EndSARS protest: FG, CBN and hounding of promoters

Omoniyi Salaudeen

The youth restiveness as precipitated by the recent EndSARS protests in some parts of the country still remains a talking point in the country. Since the sudden eruption of the crisis that threatened the fabric of the nation, the desire for sustainable peace has been the major concern of the stakeholders. The only new twist to the discourse is the Central Bank of Nigeria order that the accounts of the masterminds of the protest should be frozen contrary to the earlier disposition of the Federal Government.   

In the wake of the peaceful protest against police brutality and excesses of the Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS), President Muhammadu Buhari had acted swiftly and responsively by announcing an immediate disbandment of the security unit in line with the demands of the youths. Also, in recognition of the rights of the people to ventilate their grievances by peaceful means, he had described the protest as “genuine and well-intended” in his address to the nation.

“On Monday 12th October, I acknowledged the genuine concerns and agitations of members of the public regarding the excessive use of force by some members of SARS. The choice to demonstrate peacefully is a fundamental right of citizens as enshrined in Section 40 of our Constitution and other enactments; but this right to protest also imposes on the demonstrators the responsibility to respect the rights of other citizens, and the necessity to operate within the law.

“As a democratic government, we listened to, and carefully evaluated the five-point demands of the protesters. And having accepted them, we immediately scrapped SARS, and put measures in place to address the other demands of our youths,” Buhari had said.

The president even went further to acknowledge the difference in the intension of the protesters as against the activities of the hoodlums who later hijacked the process and unleashed mayhem, saying “certainly, there is no way whatsoever to connect these bad acts to legitimate expressions of grievances of the youths of our country.”

With the latest twist, many prominent Nigerians have dismissed the government’s backward and forward attitude as not only perfunctory, but also contradictory. Some even alleged that the authorities might have been trapped in a crisis of identity with regards to genuine EndSARS protesters and the hoodlums who hijacked the process and unleashed mayhem on innocent citizens.

So far, no fewer than 19 accounts of individuals connected with the protest have been declared frozen till January 2021 on accounts of suspicion of possible foreign intervention.

The declaration followed the order obtained from the Federal High Court in Abuja by the apex bank. The request was at the instance of the CBN Governor, Godwin Emefiele, and granted by Justice Ahmed Mohammed on October 20.

Other than the Northern interest group, which views the protesters as subversive elements, virtually all leaders of thought in the country, including Afenifere, Ohanaeze Ndigbo, as well as the Middle Belt Forum, have carpeted the CBN for being a willing tool for the suppression  of the fundamental rights of the citizens to freedom of expression.

 Beyond that, a good number of opinion leaders, who spoke with Sunday Sun, also warned that the systematic clampdown on the EndSARS protesters could lead to further crises. A renowned security expert, Dr. Ekhomu Onah, speaking on the matter said:  “The government has to tread softly. They have to negotiate with these people. The other day, one of the protesters was travelling, Immigration Service seized his passport. Though they later gave him the passport, but that was a bad move because the person’s itinerary must have been frustrated for that day. If they want the protesters to come out to answer certain questions, they should have the courage to say so.

“But this idea of freezing people’s account is not the right way to go. These people are doing their business in full view because they have no criminal intension. What have they done about the money Boko Haram insurgents have been getting?

“I think clearly the government’s action is not well thought out. The government has to be very careful so that it can be seen to be consistent in what it is saying and its action. The president cannot come out to make those statements he made and an arm of government (CBN) would be acting in direct variance. The government had laid the reconciliatory tone, and its action must be seen to be consistent. When there is no harmonization in what is going on in a government, what you have is cognitive dissonance.

“The president is saying the youths have the rights to protest, but some agencies of government are hounding the protesters. Rather than prosecuting the EndSARS protester, the police and other security agencies should go after the hoodlums who caused the devastation in the country. The people who organized that peaceful protest do not deserve this harassment from the government in any way. Unfortunately, this is what happens when you have operatives of government trying to be holier than the Pope. They are trying to show Buhari that they are working for him.

“Meanwhile, I have not seen government freeze the account of the hoodlums. Hoodlums don’t have account. Those who burnt down police stations and other public infrastructure are the ones government should go after and get them arrested.”

The larger implication is that we are going to get another EndSARS riot if we continue on this dangerous path. All I can say right now is that government should tread softly. Government should be an honest broker. Government should get people who can think for them. This country is well endowed. There is a lot of intelligentsia in this country. If you can’t play alone, get people to join your team.”

A former aide of Ex-President Olusegun Obasanjo, Dr Gbenga Osinnowo, also warned of the dire consequences of deliberate suppression of genuine agitation of the people.

His words: “President Muhammadu Buhari has been giving the impression that government is willing to respond to the demands of the EndSARS protesters, but what they are doing now is in bad faith because a clampdown is not the way to be responsive. To now just threat them as rebels and dissidents is not only repressive, but also dangerous. I don’t believe this is the right way to address the issues. It can drive the protesters underground and then bring back the protest with a greater violence in the future.”

According to him, it is either that the government was deceiving the public by its earlier disposition or that the hawks in government have persuaded the president to change his course of action.

Similarly, a human right activist and constitutional lawyer, Dr Tunji Abayomi, while also sounding his note of warning, posited: “I will consider the action of the CBN to be inappropriate. Some of us in the human right community are strongly of the view that there is no basis for that because it amounts to punishment for exercising a legitimate right to the freedom of expression.

“The mistake most governments make is to believe that the way to deal with legitimate agitation is to suppress it. But history has taught us that it is not very easy to suppress agitation. You will recall that in our struggle against the military dictatorship, a lot of us were detained several times, but we were not deterred. It didn’t stop us from our struggle for democracy. It didn’t stop us from confronting the military. Sometimes people will be willing to give up their lives for liberty. I do not think this is the appropriate way to address the issue. It is a wrong move in my view. It doesn’t make any sense as far as I know. I think the right thing is to look at the issues. They are pretending that things are okay, but they are not. It is because things are not okay that millions of youths are on the street. It is because things are not okay that you see citizens destroying the assets of their country. When things are not okay, the best way is not to suppress those who react. Even if the reaction is unreasonable, the best way is to see how you can improve on governance. With the way they are acting now, they are even creating new crisis.”

Abayomi advised those whose accounts have been frozen to approach the court to seek redress.

“The solution to the issue is for the leaders of the group to go to court to challenge the order. Under our system, exercise of such authority is subject to the authority of the court,” he added.

Son of the late Abubakar Tsav, Muhammed  Tsav, also a lawyer and security expert, didn’t mince word either, as he declared the action of the CBN as suppressive and unconstitutional.

“I am not comfortable with freezing of the accounts of the protesters.  What offence have they committed? As far as I am concerned, the protest was civil only that it was hijacked by hoodlums. It is absolutely wrong for government to freeze somebody’s account especially without a court order. It is like punishing these people even before they are taken to court. If they say the source of the money is questionable, why haven’t they stopped the money that has been used to fund the Boko Haram? How come the accounts of the Boko Haram insurgents have not been frozen?  Agreed that hoodlums hijacked the protest, why have they not apprehended them?

“They are pushing these people to the wall. And when they are pushed to the wall, they may decide to fight back. The implication is that sooner or later these people are going to come back to protest and hoodlums will also join them,” he warned.  

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