The right to protest as described by scholars may be a manifestation of the right to freedom of assembly, the right to freedom of association, and freedom of speech. True, many international treaties contain clear articulations of the right to protest. Such agreements include the 1950 European Convention on Human Rights, especially Articles 9 to 11; and the 1966 International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, especially Articles 18 to 22.
However, in these and other agreements the rights of freedom of assembly, freedom of association, and freedom of speech are subject to certain limitations. Protesting, however, is not necessarily violent or a threat to the interests of national security or public safety. Nor is it necessarily civil disobedience, when protesting does not involve violating the laws of the state. Protests, even campaigns of nonviolent resistance, or civil resistance, can often have the character of positively supporting a democratic and constitutional order.
Withal in Nigeria, the combined effect of sections 39 and 40 of the 1999 Constitution as well as Article 11 of the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights, unfurled that the right to freedom of expression and right to assemble freely. Hence, the right to assemble freely cannot be violated without violating the fundamental right to peaceful assembly and association.
Now, in the view of the just dissolved End Special Anti-Robbery Squad (End SARS) protest, which is a social movement in Nigeria that started on Twitter calling for banning of the Special Anti-Robbery Squad, a unit of the Nigerian Police Force, calling to end police oppression and brutality in Nigeria. The protests started as a social media campaign using the hashtag #ENDSARS to demand Nigeria’s government to scrap and end the deployment of Nigeria Police Force Special Anti-Robbery Squad, popularly known as SARS.
Nigerians have shared both stories and video evidence of how members of SARS engaged in kidnapping, murder, theft, rape, torture, unlawful arrests, high-handedness, humiliation, unlawful detention, extrajudicial killings, and extortion. This piece shall this take a look into the most intimating protest we have had as a nation over the years.
The Women’s War also dubbed as Aba Women’s Riots was a period of unrest in British Nigeria over November 1929. The protests broke out when thousands of Igbo women from the Bende District, Umuahia and other places in eastern Nigeria travelled to the town of Oloko to protest against the Warrant Chiefs, whom they accused of restricting the role of women in the government. The Aba Women’s Riots of 1929, as it was named in British colonial records, is more aptly considered a strategically executed anti-colonial revolt organised by women to redress social, political and economic grievances.
According to Margery Perham’s Report of the revolt, at the end of 1929, just when the government was congratulating itself upon the success with which the difficult task of introducing direct taxation into these provinces had been accomplished, rioting of a serious and unusual kind broke out in Calabar and Owerri. In Owerri province, in the heart of the Ibo country, where a particularly dense population inhabits the palm forest, there is a place called Oloko.
Here a warrant chief, Okugo, under instructions from the district officer, was making a reassessment of the taxable wealth of the people. In this, he attempted to count the women, children, and domestic animals. A rumour at once spread among the women that the recently introduced taxation of men was to be extended to them.
All through this densely inhabited forest country, at intervals of a few miles, are markets where many thousands, mostly women, collect to do petty trading, sell palm-oil to the small middle-men, and gossip with each other. The rumour thus ran all through the locality in a few days, spreading anger and dismay which were all the more intense because at this moment the price of palm-produce was falling, and new customs duties had put up the cost of several imported articles of daily use.
They were seriously perturbed. They decided to combine, they, therefore, held a large meeting at which we decided to wait until they heard definitely from one person that women were to be taxed, in which case they would make trouble. Thus, they went to the houses of all the chiefs and each admitted counting his people. In her further report, during the second week of December, the movement spread from the Ibo divisions of Owerri and Aba, to the Ibibio peoples of Calabar.
At much the same time as the elaborate form of reassessment, which the women connected with female taxation, was being undertaken in Oloko, the Resident of Calabar had issued instructions for a similar kind of enumeration in his province. This was zealously enacted in one district by a cadet in the administrative service. In some villages, the people cleared into the bush at his approach, taking their small stock and chickens with them; here, however, he counted the houses, there being generally one to each woman, and the tethering pegs for the goats and sheep.
These animals, we may notice, were often the personal possessions of the women. In the neighbouring district, the chiefs protested vigorously against these house-to-house visitations, though they professed themselves ready to parade all the men of each village in the central square. Another cadet, in Opobo district, to the south, met with determined opposition from the chiefs as well as from the people who were already in touch with the women at Owerri.
The women wailed and cursed Okugo in palm branches, doubtless reinforced with magic, were tied across paths and doorways. At Utu-Etim-Ekpo appeared crowds of women scantily dressed in sackcloth, their faces smeared with charcoal, sticks wreathed with young palms in their hands, while their heads were bound with young ferns. It is interesting to note that no Europeans understood the exact significance of these last symbols though nearly all the native witnesses assumed that they meant war.
