One thing a democratic government tries to avoid is whatever will cause it bad press. However, it seems that the Buhari administration courts bad press rather than avoid it. It also unwittingly gives publicity to people and issues that would have not been noticed if ignored.
If the women who protested the whereabouts of the Leader of the Indigenous People of Biafra, Mazi Nnamdi Kanu, in Owerri two weeks ago had been ignored, their protest would have gone virtually unnoticed. Their cause would also have not got much traction.
However, the arrest of close to 120 of them gave them all the publicity they craved for. As if that was not enough, there were reports that the women were not allowed to receive food items from their families and friends who came to visit them in the congested prison where they were unjustly held.
What was the crime of these women? They had a peaceful protest through the streets of Owerri, Imo State. They had no arms. They were not violent. The argument of some people was that because they were asking for the whereabouts of Kanu, they were “members of a proscribed organisation that had been designated a terrorist organisation.” According to the Imo State Police Public Relations Officer, Andrew Enwerem, the women were arrested for conducting an illegal assembly and holding an unlawful protest.
According to reports, the women claimed that the security agents should know the whereabouts of Kanu, since they had attacked his home a year ago, which was the last time he was seen or heard from.
While they protested at the Government House Roundabout in Owerri, the women were said to have broken into a dance when the team of police officers sent by the Commissioner of Police, Dasuki Galadanchi, arrived at the scene.
It was obvious that they expected a particular type of reaction from the police and the police played into their hands. Some media reports claimed that the police beat up the women and used tear gas on them, even though there were pregnant and aged women among the women who were aged between 22 and 70 years old. One of the women was reported to have died while about 25 sustained injuries.
The women were subsequently arraigned before a magistrate court on a 10-count charge of treasonable felony, conspiracy to commit treasonable felony, and terrorism, etc.
That arrest and detention got the attention of the nation as well as global human rights organisations like Amnesty International. The police and Nigeria as a whole gained absolutely nothing from that arrest. The only thing gained was that the Buhari administration was further painted as intolerant of opposing views. The only group that gained from that arrest was IPOB. Its name was brought to the fore again. It burnished its image as a non-violent organisation that was being suppressed by a suppressive government in Nigeria over its right to self-determination.
The way the women were released showed that the government was not happy with the negative press that came from that illogical and illegal arrest. On August 24, the bail application filed by the lead counsel for the women, Ejiofor Uche, at a high court in Owerri was not opposed, as the police did not even bother to send any representation. The court, therefore, freed the women unconditionally. According to the state commissioner of police, the release of the women was a result of an instruction given to him and the state commissioner of justice by the Imo State Governor, Rochas Okorocha.
The impression the arrest and anti-climatic release of the women created was that IPOB had defeated the government again on moral grounds. It seemed the government wanted to use high-handedness to intimidate the group and forestall future protests, but the deluge of condemnation from within and outside the country put pressure on the government to beat a retreat.
Was there any need to detain the women? Absolutely none. If they had constituted any public nuisance by blocking the way of other road users, the police should have simply tried to dislodge them from the road. If there was any need to arrest some of the women, it would be for the purposes of breaking up their protest.
Once some of their leaders were driven to the police station, others would discontinue the protest and the traffic would start to flow again. At the police station, they would be spoken to by a senior police officer to be of good behaviour and maintain public peace, whatever their grievances were. After that, they could be told to sign an undertaking to be of good behaviour, if need be, and then allowed to go home.
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The police could take photographs with them, smiling with them, and creating the image of a gentle organisation that respects human rights and holds women in high esteem.
A discerning government would have tried not to play into the hands of IPOB with the arrest and detention of those women. That only women participated in that protest was a signal that it was planned to achieve a particular result.
They were all dressed in black with some putting on only black underwear. The group wanted the women to be easily identified among other women in the street, so that if anything was done to them by security agents, it would be easy to be seen in photographs and videos that its women were being molested by the Nigerian government. Women and children are seen as the most vulnerable part of the human race.
Anybody who uses violence on them is seen as wicked and shameless. Having studied the government of Buhari, IPOB knew that even a protest by women would not go without some use of force by the security agents.
It wanted the world to see that contrary to the claim that it was a terror group, that it was the government that had been using violence against its peaceful means of protest. Sadly, the government walked into that well-set trap, only to jump out after the harm had been done.
Peaceful protest is the right of every citizen of Nigeria. The law court has also ruled that citizens should not seek any permit from the police to embark on a protest, noting that asking for a police permit was an archaic condition from the colonial administration, which has no place in a democratic and independent Nigeria.
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This issue of respect for the constitutional rights of citizens should be repeatedly sung into the ears of this current administration. There is a difference between democracy and dictatorship. Democracy guarantees citizens’ fundamental rights which should not be toyed with. Toying with them is a slap on the constitution and an attack on the nation. One can disagree with the view of an individual or a group, but that should not lead to an attempt to deny that individual or group those fundamental rights. Freedom to protest is an integral part of democracy.
These repeated attacks on the constitutional rights of citizens cause Nigeria much harm globally and water the spirit of self-help in people. Furthermore, force does not kill an ideology. The Buhari administration should be conscious of this and start applying a more strategic solution to national problems.