Nigeria Back to Repressive Days of Abacha Regime, Says Soyinka

Photo: Vanguard
Wole Soyinka.
5 August 2019

The federal government came under more attacks yesterday over the arrest of the presidential candidate of the African Action Congress (AAC), Omoyele Sowore, as Nobel laureate, Professor Wole Soyinka, described the detention of the activist-turned politician as reminiscent of the oppressive regime of the late Head of State, Gen. Sani Abacha.

Human rights lawyer, Mr. Femi Falana (SAN), also lampooned the government and faulted the argument of security agencies that the call for revolution by Sowore amounted to treason.

Abacha came to power in November 1993 in the wake of the agitation for the revalidation of the annulled June 12, 1993 presidential election results after sacking the Interim National Government headed by Chief Ernest Shonekan.

He unleashed brutality against the people, arresting and killing protesters and opponents of his regime. Some of the critics of his dictatorship, including former Head of State then, Gen. Olusegun Obasanjo; former Chief of Staff Supreme Headquarters, Maj.-Gen. Shehu Musa Yar'Adua, human rights activists, Dr. Beko Ransome-Kuti and Chief Gani Fawehinmi, among others, were roped in in contrived coup plot and sentenced to various jail terms.

Soyinka, in a statement yesterday, said Sowore did nothing to suggest he was "urging the public to engage in a forcible overthrow of government" as explained by the police.

Sowore is the convener of '#RevolutionNow' protests, which has been scheduled to hold nationwide today.

He was, however, arrested by operatives of the Department of State Services (DSS) at his Lagos residence in the early hours of Saturday.

The Inspector-General of Police (IG), Mohammed Adamu, also tagged the planned protests an act of treason and terrorism, whose sole aim is to "force a regime change in the country."

However, the DSS, which confirmed Sowore's arrest yesterday, defended its action, saying the activist was taken into custody for calling for a revolution in Nigeria.

On his part, Rivers State Governor, Mr. Nyesom Wike, yesterday warned that the state government would not tolerate any protest just as he ordered security agents to arrest anyone found taking part in today's planned protest.

But Soyinka deplored the arrest, describing it as a "travesty" and violation of the fundamental rights of citizens to congregate and make public their concerns.

According to him, protests are democratic ways of drawing government's attention to ills and mobilising the public towards a proactive consciousness of their condition.

He said the arrest, incarceration and threats to civilians involved in such cause were "ultimately counter-productive."

"Beyond the word 'revolution, another much mis-used and misunderstood word, nothing that Sowore has uttered, written, or advocated suggests that he is embarking on, or urging the public to engage in a forceful overthrow of government.

"I, therefore, find the reasons given by the Inspector-General, for the arrest and detention of this young ex-presidential candidate totally contrived and untenable, unsupported by any shred of evidence.

"This is all so sadly déjà vu. How often must we go through this wearisome cycle? We underwent identical cynical contrivances under the late, unlamented Sani Abacha, when he sent storm-troopers to disrupt a planning session for a similar across-nation march at Tai Solarin's Mayflower School, Ikenne.

"The same pattern Pavlovian conduct manifested itself under yet another supposed democratic ruler who personally declared that the gathering of civilians to deliberate on, and propose a constitution for the nation was 'high treason'. And yet again, even a faceless cabal under yet another civilian regime refused to be left out of the insensate play of power.

"Freedom is not so glibly qualified. It cannot be doled out like slops of charity from soup kitchens. "Let the police stick to their task of protecting and managing protests, not attempt to place their own meaning and declaration of intent on bogey words like - revolution!," the laureate said.

Soyinka urged the Inspector General to wade through the daily journals of the past few weeks and months, read and digest the calls by numerous sectors of society - across professions and national groupings - for demonstrations against the parlous conditions of society, all identifying ills to which attention must be drawn, and urgently, through mass action.

According to him, demonstrations and processions are time honoured, democratic ways of drawing not only the attention of government to ills, but of mobilising the public towards a proactive consciousness of their condition, and thereby exhorting civil society also to devise means of ameliorating their condition through their own efforts.

"Religious bodies have urged such remedies, so have civic associations. The ready recourse to arrests, incarceration and threats to civilians are ultimately counter-productive. They alienate the citizens, erode their confidence in governance responsiveness, and thereby advance the very extremist nightmare that security agencies believe they are acting to thwart.

"If we cannot learn from the histories and experiences of other societies, let us at least learn from ours. Freedom is not so glibly qualified. It cannot be doled out like slops of charity from soup kitchens. Let the police stick to their task of protecting and managing protests, not attempt to place their own meaning and declaration of intent on bogey words like - revolution," he added.

Soyinka's Statement, Unpardonable Blackmail, Says Presidency

However, the presidency described Soyinka's statement as an unpardonable blackmail that would not deter the police and law enforcement agents from doing their work.

Reacting to the criticism of Soyinka, following THISDAY inquiry, a presidential spokesman, Mallam Garba Shehu, said renowned critics like Soyinka who often accuse the police of dereliction of duty when there is a breach of law and order are also the ones castigating law enforcement agents in their current moves to protect the law.

He described the accusation that the president is autocratic as an unpardonable blackmail, saying that Nigerians can only call for a change of government in accordance with constitutional stipulations.

According to him, calls for violent change of a democratically elected government is unacceptable in a setting where the guidelines for change of government have clearly been spelt out in the constitution.

