Following Nigeria’s transition to civilian rule in 1999, improvements in freedom of expression and civil liberties were considered the shift’s immediate gains. Even though only little has changed regarding the pervasiveness of corruption, violence and poverty, the general assumption was that Nigerians were, at least, able to exercise their freedom of expression in the new political milieu.
However, this impression given to the world was somewhat utopian than being realistic. The freedom of expression, amongst other fundamental rights, is still yet to be fully guaranteed to ordinary Nigerians.
There have been several instances where freedom of expression has been violated in Nigeria – instances where perceived or real government critics, activists and members of the opposition were ill-treated, falsely charged, arrested, detained, and subject to a series of harassment.
Similarly, in the aspect of freedom of assembly, the Nigerian government – past and current administration – has exerted harsh measures to repress peaceful demonstrations. In some extreme cases, the government’s actions against peaceful protest or demonstration have resulted in extrajudicial killings. I doubt if any Nigerian is oblivious that these violations are spearheaded mainly by a member of the Nigerian Police, and sometimes, by the member of the State Security Service (SSS) – acting on the directives of senior public officials.
While the victims include but are not limited to peaceful protesters, social and political activists, and even passersby, a multitude of these cases affecting ordinary Nigerians does not get media attention. It may not even get to human rights organisations. With the growing number of human right violation cases and harassment in Nigeria, despite the transition from military rule, recent developments indicate that the successive democratic government intolerance of criticism and opposition is on the increase.
On June 20, 2003, when the Obasanjo administration announced an over 50% increase in fuel prices, the sudden announcement was met with dissatisfaction and outrage across the country. Following the breakdown in negotiations between the federal government and the Nigerian Labour Congress (NLC) afterwards, NLC called for a general strike. Many Nigerians from all sectors of the society also united and organised massive public demonstrations.
Following this development, the Nigerian Police Force’s response – both regular and paramilitary – was nothing other than a vicious crackdown on demonstrators across the country. According to Human Rights Watch, the crackdown was reminiscent of the past military era. The police violently disperse protesters with tear-gas and live bullets, even when there wasn’t any sign of violence from the protesters. About 12 people were reportedly killed and several others injured, while scores were (randomly) arrested, including union officials.
Likewise, during the administration of former President Goodluck Jonathan, a military crackdown on protesters was not uncommon. Amidst strike and protests by thousands against the hike in fuel prices in 2012, two people were reportedly killed. The Guardian UK reported that one person was killed in Lagos and another in Kano, with dozens injured as police used live teargas and live ammunition to disperse protesters. Describing the event in Lagos, a Punch newspaper analysis read: “To some Lagosians, the sight of heavily armed soldiers on all of the city’s biggest expressways could only mean one thing: a coup”.
In May 2014, armed police officers shoved unarmed protesters demanding the kidnapped Chibok girls’ rescue after initially making the venue of their meeting inaccessible at Abuja’s central area. Premium Times reported that over 50 police officials were present at the protest venue and attempted to prevent protesters from demonstrating forcefully. Naomi Mutah Nyadah, one of the protest leaders, was also arrested by police officers and was reportedly released amid public uproar.
Since August 2015, there has been a series of protests, marches and gatherings by members and supporters of the Indigenous People of Biafra (IPOB) movement who have been seeking the creation of a Biafran state. Tensions increased further following the arrest of IPOB leader Nnamdi Kanu on 14 October 2015. And in November 2016, Amnesty International reported that the Nigerian military embarked on brutal suppression of IPOB protests resulting in the deaths of at least 150 pro-Biafra protesters in the country’s South-Eastern part. Following the repulsive act, the then Nigeria’s Interim Director of Amnesty International, Makmid Kamara, was quoted to have said: “This deadly repression of pro-Biafra activists is further stoking tensions in the south-east of Nigeria. This reckless and trigger-happy approach to crowd control has caused at least 150 deaths, and we fear the actual total might be far higher”.
Another case of violent repression of protesters was on 22nd July 2019 during a peaceful protest by the Shiite Islamic Movement in Nigeria (IMN) in Abuja. Members of the Shia movement took to the street to demand the release of their leader, Sheikh Ibrahim El Zakzaky, who has been in detention since 2015 following a clash with the Nigerian Army. The Human Right Watch reported that up to eleven protesters, a policeman and a Journalist were killed, with several others injured. Apparently, the use of firearms by security officers to disperse protesters is unlawful and counterproductive.
Earlier, there had been reports on the militarisation of protests of the Islamic movement by the Nigerian security forces, one of such violent crackdowns was in October 2018, when soldiers opened fire on a group of Shia protesters which killed about 42 members of the Shia group – Human Right Watch had reported.
In August 2019, scores were reportedly injured with varying severity, including journalists arrested and brutalised during the #RevolutionNow protest – “the ravenous revolution of the ruling elite that has for decades put our nation and the common man in bondage ”, as opined by the sponsors. After the clampdown, Omoyele Sowore, the convener of the #RevolutionNow movement, was detained by the Department of State Services for “ threatening national security and public safety ” through the #RevolutionNow protest.
Fast forward to 2020, when Nigerians exerted their collective power to demand the disbandment of the Special Anti Robbery Squad (SARS) and general reform of the Nigerian Police Force. The #EndSARS advocacy has been in existence circa 2017 but evoked national outcry and gained worldwide attention in 2020. Be that as it may, the Nigerian government, in all her wisdom, could only respond through the use of force by the military on unarmed protesters. Perhaps, the government had thought that brutal state clampdown against protesters would deter future demonstrations, as clampdown victims were presumably presented scapegoats.
According to Amnesty International, at least 56 people were killed during the peaceful nationwide protest against police brutality. The security forces had reportedly opened fire on protesters on a Tuesday night at the Lekki toll gate. Reacting to this, the present Nigerian Director of Amnesty International, Osai Ojigho, said: “Opening fire on peaceful protesters is a blatant violation of people’s rights to life, dignity, freedom of expression and peaceful assembly. Soldiers clearly had one intention – to kill without consequences”.
As deplorable as it is to use military force on peaceful protesters, it is sad that such an act is now rife than it used to be. Hence, the question is whether freedom of expression and the right to peaceful assembly are a reality in Nigeria or just an utopian delusion. Nevertheless, Nigerians have their right to freedom of expression and freedom of assembly and association enshrined in the constitution, and it should be protected.