Demonstrations and protests are a global phenomenon and are a part of the development of any society.
With so much agitation and protests going on all over Nigeria such as the #BringBackOurGirls Protest, the Biafra struggle and the protests on the proposed control of social media by the Senate, it is important to know the extent of our freedom to protest and when that right is being infringed upon.
One thing is certain: It is every Nigerian’s fundamental and constitutional right to protest and organize rallies. Section 40 of the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria provides for and guarantees this right when it states that “Every person shall be entitled to assemble freely, and associate with other persons, and in particular he may form or belong to any political party, trade union, or any other association for the protection of his interests”.
It is an inalienable right that cannot be lightly taken away by anyone. When such rights are infringed on, every citizen of Nigeria has the right to head to the courts to ensure the enforcement of such rights.
However, this right also has certain restrictions in its exercise. For instance, a person cannot protest on a matter that is illegal in Nigeria e.g. gay activism; members of a secret cult cannot protest about their interests or agitations in public; illegal or proscribed groups such as armed robbery gangs cannot protest about violation of their interests, etc.
All protests must be carried out in a peaceful manner at a reasonable time and place without violence or unnecessary disruptions. Carrying of harmful weapons and objects, chanting inciteful slogans and words, starting riots and all such conduct that threaten public safety or likely to incite violence or breaking of laws and cause obscenity should be strictly avoided by protesters. Where protesters fail to conduct themselves in a peaceful manner, they may carry out actions that are in conflict with the law for which they would be liable to arrest and prosecution.
We hear of so many instances where protests, even peaceful ones, take an ugly turn between the protests and law enforcement agents whose duty is to ensure order while the protests are on. Stories of police and other law enforcement agencies disrupting protests, killing protesters, firing dispersing shots and rubber bullets into protesting crowds, throwing teargas, beating and rough-handling protesters, mass arrests and detention of protesters, etc are recurring themes these days. In some instances such as what happened in Rivers State a while back, the police even go as far as banning protests and any form of organized rallies or meetings which they have no right to do.
It is important to note that while the police have a duty to maintain peace and order, they also ought to carry out that duty in a way that does not infringe on the rights of peaceful protesters or instils fear into the protesters who are merely seeking a means of expression.
The Public Order Act provides that the convener of a protest should obtain a licence from the police 48 hours before the actual date of the protest. The licence would only be granted if the protest is not likely to cause a breach of peace.
This position was challenged in the Court of Appeal in the case of ALL NIGERIA PEOPLES PARTY V. INSPECTOR-GENERAL OF POLICE (2008) 12 WRN 6, where the court ruled that the right to stage rallies and protests is a fundamental right and can be carried out without obtaining a police permit/licence.
However, the Nigerian Police and other law enforcement agencies are either unaware of this ruling or they simply choose to ignore it and continue demanding that protests should only be held after permits have been duly obtained.
Our government has a lot to do in terms of training members of the Police Force and other security bodies to properly handle and react to protest situations to avoid loss of lives and breach of the peace.