He said: "You mentioned the name of Professor Wole Soyinka. Some of these critics of government are people whom we have great respect and admiration for. When things are going wrongly with law and order in the country, they say the police are not doing their work. They raise their voices, asking that "the culprits to be booked and expeditiously punished in the most severe manner.

"The police under a new leadership is now rising to the occasion, saying 'we cannot take any more atrocities against the law in our country and they are saying don't do anything. They are calling out President Buhari and comparing him to autocratic leaders.' This is an unpardonable blackmail that cannot stop the police and other law enforcement agencies from doing their work.

"A Nigerian is by right empowered to call for a change of government using constitutional means; to protest peacefully against government policies and decisions. But to call for the violent overthrow of a democratically elected government and president and worse - were those calling for it to attempt to do so - is not acceptable under any law in Nigeria. Violence will never be accepted again as a way to change governments in this country. Those days are gone.

"Nigeria has a well-crafted constitution and elaborate laws governing elections that guide an orderly succession in government. We have a judicial system that actively serves as a watchdog of the people's rights.

"Yet, we are daily witnesses to obscene display of delight in the killing of our soldiers and policemen, an open contempt for the country's laws and its people, accompanied by loud cheers from the so-called New Media. Is this the way to grow a country?"

Protests Not Treasonable Offence, Says Falana

In his reaction, Falana, in a statement yesterday, said protest marches in Nigeria were not treasonable offences.

According to him, the police have capitalised on the use of the word "revolution" to criminalise the protests.

He said: "No doubt, the Nigeria Police Force has capitalised on the use of the word "revolution" to criminalise the protests. If revolution has become a criminal offence in Nigeria, why were the leaders of the APC not charged for claiming to have carried out Nigeria's democratic revolution, which terminated the 16-year rule of the PDP in 2015?

"Why was Dr. Kingsley Chiedu Moghalu, the presidential candidate of the Young Progressive Party (YPP) not threatened with treason when he asked Nigerians to rise up for revolution via the 2019 general election?

"Did all Nigerian senators led by APC members not commit treason or terrorism when they spent one-and-a-half hours on May 14, 2019 to debate Senator Chukwuka Utazi's timely motion on "Bridging the gap between the haves and have-not to nip in the bud the seeds of a looming violent revolution?"

Falana also criticised the Buhari administration for clamping down on individuals perceived as its critics.

"It is worrisome that the Buhari administration has decided to extend the ambit of the Terrorism Prevention (Amendment) Act to cover individuals and organisations that are critical of official policies or perceived marginalisation within the federation," he added.

DSS: Sowore in Custody for Calling for Revolution

Amid the criticisms, the DSS yesterday defended its arrest of Sowore, saying he was taken into custody because he called for a revolution in Nigeria

"I want to start by saying; the Department of State Services is a responsible security and intelligence agency operating in Nigeria. And operating also in a democracy and it adheres strictly to the fundamental principles and tenets of democracy. The DSS as we are all aware is charged primarily with the detection and prevention of crimes and threats against the internal security of Nigeria and fundamentally more importantly, the service is also charged with the responsibility of managing, containing, curtailing, eliminating threats against the national security of Nigeria. These threats include: threats of sabotage, threats of subversion, threats of terrorism and of course, threats of espionage and all others, including ethnic agitations, economic sabotage and all of that," DSS spokesperson, Mr. Peter Afunanya, said.

According to him, Nigeria is not a banana republic and anyone calling for revolution is only inciting others join in insurrection, insurgency and to forcibly take over the government.

But Afunanya was unable to say whether or not the DSS has any credible intelligence that confirmed Sowore has the capacity to execute a takeover of government.

He, however, said the DSS was "aware" that Sowore had been in touch with foreign actors to destabilise Nigeria.

The DSS declined to say where Sowore was being kept and when he would be arraigned in court.

Wike Orders Arrest of Protesters

Meanwhile, Rivers State Governor, Mr. Nyesom Wike, has warned that the state will not tolerate any protest as fear rose yesterday over the planned #RevolutionNow, billed to begin today, and ordered security agents to arrest anyone found participating in the protest.

Wike said Rivers State was not part of the protest and whatever illegal agenda it sought to pursue.

"Rivers State does not subscribe to what the #RevolutionNow protest represents and Rivers State is not part of the protest," he added.

He directed security agencies to arrest anybody involved in the #RevolutionNow protest and also take all necessary steps to prosecute such persons.

Police Ready for Protest as IG Puts CPs on the Alert

Also yesterday, the Police High Command said it was prepared for any eventuality that would arise from today's planned revolution march.

As part of its preparations to handle the situation, the Inspector General of Police, Adamu Mohammed, has ordered Commissioners of Police in the 36 States and the Federal Capital Territory (FCT) to maintain law and order in their areas of responsibility.

Force Public Relations Officer (PRO), Mr. Frank Mba, a Deputy Commissioner of Police (DCP), said the police nationwide were on red alert.

"Commissioners of Police nationwide are under strict and specific instruction to ensure the maintenance of law and order within their areas of responsibility," he told THISDAY in a telephone interview.

Also, the FCT Police Commissioner, Bala Ciroma, said the command had put adequate measures in place to contain any breakdown of law and order.

"We have adequate security arrangement in place. Everybody should go about his lawful, normal businesses," he said.

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