By Akanimo Sampson
The enduring civil rule, not yet democracy, in Nigeria came about as a result of the heroic struggle or if you like, the revolution of the popular masses against the military dictatorship of the late Head of State, General Sani Abacha. Omoyele Sowore, who the Buhari administration is presently detaining, was one of the front foot soldiers of the pro-democracy revolt on the side of the United Action for Democracy (UAD) that was then led by the iconic Olisa Agbakoba, SAN.
As a Political Correspondent of The Punch at the time, Sowore was the link between the UAD and I. The detained presidential candidate of the African Action Congress (AAC), who contested against Buhari in this year’s allegedly compromised presidential poll, is not new to the people’s struggle for change.
What is however, disturbing at the moment, is how Prof. Wole Soyinka is seeing the seeming nervous reaction of President Buhari who benefitted handsomely during the Abacha dictatorship as the principal of the multi-billion naira Petroleum Trust Fund (PTF). The Nobel Laureate who described the arrest of Sowore, as a replay of the style deployed by Abacha, has been nervously labeled a blackmailer by the Buhari Presidency.
Sowore, who was spearheading calls for a ‘’protest against bad governance’’, was 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, Mohammed Adamu, said the planned protest organised under a movement that goes by the name, Revolution Now, was an act of treason and terrorism whose sole aim is to ‘’force a regime change in the country’’. Really? And the police is not seeing anything terroristic about the butchering of the Nigerian people by the Fulani herdsmen?
In Calabar, the Cross River State capital, the police in the same style deployed by Abacha, on Monday morning arrested three journalists who were on duty to cover the planned #RevolutionNow protest in the state. They were arrested by the Anti-kidnapping and Cultism Squad of the police.
The arrested journalists are the Correspondent of The Nation, Nicolas Kalu, News Editor of CrossRiver Watch, Jonathan Ugbal and its Managing Editor , Jeremiah Archibong. They were all abducted at the state Cultural Centre convergence point for the protest march which eventually did not hold.
An eye-witness said, ‘’when Jonathan arrived with another colleague, the police immediately grabbed him and took him away. When Jeremiah got wind of the development, he went there to find out what was going on, and he was also detained by the policemen as well as Nicolas who also came later.’’
After being released initially on bail by the police squad, the Commissioner of Police allegedly requested to see the abducted trio. On getting to the police chief’s office, their statements were taken around midday and were kept waiting till midnight. While the correspondent of The Nation published by a stalwart of the All Progressives Congress (APC), Bola Tinubu, was released by midnight, the two editors of CrossRiver Watch were left behind with the police for undisclosed reasons.
Though the police did not give any reason why they were keeping them, it should however, be noted that the online news portal is published by Agba Jalingo, the State Chairman of Sowore’s AAC. The party has been a thorn in the flesh of the Governor Ben Ayade administration of the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP). It will therefore, not be surprising if the two editors are hurriedly arraigned in court trumped up charges in line with the emerging fascism in the country.
In Lagos, the commercial capital of Nigeria, the police arrested a video editor and cameraman with SaharaReporters, Victor Ogungbenro, and eight others at the RevolutionNow protest. According to SaharaReporters, they were taken to the State Criminal Investigation Department, Panti, Yaba, Lagos.
The video editor, according to sources, was not allowed to identify himself before he was dragged away by armed security officials. ‘’We kept telling them that he is with Sahara Reporters but instead that worsened the case and made them take him away. They did not allow him to identify himself. He was beaten and dragged on the floor while being taken away’’, an eye-witness said.
The protest however, held in four states and Abuja, prompting the Presidency to taunt the convener of the revolution, saying the attempt to incite citizens into a revolt against their own democratic rights and interests has failed. In a statement by the Senior Special Assistant to the President on Media and Publicity, Garba Shehu, said the President Muhammadu Buhari and the administration were humbled by the show of support by Nigerians not to participate in the alleged plot to remove a democratically elected government.
But, what could have informed this police state-like action of the establishment? In 2011, did Buhari not as the presidential candidate of the Congress for Progressive Change (CPC), one of the coalition parties that formed the APC, call for a revolution in Nigeria?