They burned the Native Court and sacked and looted the “factory” (European store) and clerks’ houses. They declared that the district officer was born of a woman, and as they were women they were going to see him. Police and troops were sent, and as, on two occasions, the woman ran toward them with frenzied shouts, the fire was opened with a Lewis gun as well as with rifles, and eighteen women were killed and nineteen wounded.
All this time the meeting was becoming rowdier. More and more women were streaming up until the numbers were estimated as being about fifteen hundred. When the copies were handed out, various other demands were made, such as that they must be put into envelopes, that they must have two-shilling stamps attached. They made threatening and obscene gestures toward the troops called them sons of pigs and said they knew the soldiers would not fire at them.
At last, they struck at the district officer with their sticks. The lieutenant caught the blows, made signs to the district officer as to whether he should fire (for it was impossible to make himself heard in the uproar) and, just as the fence began to give way before the rush of women, shot the leader through the head with his revolver.
Two volleys were then fired on the crowd which broke and fled, leaving thirty-two dead and dying, and thirty-one wounded. This shooting was on December 17. Trouble continued sporadically in various parts of the disturbed area, but by the twentieth, the situation was completely in hand, and the rest of the month was taken up with pacification by means of patrols, and punishments under the Collective Punishments Ordinance. The disturbed area covered about six thousand square miles and contained about two million people. Attacks were made upon Native Courts in sixteen Native Administration centres, and most of them were broken up or burned.
The Abeokuta Women’s Revolt dubbed as the Egba Women’s Tax was a resistance movement led by the Abeokuta Women’s Union (AWU) in the late 1940s against the imposition of unfair taxation by the Nigerian colonial government. It was led by two middle-class women, Funmilayo Ransome Kuti and Grace Eniola Soyinka, in the late 1940s. The major issue which the movement revolted against centred on the imposition of unfair taxation particularly on young women by the British colonial government in Nigeria.
According to Maccady Gad report, the Abeokuta Women’s Union was preceded by the Abeokuta Ladies Club which equally fought against the confiscation of the goods of market women amongst other things. Abeokuta Ladies Club metamorphosed into Abeokuta Women’s Union in 1946 with the main goal of addressing some of the broader challenges facing the generality of women in Abeokuta.
Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti, later known as the fiery mother of Afrobeat legend, Fela; and the first woman to drive a car in Nigeria, was also married to a prominent teacher in Abeokuta. With her precedence in the Abeokuta Women’s Union & Abeokuta Ladies Club, she proceeded to organize women for the great marches between 1947 and 1949 and to drown Alake and the British government in petitions.
From an initial population of about 1000 protesters which Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti led, the number of those who marched and camped in front of the Alake’s palace rose to 10,000 and the Alake finally abdicated in January 1949. According to her reports, the movement, at that opportune moment, not only targeted the British tax imposition but it also challenged the hypocrisy of some local figurehead chiefs which the British used indirectly to enforce their rule and enrich their purses.
If aggressive agitation was ever effective in protests in Nigeria, the Abeokuta Women’s Revolt was one of such examples as it resulted in sweeping changes within the society. The headstrong Alake of Egbaland, who was progressively showing signs of being a stooge of the British colonial government, was literally forced to abscond from the throne in shame. The draconian and inconvenient tax policy imposed on the women of Abeokuta got suspended. The Sole Native Authority (SNA) system which was the model for colonial governance in most parts of pre-colonial southern Nigeria was changed so that four women had positions in the new system of administration in Abeokuta.
And for many decades to come, governments evidently had a rethink anytime a law which would negatively impact the economic and communal condition of women was well screened before it was passed into law. According to connectnigeria, Funmilayo had founded the Abeokuta Women’s Union with Grace Eniola Soyinka, her sister-in-law and when they later formalized the union, it was hard for the government to declare them an illegal body.
Part of the AWU goal was to enlighten groups of women, protest unjust taxes, fight corruption, ensuring more of women’s representation in decision-making in corridors of power and so on. Many of these women under the banner of the Abeokuta Women’s Union refused to pay the imposed tax and for this, they either ended up in jail or fined heavily. These rounds of intimidation did not make the women relent in their effort to fight the policy.
They kept sending out several petitions to the Alake of Abeokuta between August 1946 and May 1947. By October of 1946, a meeting between the Alake and a delegation of the AWU held but it ended in a stalemate. Rather than review the tax rate in question, the Alake – with the support of the British Resident, worsened the situation further by increasing the flat-rate tax on women in Abeokuta.
