#RevolutionNow: Sowore’s detention and Nigeria’s shrinking space of dissent

More than a week after the Federal High Court ordered his release and his lawyer, having perfected the requirements for his bail, insisted on taken him out of detention, Omoyele Sowore, publisher of Sahara Reporters and former presidential aspirant, is still being held by the Nigerian Government acting through the Department of State Service (DSS). Although many have been dismayed by government’s egregious abuse of the rule of law in the matter, I am of the view that no one who has been following political events in Nigeria in the last five years should be surprised at this latest assault on the judiciary, at least for two interrelated reasons. First, the current government’s penchant for cherry-picking and disobeying court orders has become a stuff of legend. For instance, former National Security Adviser, Colonel Sambo Dasuki, and the founder and leader of Islamic Movement in Nigeria, Sheikh Ibraheem El-Zakzaki, remain in detention despite several court injunctions ordering their release. And there are others too, some of them such small fry and lacking the sort of self and national importance that would have warranted putting their situation in the front burner.

The other reason why no one should be surprised that Omoyele Sowore is still in detention, despite court order to release him, is that we are dealing with a government that values what it considers ‘national interest’ or ‘national security’ over the rule of law. Like Ibraheem El-Zakzaki and Col. Sambo Dasuki, Sowore’s detention is being justified under the rubric of ‘national security.’ One of the trump up charges against Sowore was that he was teaming up with Nnamdi Kanu, the fugitive leader of Indigenous Peoples of Biafra, and Sheikh Ibraheem El-Zakzaki, to topple the Nigerian government, and that he was, therefore, a terrorist and a security risk, like the two men whose organizations have been proscribed and branded terrorists. Sowore had called for a non-violent protest that was scheduled for August 5 under the banner of #RevolutionNow but two days to the beginning of the event, he was arrested and detained. No well meaning Nigerian was fooled that the arrest of this non-violent activist was a pretext to keep him from further drawing attention to the deplorable state of things in the Nigerian estate. For General Muhammadu Buahri’s regime, national security is subordinated to the rule of law in the overall scheme of things. On Sunday 26 August 2018 during the Annual Conference of the Nigeria Bar Association, President Muhammadu Buhari, who was guest of honour at the occasion, made the following statement while declaring the conference open: ‘…Rule of law must be subject to the supremacy of the nation’s security and national interest. Our apex court has had cause to adopt a position on this issue in this regard and it is now a matter of judicial recognition that where national security and public interest are threatened or there is a likelihood of their being threatened, the individual rights of those allegedly responsible must take second place, in favour of the greater good of society…’ Since that statement was made, what has become manifestly clear is that the Buhari administration has done very little to uphold and apply the rule of law at certain critical junctures in the administration’s engagements with certain entities, groups and personalities in the polity. The president’s statement about the supremacy of ‘the nation’s security and national interest’ over the rule of law is a summation of his administration’s stance on the rule of law and an indication of the fact that the president is a sham, totally unfit for that much vaunted claim that he is a ‘reformed democrat.’ When that statement was made last year, one Senior Advocate of Nigeria and former lawmaker who sought but failed to become the next governor of Oyo State, Niyi Akintola, publicly defended the president’s view, saying that the rule of law should be suspended for one year! Shysters of Niyi Akintola’s ilk abound in the judiciary and they are, in part, the reason there is so much impunity, so much disregard for the rule of law and why the president will not flinch from making the sort of statement that clearly indicates his disdain for the rule of law. Like Professor Itse Sagay who had no qualms about defending some of the flagrant abuses of the rule of law by this administration, Niyi Akintola did not only see the irony in defending, as a legal practitioner and former lawmaker, a view that is a throwback to the terrible days of military despotism but also the untenable position of placing the rule of law beneath a nebulous concept like ‘national interest.’ We do not need much disquisition to understand that what the president’s statement means is that the rule of law is not supreme and that its application can be discretional, subject to the whims and caprices of the president since what may be deemed ‘security and national interest’ is open to a wide range of interpretations. But the rule of law is the rule of law; it is about the supremacy of the constitution which is the embodiment of the laws of the land. One of the hallmarks of military rule is the suspension of the constitution and what obtains in a military dispensation is the rule of man rather than the rule of law. It is why a military regime is predicated on making decrees since the constitution is suspended. Indeed, President Buhari’s pronouncement on that Sunday, right before a gathering of people whose duty and professional bailiwick is to interpret the law, amounts to something of a desecration of the Temple of Justice but who am I to complain when that declaration has hardly caused a ripple in the silence of the courtroom! Indeed, since that statement was made, the flagrant violations of human rights in Nigeria has become a cause for concern both nationally and internationally.