Through Yinka Odumakin, Buhari’s spokesman at the time, the seeming reincarnated Abacha asked Nigerians to make exceptional sacrifices to assert their collective will in the country. ‘’The Egyptian pro-democracy campaigners defied all odds to achieve their set goal of terminating the 30-year old grip on power by Mubarak. Their tenacity has again confirmed the truism that no force on earth can stop a people determined’’, he said.
TheCable, an online news portal noted that this was not the first time Buhari called for mass action. According to the news platform, he did the same in 2003, after losing the presidential election to Olusegun Obasanjo of the PDP, pointing out that in June 2003, supporters of the All Nigeria Peoples Party (ANPP), also one of the APC coalition and Buhari, began a mass protest against the outcome of the April 19, 2003 presidential election in Abuja.
The protesters were reported to have massed at the Court of Appeal, venue of the Presidential Election Petition Tribunal to witness the proceeding. They later spill over to the streets where they chanted anti-government slogans against the Obasanjo administration.
In 2011, while calling for a revolution, Buhari commended the Egyptian military for refusing to attack ‘’the forces of change. The military in Egypt showed exemplary conduct with the way they refused to be used to attack the forces of change. They showed the whole world that there is a clear difference between the state and those who temporarily occupy political offices for a fixed tenure. This is a lesson for our security agents who have been used to subvert the will of the people at elections in recent past.
‘’The time has come for our own security forces to demonstrate similar valour by putting national interest above that of individuals when there is a clash between the two. Unlike the Egyptians who went through self-denial for 18 unbroken days to achieve their aspiration for leadership change, Nigerians just have to take their voter cards, vote on each election day and ensure that their votes count and are properly counted. It is time to demonstrate people’s power to free our country from those who have held it hostage for the last 12 years and are threatening to keep it so for 60 years’’, Buhari reportedly said.
Why is the Buhari administration bellyaching now that they are to be served with their menu?
Before the inception of the General Abdulsalami Abubakar military regime, the relationship between the country’s civil society, the international community and Abacha on the issues of democracy and/or good governance and human rights, strained. This arose from the disastrous annulment, by the Ibrahim Babangida military regime, of the June 12 1993, presidential election, won by MKO Abiola. After Babangida had stepped aside following the wild cat street actions that greeted his ill-conceived decision, and crippled the conjured Interim National Government (ING), Abacha who eventually took over, put Nigeria at the highest peak of human rights abuse in her political history like being experienced since 2015.
Abacha (September 20, 1943-June 8, 1998) served as the de facto President of Nigeria from 1993 until his death in 1998. Commendably, he was also the first Nigerian soldier to attain the rank of a four-star General without skipping a single rank. But, in the Southern flank of the troubled country, there is still a disdain for the late military dictator. This can be attributed to the execution of Ken Saro-Wiwa and eight other of his kinsmen after being found guilty, in a controversial trial, of killing four Ogoni leaders.
Like it is happening currently, bomb blasts were a recurring decimal of the Abacha epoch. It contributed to heightening political and social insecurity nationwide. That provided a perfect alibi for Abacha, to run a maximum dictatorship, a muscular and authoritarian regime, almost in all material particular. Like the killings and kidnappings by the herdsmen, cases of hired assassinations virtually became a national routine.
Perhaps, it was against this background that Soyinka in a statement on Sunday said Sowore did nothing to suggest he is ‘’urging the public to engage in a forceful overthrow of government’’, and accordingly described the activist’s arrest as a ‘’travesty’’ and violation of the fundamental rights of citizens to congregate and make public their concerns.
‘’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’’, the foremost playwright said in the statement, adding, ‘’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 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.’’
Soyinka said protests are democratic ways of drawing government’s attention to ills and mobilising the public towards a proactive consciousness of their condition, pointing out that the arrests, incarceration and threats to civilians involved in such cause are ‘’ultimately counter-productive.’’
Continuing, he said, ‘’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!’’
In the mean time, the Buhari Presidency has opened fire on Soyinka, and others who knocked the administration over the arrest of Sowore by the secret police. Buhari’s spokesman, Shehu in a statement accused Soyinka and all those who criticised the administration’s move as taking part in ‘’unpardonable blackmail’’, added that they cannot stop the police from doing their job.
According to Shehu: ‘’You mentioned the name of Prof. 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 Police and other law enforcement agencies from doing their work.’’
Akanimo Sampson is a veteran editor and columnist.