Wanted in Nigeria: A new response to street protests in Nigeria

All over the world, there is considerable consensus that democracy is the best form of government. While some applaud its people-oriented nature, others are attracted to the freedom it gives to every individual in society.

Hence, everyone in a democracy is free to move about in pursuit of any lawful desires. At the same time, people are free to associate by determining those they wish to interact with while excluding others from their groupings. On this score, the Nigerian group which is asking our government to “#BringBackOurGirls” (BBOG) falls within the confines of democracy. The group is uniquely decisive in speaking out on a matter of public interest about which many compatriots are too frightened. It also has its dress code, place, date and time of meetings as well as modalities for its conduct. No one ought to disturb the association, just as no one should hinder its freedom to move around the public place if Nigeria qualifies to be called a democracy.

Last week, however, the group was stopped from moving into the Presidential Villa—a location from where the man they voted to rule operates. Their mission was to intimate their president in person with their viewpoint on the subject of the safe return of the Chibok School girls abducted since April. It could not have been President Goodluck Jonathan who authorized their stoppage, having asserted at another event that he was on the same page as the protesters. According to the media, the president told a national conference on environmental security in Abuja that the policy of bringing back the adopted girls safely remained his priority. In the words of President Jonathan: “As an elected official, I want to solve the problem of the Chibok girls. It is a priority on my-to-do list as president.” Jonathan was quoted to have added that: “I agree with the #Bring BackOurGirls campaigners, especially for piling up pressure on us on the issue”. If so, why were members of the group stopped from interacting with the nation’s Number One citizen who can pass for a member of the team by association? We are therefore, dissatisfied with the two main groups — female ministers and security operatives who did it.

In the case of the first group- the female ministers — it is a pity that they recruited themselves into the assignment which the president was ever ready to be personally involved in. Our position here is underscored by the portion of the president’s speech at the environmental conference where he said: “I refuse to pass it onto somebody else. Our security interests will not permit us to withhold legitimate actions that will bring back the girls… And neither should our conscience”. Which of the female minister, who sought to represent the president would have become a minister if she was abducted as a young girl and was not rescued? Which of them would have been able to counsel any protester if any of the abducted girls was her daughter? Which of them would have been satisfied to see a minister instead of the president if she was a mother to any of the abducted girls? Introspectively, the ministers would have done a better job if they had the courage and passion to advice that the president should see the protesters in view of the sensitive nature of the subject, more so as the BBOG family came to reiterate what the nation now knows to be the priority of the president. As ministers, they ought to have known the real feelings of their principal before purporting to represent him. How could the president have been too busy to deal with a subject concerning his priority?

As for the second group, that is, the security operatives, they were as usual overzealous last Tuesday in stopping the protesters from seeing Mr President. What our law enforcement agents should have done was to have escorted the protesters to their destination, while ensuring no breakdown of law and order. If they had done that, the team would have delivered their message and would have received assurances from President Jonathan of the commonality of interests of both parties. The team would then have returned to their BBOG centre leaving many Nigerians to see their president as a caring leader. Instead, the opportunity was again botched as was done earlier when government lost the gains of getting the president to visit Chibok and empathize with the people. When is it in order for the mountain to move to Mohammed?

It is not impossible that our security operatives are yet to overcome the hang-over of the military era which criminalized public dissent and in which people were whipped to fall in line. It is, however, time to appropriately sensitize them on the need to depart from those days of tyranny and dispense with the mundane requirements of the obnoxious Public Order Act. One security “expert” the other day supported the stoppage of the protest because he imagined that government had said over and over again that it was doing its best on the Chibok abduction issue. Pity, the expert did not know that saying something many times does not mean everyone would hear or assimilate it. What is more, security is not a viable alternative to effective communication

This is why this column is today calling for a new approach to street protests in Nigeria. We are in a democracy now in which those who applaud government actions may not appreciate its inactions. Besides, the pan-Nigerian mandate Jonathan got as president in 2011 includes the votes of his Chibok admirers. Even if they voted against him, he became everyone’s president after securing the majority of votes. Thus, neither should those who are aggrieved be stopped from ventilating their grievances nor should they be shielded away from the people’s president only to become destructive. President Jonathan needs to know the size, nature and disposition of the aggrieved; otherwise he would dangerously rest on his oars believing that we are all Transformation Ambassadors of Nigeria (TAN).

Tonnie Iredia

Dr. Tonnie Iredia is a former Director-General of the Nigerian Television Authority.

  • bala musa

    Very sad we can’t say or do without fear it’s this fear that has made us fall in this direction.