A Nigerian Senator recently organised a rally which turned bloody. There was a lot of commotion which resulted in loss of life. The police, in response to the sad incident, blamed the senator for failing to obtain a police permit.

The Right to Peaceful Assembly is a right guaranteed by the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria. The Constitution provides that “Every person shall be entitled to assemble freely and associate with other persons…

The purport of this right is that individuals can gather in groups for a lawful purpose. It is because of the existence of this right that people can gather in churches, mosques, and in other groups. This right is the foundation of the right to organise peaceful protests, political rallies and any lawful activity which requires people to gather in groups.

This right like all other rights guaranteed by law is not without its limitations. The Constitution authorises the National Assembly to enact laws in the interest of public safety, public order and for the purpose of protecting the rights and freedom of other persons.

The National Assembly enacted the Public Order Act pursuant to its powers to enact laws under the Constitution. The Act, amongst other things, provides that any person who is desirous of convening any assembly or meeting or of forming any procession in any public road or place of public resort shall apply to the Governor for a License not less than 48 hours before the time for such assembly or meeting. Where the Governor is satisfied that the assembly, meeting or procession is not likely to cause a breach of the peace, he shall direct any superior police officer to issue a licence, not less than 24 hours to the time for such assembly, specifying the name of the licensee (person granted the license) and defining the conditions under which the assembly, meeting or procession is permitted to take place. And if he is not so satisfied, he can refuse to grant a license.

The power to grant licenses can be delegated by the Governor of a State to the Commissioner of Police of the State or any superior police officer.

Thus, the position of the law in relation to the Right to Peaceful Assembly used to be that a license must be obtained before people can assembly, especially to hold rallies, campaigns or protests, until the Court of Appeal in 2007 held certain provisions of the Public Order Act to be void for being inconsistent with the Constitution. The Court held that

“In present day Nigeria, clearly Police Permit has outlived its usefulness certainly in a democracy; it is the right of citizens to conduct peaceful processions, rallies or demonstrations without seeking and obtaining permission from anybody. It is a right guaranteed by the 1999 constitution and any law that attempts to curtail such right are null and void and of no consequence.”

It must, however, be stated that it is good practice to give notice to the police about a protest or rally that is about to take place, in order to give the police time to plan and be ready to manage the crowd and any violence which could erupt. Such notice should not be mistaken for obtaining consent or license from the police in order to go ahead with a rally or protest.

The police have a duty to preserve law and order and to protect life and property. The performance of these duties is not dependent on whether a person sought and obtained the permission of the police before holding a rally or protest. It is therefore wrong for the police to excuse loss of life, breakdown of law and order and the loss of property on the ground that its consent was not obtained before exercising the right to peaceful assembly guaranteed by the constitution.

A person who breaches the law in the course of exercising his right to peaceful assembly would be liable for his infraction of the law, as the right to peaceful assembly is not a license to infract the law.