Operation Wet ẹ was a violent protest that took place in Western Nigeria between violent political factions, the Hausa-Fulani natives and some members of the Nigerian National Democratic Party during the First Republic which eventually led to the first military coup in Nigeria on 15 January 1966. The term “Operation Wet ẹ” was coined from the setting ablaze of politicians and their properties with petrol, with many victims of the political violence killed by “necklacing.”
During the early 1960s, violence was on a rapid rise in the political system of Nigeria which led to the introduction of Operation Wetie whereby political gangs were used to disrupt elections. Operation Wet ẹ was significantly used in 1962 when Chief Ladoke Akintola and Chief Obafemi Awolowo were embroiled in a protracted crisis thus leading to a high rate of violence and acts of lawlessness with lawmakers engaging themselves in vicious physical combats in the Western regional parliament.
According to historyville.com, before the advent of Operation Wetie, party leaders with the Western Region in their grasp, party leaders started plans to gain power at the federal level, having won 25 seats in the North and 14 seats in the East in the 1959 elections. But the party could not form the federal government through votes based on the conditions of the country as the Northern Region alone was two and a half times the size of the other regions (Western and Eastern) put together.
So, they suggested that the only way to power at the federal level was to form a National Government which would comprise all the ruling parties in the different regions. The implication was that the Action Group Party would refrain from any serious political activities in the other regions where it had established a small but virile political base.
Accounts from the story show Akintola was in strong favour of forming a National Government which would include all the ruling political parties and advocated an approach to the NPC (Northern People’s Congress) but Awolowo and other party members were opposed to it. Instead, they suggested that the party should make advances to the southern NCNC and not to the NPC.
Their hope was that the AG and the NCNC could team up together to contest the next federal elections and would break Northern Nigeria and the East into more regions. From these two different suggestions rose opposed factions within the Action Group Party, one under Akintola and the other under Awolowo. The political atmosphere in the Western Region looked bleak and dismal and the after-effects of the elections were even more severe and devastating. Defeated political candidates had in the past run to the courts to challenge irregularities at elections.
This time they did not go to courts. Instead, the people took the law into their hands. Riots, looting, arson, and murder were the rule of the day. Party thugs poured gasoline on opponents and set them on fire, a situation then known as Operation Wetie. Properties, bags of cocoa and other produce of opponents awaiting shipment were also set ablaze. Without a doubt, the destruction of properties was not as horrifying as setting human beings on fire.
In further account, by November 1, 1965, the Operation Wetie riot at Ekiti resulted in the death of 15 people while a fresh riot, four days later, caused the loss of 20 lives. Sixteen people were killed in Ijebu-Ode and Ondo areas on November 7, 1965. Houses and vehicles were set on fire and to travel within the Western Region and from other regions into the West was a menace because of thugs and gangsters who took law into their own hands while the Police failed to maintain law and order.
There were tension and wanton destruction of human lives and properties. Nigerians looked to the Federal Government to step in to arrest the situation in the Region, but all pleas were to no avail. Meanwhile, the Operation Wetie riots and killings continued and the NNDP Government of the Western Region imposed curfews in Mushin, Ikeja, Agege, Ajeromi, and Awori districts. Yet, the disturbances continued and each day brought a new toll of rioting, arson, looting, and murder.
According to Edwin Madungagu, a columnist from the Guardian Nigeria, on Monday, April 17, 1978, there began a boycott of lectures by students in all tertiary institutions in Nigeria whose campus unions were affiliated to the National Union of Nigerian Students (NUNS). The immediate aim of the boycott was to pressure the Federal Military Government of General Olusegun Obasanjo to cancel recently-announced increases in school fees. The medium-term and long-term aims were what they should be: democratization, genuine independence and enhancement of the quality of life of the masses, among other popular-democratic demands.
Mobilization had been announced and carried out by NUNS leadership in conjunction with campus executives. The lecture boycott was to be indefinite, that is until the government responded positively or NUNS decided to change tactics. The national coordinating centre of the action was at the University of Lagos which was then hosting the secretariat of NUNS. The president of NUNS was a heavily bearded student of that university called Segun Okeowo, a radical democrat and patriot.
In his report, the first day of the students’ action went peacefully and successfully in all campuses including the Universities of Lagos, Ibadan, Ife, Benin, Calabar, Jos and Maiduguri as well as Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria, University of Nigeria, Nsukka and Bayero University, Kano. But on the second day, Tuesday, April 18, students of the University of Lagos woke up to see the main gate of their institution blocked by a large contingent of armed police officers.
