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Global climate of citizens protests and how Nigeria responds

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As 2019 winds down, one defining feature of what has been a turbulent year is the climate of protests. It was a remarkable year for the struggles on the streets as citizens increasingly demanded answers to a complex set of common problems.

Across the globe, the stridency with which men, women, and the youth got their voices heard, was remarkable. The power of the protester on the street resonated with the resounding impact in Sudan where the three-decades-old sit-tight regimes of Omar al Bashir were deposed. Although the military became the midwife of the difficult discussions, which have now culminated in a transition administration, the pressure from the streets remained the ultimate decider of the push of the Sudanese people towards a democratic order.

In Bolivia, the bone of contention was the sanctity of the vote and the credibility of the electoral process. After President Evo Morales subverted a referendum, which rejected tenure extension, he got entangled in arguments with the opposition over whether he had met the minimum constitutional requirement to be elected. Sensing the country was on the verge of being thrown into instability, the military and the police promptly demanded the President’s resignation. With the ouster of Morales, Jeanine Anez declared herself Acting President with a commitment to the restoration of democracy. As for Iraq, the resentment, which drove protesters to the streets had to do with corruption, the job situation and the influence of Iran. The series of protests, which started on October 1 culminated in the resignation of Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi.

The story of protests is similar in countries like Brazil, Hong Kong, and Venezuela. All these situations where protest power has been exhibited, citizens were demanding a listening ear from those entrusted with leadership. Everyday people wanted their voices to be heard in the decision-making systems and processes. On the whole, the effectiveness of protests as the vehicle for social change in many countries, especially in 2019 has led some commentators to tag 2019 as the year of the protester. The commonalities and peculiarities, which drove the protests, provide a very good glimpse of urgency with which ordinary people want to see changes. While there were similarities in patterns of mobilization and the character of the issues of concern, the important local dimensions informing the protests cannot be overlooked. Whether as spontaneous outbursts in response to bad policies or as carefully organised overtime, all the protests indicated citizens were not getting clear and sincere answers to the multiplicity of key governance questions.

Unfortunately, while many states and the relevant institutions across the world respond to protests with a sense of responsibility, the reverse is the case in Nigeria. The political elite has no regard for any expression of the popular will. They deem any form of protest or dissent as an attempt to undermine the power of the elite. The response of the State is, therefore, to crack down violently on protests using the coercive instruments of State power. In Nigeria, the act of taking to the street in protest against bad governance or corruption is a high-risk activity. On many occasions, the lives of protesters have been wantonly cut short by overzealous members of the security agencies, without any successful attempt to hold perpetrators accountable.

Ironically, the risk of protest is even higher now under the regime of the All Progressives Congress (APC), which rode to power on the back of popular citizens protests against corruption and bad governance. In the build-up to the historic 2015 general elects, APC among other actions marched on the headquarters of the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC). At the time also, the party gave very open support to the activities of the Bring Back Our Girls Campaign, which was holding very regular rallies at the iconic Unity Fountain in the nation’s capital, Abuja. As the then opposition party, the APC ran biting commentary in mainstream and on social media to drive home messages about corruption and ineptitude in the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) government of Goodluck Jonathan.

In other words, the current regime ascended the Presidency on the back of protest either on the streets, in the media and in cyberspace. Curiously, as soon as the APC consolidated its grip on political power, it began to implement measures to block the freedom of citizens to protest. Members of the Islamic Movement of Nigeria who have variously protested the continued detention of their leader, Sheik Ibrahim El Zakzaky have borne the brunt of extra judicial killing by the State. On one such occasion in December 2015 before El Zazzaky was taken into custody, not less than 300 human beings were mowed down after a confrontation between followers of the Shiite leader and soldiers in the convoy of the Chief of Army Staff, Lieutenant-General Tukur Buratai. Since the detention of the Shiite leader more protests by his supporters have resulted in killings. Although the government has accused members of the group of provoking violent confrontation, it has shown no capacity for restraint and strategic handling of the protests.

