
On the likely outcome of the panels, the lawyer said it should be viewed from the reports already coming out.
“Lagos State governor has gone to the President to give a report of the destruction of properties. The Inspector-General of Police has asked his officers to defend themselves without putting words to how they should treat human beings in the most humane manner.
“The state governors whose palliatives were looted said people should return them without considering the situation people are passing through and without considering that the palliatives belonged to the people.
“They stored it in a crude manner and the people collected them in a crude manner as well. So, who is wrong and who is right?
“It is a serious paradox that the same government that has agreed that SARS engaged in brutality is going after those who protested. It only goes to expose the hypocritical dimensions of those issues and the whole thing is targeted at victimizing the protesters”, he said.
In his own reactions, Barrister Daniel D. Makolo, flayed the CBN for abandoning regulation duties for politics.
“What is the business of CBN in the matter? Is that the regulation of banking policies? The government does everything directly opposite in this country and nobody is saying anything.”
Adding: “What is the locus of the Central Bank to bring an action against those people? Is it bringing the action on behalf of itself or the Federal Government? What does the CBN Act say? Does it give the bank such enablement to dabble into such areas? Can the CBN transmit itself to the office of the Attorney General of the Federation? Is it bringing the action in a criminal capacity? Can it become the Nigeria Police Force?
“I think the CBN has completely gone out of its way to areas it should not. We have serious financial issues to be addressed and CBN should concentrate on those areas.
“Is it coming in its personal capacity to prosecute those he perceived to have encouraged the #EndSARS protests and if, at the end of the day, it shows that there is no connection between the account and the #EndSARS protest, what would be the position of both the CBN and those who dragged the celebrities to the magistrate court? Makolo asked.
Makolo noted that if the duty of CBN is to monitor people’s accounts to know who does what, it should have deployed such power in unraveling those sponsoring the Boko Haram sect.
“What has it done all these years with insurgency and kidnappings across the country? It took a court in Dubai to convict eight Nigerians for funding Boko Haram.
“Also, what power does it have to file treasonable action? These are some of the questions the court would have asked itself before granting the application freezing those accounts but the judge simply looked another way”, he stated.