By Kolawole Olaniyan
The President Muhammadu Buhari’s administration appears more determined than ever to rely on repression as a means of responding to dissent and public criticism. Its record of failure to uphold human rights and the rule of law has been too consistent: empty promises, more excuses, ambivalence, intolerance, and state-sanctioned brutality.Last week, the regime yet again unleashed its security forces in riot gear on #RevolutionNow protesters who were simply calling on it to respect human rights, obey the rule of law, and address heightened insecurity, poverty, corruption, and poor infrastructure in the country.
The peaceful protests took place in several parts of Nigeria, including Abuja, Lagos and Osogbo.
This is not the first time Buhari and his regime have brutally attacked peaceful protesters. But no security agents have ever been held to account for abuses against protesters.
This state-sanctioned brutality is entirely inconsistent with the attitude of a government supposedly committed to transparency and accountability, and the fight against corruption.
Rather than address the concerns of the protesters, the Buhari regime would seem to trivialise their demands when it called the protests “a child’s play” and “an irritation.” The implicit message is that the regime is insensitive to people’s opinions and concerns.
To be clear, it’s neither a child’s play nor an irritation to demand an end to corruption, which is clearly contributing to serious human rights violations, fuelling injustice, inequality and deprivation, and allowing politicians to profit from their crimes.
It’s unfortunate that the Buhari regime is sending security forces not after those who commit acts of grand corruption and appalling abuses, but after those who call for human rights and rule of law reforms.
For example, while his regime treats protesters with overt hostility, it seems to revere ‘repentant Boko Haram militants’, including by granting them “amnesty” and accepting them “unconditionally”.
Under Buhari’s watch, a bill is being pushed in the National Assembly, full of members from his ruling party, the All Progressives Congress, to use funds from the Universal Basic Education Commission and the Tertiary Education Trust Fund to give “repentant” insurgents “foreign education.”
This is even as millions of Nigerian children and youths are out of school and roaming the streets.
The right to freedom of peaceful assembly is central to human rights law, but it’s one right the Buhari regime flagrantly violates as a matter of routine. The regime’s bad faith is underlined by its smearing of protesters.
The attack that the regime has consistently launched on protesters is not merely an attack on the right to protest and Nigeria’s constitutional foundation. It is an attack on the rule of law, and on Nigeria’s voluntary international human rights obligations.
The regime continues to violate human rights with impunity. Omoyele Sowore, leader of the #RevolutionNow movement, and Amnesty International’s prisoner of conscience, is facing severe restrictions on his rights and can’t travel outside Abuja.
Buhari and his regime are treating dissent and public criticism as “insult”, and adopting probably the most repressive laws in Nigeria’s history, such as the Companies and Allied Matters Act (CAMA) 2020 that give officials massive discretion to further restrict human rights and undermine the operations of religious, community and civil society organisations.
Buhari and his regime are punishing journalists for their reporting, silencing individuals for posting opinions on social media, shutting down debate and the flow of information on flimsy grounds. This prevailing impunity is allowing and emboldening many state governors to adopt similar repressive tactics, and undermine people’s access to justice.
They have shown hostility to Nigerian judges and indifference to court judgments and orders, thereby seriously undermining their standing and authority, and the notion of access to justice. The regime simply ignores court judgments and orders.
Buhari has literally normalised disobedience to court orders, and state-sanctioned brutality against peaceful protesters. That’s why his regime has been unable to deliver on his oft-repeated anti-corruption promises.
It’s facile for the regime to claim to be committed to the rule of law and the fight against corruption while it is routinely stopping people from freely expressing themselves, including through peaceful protests.
The Constitution of Nigeria 1999 (as amended) guarantees human rights, including the right to protest. Nigeria has also ratified most of the major human rights treaties like the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights.
It is crucial that individuals exercising this right be able to operate freely without fearing that they will be subjected to threats, intimidation, or violence, including arbitrary arrest or detention, or torture and other ill-treatment.
What matters is not the rights that exist on paper in the constitution or treaties, but whether they can be exercised and enforced in practice.
As for the people, this isn’t the time to give up. There is a bumpy road ahead, and as such, they should continue to speak truth to power. They should defend and claim their rights, if they are ever going to be able to stop their government and politicians behaving with impunity.
The country stands at a crossroads. The international community should do all it can to support and show active solidarity with the people’s demand for human rights and the rule of law.
Kolawole Olaniyan is author of Corruption and Human Rights Law in Africa and legal adviser at Amnesty International’s International Secretariat, London