Subsequently, the ruling APC has also gone ahead to restrict access to the iconic Unity Fountain, which provided a space for citizens to express their dissent. In the guise of rehabilitating the park, the government has systematically snuffed out protest activities, which made space a popular place for activities and discontented citizens. As if the restriction on access to physical spaces for the protest was not enough, the APC government is pushing ahead to silence citizens’ voices in online spaces. A draconian bill, the Protection from Internet Falsehood and Manipulation Bill 2019 (SB 132) popularly known as the Social Media Bill is currently been debated and has passed second reading at the Senate. Many rights groups have described the bill as a provocative piece of legislation, which would muzzle freedom of expression. They pointed to a number of draconian provisions in the bill that will empower the Nigerian government to unilaterally order the shutdown of the internet. This has apparently raised serious concerns about its potential threat to democracy and freedom of speech. A pro-democracy think tank, the Centre for Democracy and Development, for instance, noted in an analysis that the groundswell of public opposition to the bill stems from the intolerant political climate in the country in which civil liberties have been repeatedly trampled upon by the government. The Centre lamented that the arrests, harassment, and hounding of journalists, pro-democracy activists, and voices of dissent have all pointed to a sinister agenda to clamp down on free speech as a constitutional right of citizens.

Consequently, a number of other citizen groups have pointed to the criminalization of protest by the APC government as a further manifestation of a sinister agenda to undermine democracy. Notwithstanding the combative denial by government spokespersons that the government is not bent on undermining the constitutional rights of citizens, civic groups are pointing to very sinister signals. Only recently, the President reportedly described the democratic process as being too slow, and as such has not allowed him to achieve the results he envisaged. Pro-democracy campaigners have expressed concern over such comments, which delegitimize the democratic process and its features of checks and balances.

Pro-democracy activists have therefore warned that it is damaging for key operators of the nation’s democracy including the President as leader of the process to keep insisting that democracy is too slow and that the process of democratic checks and balances is stopping them from providing solutions to challenges facing the country. One of the groups, the Resource Centre for Human Rights&Civic Education (CHRICED) therefore posed the question citizens must ask: why did the political elites in question approach the people to request for a democratic mandate in the first place? The group, therefore, insisted that the democratic process can be effective, and can deliver good governance if those driving the process think strategically and act in the national interest. It, therefore, called on the President to refrain from comments capable of delegitimizing democracy and the rule of law. The group noted that if the President, who approached the electorate on four different occasions to seek a democratic mandate to lead the country, suddenly starts making remarks that democracy is too slow, citizens must be concerned. The group said the irony in such comments is that when the political elite need to get things done for their own personal benefits, democracy is never slow. “It is only when citizens demand the basic necessities that governance should deliver that excuses begin to come up about how slow democracy is. These excuses are not acceptable to the long-suffering citizens of Nigeria; the people want functional infrastructure, an effective healthcare system, jobs, and security,” the group said in a recent statement.

All the moves to criminalize popular protests notwithstanding, the coming year 2020 would be very eventful for Nigeria in the context of citizens speaking out for the world to hear about their pains. Either on social media or elsewhere, the people will push back against the antics of a greedy political class and their policies, which lack human face.

Only recently, the decision of the President to approve N37b for renovation of the National Assembly drew extensive condemnation from many citizens. Not many could understand how a country that is the current poverty capital of the world, with its crumbled infrastructure, education and health facilities, will make such frivolous expenditures. Also, Buhari/APC government’s unwillingness to step back from plunging the nation into billions of Dollars of more external debt is a recipe for citizen protests. So too is the ongoing drive to tax the living daylight out of Nigerians, even when the economy has not been structured to create wealth.

As many discerning analysts of the current reality in Nigeria have concluded, it is very clear that the current crop of political elite, whether in the ruling APC or the opposition PDP, do not have what it takes to nurture democracy and deliver good governance. One way or the other, the people must be ready for protests; even as the government imposes stiff punishment for protests on the streets, there is an alternative for citizens to protest with their votes when the next opportunity comes. Nonetheless, the protest by vote can only happen, if citizens are vigilant enough to stop those who insist on de-marketing democracy in their bid for absolute and unrestrained power.


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