Wednesday, March 08, 2006

Punch Tells Of Police Crackdown On Third-Term Dissenters

Authorities throughout Nigeria, and even in its House of Representatives, have been cracking down on those who attempt to mount objections and protests to an unconstitutional third-term bid by Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo.

While ERHC On The Move supports a third term for Obasanjo, who has done a far better job than anyone expected and probably could be a more effective president than an any other Nigerian leader in rooting out the systemic corruption that has hamstringed every fact of Nigerian life, we deplore the use of force and official influence to limit free speech.

We urge President Obasanjo to tell those responsible he doesn't need to suppress free speech in order to peacefully alter the Nigerian constitution and achieve that objective if indeed he desires to do so.

Here is the editorial from today's The Punch of Nigeria, with which we join in support:

Police and right of expression

Clear signals that government is increasingly getting impatient with voices of dissent, especially those opposed to the third term agenda, are now emerging. Going by the brutal suppression of dissent in different parts of the federation, it seems the Police are acting on a clandestine brief. Recently, Police reportedly killed one person in Katsina State during a demonstration to protest the likely manipulation of the constitution to keep in office the President and some governors beyond 2007.

In Osun State, Police, allegedly acting on “orders from above”, detained for more than one week 24 protesters, mostly undergraduates, during the recent National Assembly public hearing on the review of the Constitution. The students, who could not write their examinations, were arraigned after intense pressure by groups calling for their unconditional release. In Akure, the Ondo State capital, the Police arrested two persons identified with a pro-democracy group; while a meeting of a newly registered political party, Action Congress of Democrats, was truncated.

In addition, armed policemen dispersed a recent meeting of leaders of South South and Arewa Consultative Forum. Security agents swooped on the conference organised by Save Nigeria Movement and aborted a presentation by Dr. Usman Bugaje. Even the hallowed precincts of the House of Representatives were not spared, as security agents prevented a member, Haruna Yerima, from gaining entry because he wore a “No third term” badge. Reason prevailed only when other lawmakers insisted that everyone had the right to identify with what he or she believes in.

However, there is no report of anyone being harassed for canvassing tenure extension. Many chieftains of industry, political organisations -- particularly the Peoples Democratic Party; socio-cultural associations and beneficiaries of government have, at different times, openly advocated tenure extension. Though some supporters were disowned and upbraided by their constituencies, they were not officially hounded.

Indeed, such official protection should be for all in a free marketplace of ideas that democracy represents. Freedom to hold and disseminate ideas is what distinguishes democracy from dictatorship. In addition, the right of every person to freedom of expression and association and liberty from discrimination is guaranteed by the 1999 Constitution.

Much as the incumbent political office holders also have the right to canvass morally and legally sound ideas, they would be unfair if they want only their voices to be heard within the democratic space. The stifling of genuine voices of dissent and labeling some of them as agents of destabilization are unmistakable signs of a budding despotism. The suppression of the constitutionally guaranteed freedom of speech and of association in a democratic dispensation is an indication of gradual descent into dictatorship, going by the nation’s harsh experience with intolerant leadership under the military.

Good governance is not only about the selfish interest of a few political office holders who often equate national interest with their own will. Experience shows that government embarks on massive silencing of dissent when it has an unpopular idea to foist on the public. A democracy-friendly policing system that extends the frontiers of freedom is what the nation requires now. Democracy and the rule of law only allow dialogue and consensus building as instruments for rallying support for any political programme. Neither intimidation nor blackmail can force an unpopular idea down the throat of the public without triggering dire consequences.

While the Police is urged to desist from muzzling the people’s legitimate voices of dissent, the people should speak more openly against the creeping curtailment of their inalienable freedom of expression.

The Punch, Wednesday, March 08, 2006

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