President Buhari’s administration has been guilty of much gross violation of the rule of law, and this is precisely because of the administration’s belief that the rule of law is not sacred; that it is better to have a land where the people are ruled by the caprice of the leader rather than by law. The great irony, indeed what beggars belief, is that this administration also boasts of having a Senior Advocate of Nigeria and Professor of law as Vice President. If this irony is lost on us, a brief explanation of the implication of President Buhari’s pronouncement should jolt us out of our inertia and make us confront squarely the reality of what may be an unfolding dictatorship. When the rule of law is relegated to the background where so-called security and national interests are concerned, the implication is that the law and the constitution are no longer supreme, some people can be above the law, judicial interpretations can be manipulated (if they are given consideration at all), and an extra-judicial action can be taken (as is being done in regard to Omoyele Sowore and others in detention despite court orders granting them freedom), even where the situation is unwarranted of such an action or where no state of emergency is in place. As former Lord Chief Justice of England and Wales, Tom Bingham, once remarked, ‘The hallmarks of a regime which flouts the rule of law are, alas, all too familiar: the midnight knock on the door, the sudden disappearance, the show trial, the subjection of prisoners to genetic experiment, the confession extracted by torture, the gulag and the concentration camp, the gas chamber, the practice of genocide or ethnic cleansing, the waging of aggressive war. The list is endless.’ Some of these characteristics of a regime which does not give due regard to the rule of law have been with us long before President Buhari’s statement, and today, as we seek to draw attention to the illegal detention of Omoyele Sowore, it is important that we decry, as loudly as possible, the extra-judicial detention of citizens whose activities have no bearing on so-called national security. How does calling for a revolution—asking citizens to protest bad governance, as Omoyela Sowore does with #RevolutionNow—an act of terrorism?

It is clear that the government is desperate to frame Sowore, hence the need to link him to proscribed organizations and government-designated ‘terrorists.’ This is a strategy that is quickly becoming one of the trademarks of the current administration and a fallout from subordinating the rule of law to ‘national security.’ A case in point, in this regard, is the ongoing travail of Mr. Agba Jalingo, publisher of Cross River Watch. Mr Jalingo was arrested by the police, at the command of the Cross River’s state government, for publishing an article in which he (Mr Jalingo) accused Governor Ben Ayade of approving and diverting N500 million meant for Cross River Microfinance Bank and thereby rendering the bank non-functional. Mr Jalingo promptly sued the police for illegal detention, but the police, knowing that their action is unconstitutional and a gross violation of the rule of law, swiftly instituted a four-count charge of treasonable felony, terrorism, cultism, and the disturbance of the public peace against the journalist. Mr Jalingo was also charged for working with the #RevolutionNow movement and Omoyele Sowore to ‘destabilize the government and “undemocratically” force the government of Mr Ayade to end through violent means.’ This pattern of demonizing journalists and everyone who is critical of the government—of yoking together people that have been accused of phantom terrorism—is indicative of the shape of more similar things to come. This is a government that is increasingly paranoid—one that is tottering on the verge of full dictatorship. As Okechukwu Nwanguma of Rule of Law and Accountability Advocacy Centre notes “We are back to the era of dictatorship where police will arrest a journalist and detain him indefinitely, acting at the behest of a state governor who finds a report unfavourable.”

It is obvious that, for Buhari and his administration, there is nothing axiomatic about that eternal proverb: what’s sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander. That is what you get when the rule of law is subjected to the whim of an individual who considers ‘security and national interest’ more important than the constitution. Those who believe that President Muhammadu Buhari is not exactly the ‘born again democrat’ that his supporters are making him out to be may not be wrong after all.

If reports making the round are to be believed, the Federal Government will tomorrow, Monday 30th September, 2019, arraign Sowore before a Federal High Court in Abuja. Nigerians of conscience must protest this blatant abuse of power and we must insist on the unconditional release of Sowore and others in the hold of the DSS in line with the rule of law. The president, and the various state governors, must never be allowed to subvert the rule of law or subordinate it to ‘national interest.’ What they actually mean by ‘national interest’ is nothing but ‘self interest’ and we must never allow that to hold sway. It is in the name of ‘security and national interest’ that this government has been hounding journalists and others critical of the administration. Clamping down on protesters and using naked violence against unharmed civilians have become part of the stock-in-trade of the government. More than a thousand civilians have been killed in police actions against protesters, and this number includes members of the Indigenous Peoples of Biafra mowed down in Anambra and Abia states, members of Islamic Movement in Nigeria massacred in Zaria and Abuja, and sundry other citizens subjected to various violent treatments while protesting or rallying in different parts of the country.  It has been nearly two months since Dadiyata, a vocal critic of the government, was abducted, and the government has never denied being responsible for his disappearance. Other journalists, such as Abiri Jones, have been in detention for much longer periods. From time to time artists and musicians criticizing the regime are being muzzled, thus shrinking the space of dissent. Indeed, since Omoyele Sowore’s arrest, the word ‘revolution’ has been anathematized and to organize a protest is to draw the ire of the government. Are we witnessing a return of the dark days of despotism in Nigeria?

• Dr Abayomi Ogunsanya, an anthropologist and independent journalist, writes from Dublin, Ireland.