Incidentally, the students had planned to peacefully march out of the campus on that day and to deliver a protest letter incorporating their demands to General Obasanjo in Dodan Barracks, his headquarters. What followed was a confrontation between unarmed students and armed police officers, first, at the gate of the university, then in the adjourning streets, and finally in several parts of Yaba, the university’s host community. Several civilian casualties were recorded within and outside the campus.
He expressed that the national electronic media suppressed the news of this “carnage” on the day it took place. However, when the reports came out in some newspapers the following morning, Wednesday, April 19, “the situation in all the campuses of the other universities in Nigeria simply became uncontrollable,” according to Student Power in Nigeria. I may add here that the “uncontrollable” campuses included the University of Calabar where Bene (my spouse) and I were lecturers. But we were teachers, not students!
On Thursday, April 20, the scene of carnage moved to Ahmadu Bello University (ABU), Zaria. Here, massacres were carried out not by the police, but by armed soldiers. And, again unlike what happened in Lagos, the soldiers were not trying to prevent students from moving out of the campus; rather, they were trying to force themselves into the campus – to put down an insurrection which did not exist! By the time the shooting stopped five students of the University were dead.
This second massacre under 48 hours provoked a nation-wide unarmed uprising, not only on campuses but also in the university towns and not only by students but also by non-student masses. The uprising lasted for the rest of that week, and beyond. In Lagos, the main slogan was “Ali Must Go!”, a reference to the serving Federal Commissioner (Minister) of Education, Colonel (Dr) Ahmadu Ali, a soldier-medical doctor who, as a student, was one of the first-generation leaders of NUNS!
A more elaborate story of this national crisis, including the socio-political background, remote and immediate causes, students’ action, popular and patriotic interventions, the Nigerian State’s bloody repression, purges and “witch-hunt”, the long socio-political aftermath and how the Nigerian Left eventually snatched victory from defeat can be found in Babatope’s book where they are well documented as well as in archives listed at the beginning of this piece.
In the space that is left here, I shall move to what has not been in the public sphere but shall limit myself to the experience of the Nigerian Left. The most radical wings of the Nigerian Left at that time were organised in and around the university towns: Lagos, Ibadan, Ile-Ife, Benin, Calabar, Nsukka, Jos, Kano and Zaria. The formations were linked, allied and coordinated in various ways, ideologically and historically, regionally and nationally.
The 1993 Nigerian presidential election was held on 12 June 1993 in the Nigerian Third Republic, the first since the 1983 military coup ended the country’s Second Republic. The elections were the outcome of a transitional process to civilian rule spearheaded by the military ruler, Ibrahim Badamasi Babangida (IBB). The unofficial result of the election, though not declared by the National Electoral Commission (NEC), indicated a victory for Moshood Kashimawo Olawale Abiola of the Social Democratic Party (SDP), who defeated Bashir Tofa of the National Republican Convention (NRC).
The winner of the election was thus never declared as the elections were annulled by IBB, citing electoral irregularities. The annulment led to protests and political unrest, including the resignation of IBB and a weak interim civilian government, and culminated in the continuation of military rule in the country with Sani Abacha ascending to power as the military head of state via a bloodless coup later in the year.
According to nytimes.com, rioters fought police officers and soldiers today as tens of thousands of people set fires and blocked roads to demand an end to military dictatorship. At least 11 people were reported to have been killed. It was the first report of deaths since protesters in Lagos, Nigeria’s largest city, began pressing the Government on Monday to recognize the annulled presidential election held on June 12, which was to have ended a decade of military rule. Soldiers killed several rioters who set a truck on fire in Ikoyi, a well-to-do neighbourhood of Lagos, the Pan-African News Agency reported.
The agency, set up by the Organization of African Unity, quoted witnesses as saying the troops had piled bodies into the back of a truck and driven away. Other witnesses said five people had died in the incident. In other violence, witnesses and journalists said a mob had set fire to a taxi driver and killed him after he had tried to crash through a human chain and killed a youth. The police fatally shot a man as people looted a supermarket, a soldier shot a man to death at a blocked bridge and the police killed a man in a stone-throwing crowd. At least one police officer was clubbed to death, witnesses said. In addition, a police sergeant beaten by protesters on Monday died today in Lagos General Hospital.
The protests were the first serious unrest since June 16, when General Babangida abruptly voided results of the election and barred the two candidates from running in the new voting he planned to hold. General Meets With Politicians. The general met with leaders of the country’s two political parties late on Monday, but they were unable to agree on how to resolve the crisis in this nation of 88.5 million people.
Across the city, major markets, shops, banks and businesses were shuttered, but for the second day, looters broke into dozens of stores. Protesters built barricades of buses, cars and tires on all major streets, highways and bridges and set them on fire to block movement from Lagos’s three main residential islands to the mainland commercial district.