In a wise change of mind, the police last Thursday not only allowed a rally planned by the #BringBackOurGirls movement, but provided escort as the protesters made their way to the Presidential Villa to deliver their message of frustration to the president. The FCT police authorities had threatened to stop the demonstrating women activists, who accuse the government of not doing enough to rescue 276 Chibok, Borno State, schoolgirls abducted by Boko Haram insurgents on April 14, from reaching their destination.
The police action contrasted with the conduct of its officers during earlier encounters with the same activist movement in Abuja, Kaduna and Lokoja. While the activists gathered to hold a peaceful demonstration earlier at the Unity Park, Abuja, a large detachment of armed policemen arrived to seal off the venue and stop the event from taking place, dispersing the conveners. According to the police at the time, they had "orders from above" to take the action and prevent further demonstrations at that location over the abducted girls. Similar protests in Kaduna were stopped by police who deployed anti-riot personnel and armoured cars at the Murtala Mohamed Square in a show of determination to stop any rally from taking place. In Lokoja, the police actually informed the conveners in writing, citing the security situation in the country, to decline approval for a proposed rally.
This mixed response reflects the ambivalence on the part of the police on how to handle such peaceful demonstrations over a cause that has gained worldwide recognition. Such confusion is also coloured by the government's own attitude towards those clamouring for it to be much more engaged in the matter of the girls' abduction than it has demonstrated so far.
But the police must recognise the right of people to peaceful assembly, and provide security where the need arises. The activists - as affected and concerned parents themselves- were within the bounds of the laws in mobilizing public interest in the Chibok girls' unfortunate saga.
It is partly due to their effort that corresponding rallies have taken place in practically every capital city in the world. It is not surprising that their action, along with civil society organisations and sections of the media, helped to galvanize and consolidate the ongoing international campaign, including offers of military assistance by several national governments, to assist the country rescue the girls and overcome the Boko Haram challenge. The rallies cannot therefore by any stretch of the imagination be considered questionable and target of police storm troopers. That is why the change of mind by the FCT police is a step in the right direction and should be a model for the entire country.
Among the many lessons from the police stance on public rallies over the #BringBackOurGirls campaign is the continuing resort by security agencies to arrogate to themselves unfounded powers to decide when and where members of the public can express the desire to speak out or assemble on any matter of public interest. Government should not be carried away by the drama of the protest, but rather focus on the causes.
The point has been established many times from legal perspectives that the right of members of the public to assemble freely, as enshrined in Section 40 of Nigeria's Constitution, and in the African Charter of Human Rights, to which Nigeria is a signatory, is inviolable. This fact also enjoys copious complement in judicial rulings by appropriate courts of competence jurisdiction, including the Supreme Court of Nigeria.
The police often flash the provisions of the Public Order Act (Cap 382) Laws of the Federal Republic of Nigeria to respond to requests or plans by members of the public to hold rallies, although the courts have ruled that law to be inconsistent with provisions of the Constitution and therefore inapplicable. This is the message that the police authorities need to internalise as they come to grips with the aftermath of Chibok girls' abduction, and as another election cycle approaches.