Where are the Activists and Civil Society Organisations? asks Ebun-Olu Adegboruwa, SAN
What is the argument on the other side? Only this, that no case has been found in which it has been done before. The argument does not appeal to me in the least. If we never do anything which has not been done before, we shall never get anywhere. The law will stand still, whilst the rest of the world goes on. That will be bad for both.’
— Lord Denning in Parker v Parker (1954) ALL ER p.22.
‘A lawyer lives for the direction of his people and the advancement of the cause of his country.’
— Alexander Christopher Sapara Williams, first indigenous Nigerian lawyer, called to the English Bar on November 17, 1879.
Some years back in this land, you just wake up and read news headlines like ‘Gani Sues IBB On Status of First Lady’, ‘Gani asks Court to declare appointment illegal’, etc. Most times the President would think twice before taking any decision bearing in mind that Gani would readily challenge any impunity or illegality. In this current dispensation, people just murmur and complain, without taking any concrete step to challenge any policy considered offensive or unconstitutional. The question then is this: what has happened? Where are the activists and civil society organisations? Why are the courts more burdened with election petition cases above public interest litigation, meant to help our leaders adjust themselves from all forms of illegality?
Very recently, I got a post on my WhatsApp, listing names of heads of security and financial agencies who were alleged to come from a particular part of the country. I then wondered in my mind that if these allegations are true at all, why has there been no court case challenging these appointments, in view of section 14 (3) of the 1999 Constitution, which states that ‘the government of the Federation or any of its agencies and the conduct of its affairs shall be carried out in such a manner as to reflect the federal character of Nigeria and the need to promote national unity, and also to command national loyalty, thereby ensuring that there shall be no predominance of persons from a few States or from a few ethnic or other sectional groups in that Government or in any of its agencies’. So, why limit complaints to social media posts alone? Why is there no action filed in any court to interpret these appointments? Public interest litigations are cases filed to checkmate government policies that have negative impact upon the people, especially if such policies constitute a violation of any law in force.
A few years ago, Chief Abraham Adesanya, then a Senator, had cause to disagree with his colleagues on the floor of the Senate and he thereafter filed a case in court, which eventually led to the decision of the Supreme Court on the issue of locus standi. Many years thereafter, Chief Gani Fawehinmi took up the case of Dele Giwa and eventually got the Supreme Court to relax its restrictive definition of locus standi. So very recently in the case of Centre for Oil Pollution Watch and NNPC, the rule against locus standi was substantially relaxed by the Supreme Court in favour of public interest litigations. Socio-Economic Rights and Accountability Project, SERAP, has also secured favourable judgments from the courts, on locus standi in relation to its war against corruption.
Agreed that lawyers have been very vocal in the area of public interest litigations, but they are too few and far between. By Paragraph (i) of the aims and objectives of Constitution of the Nigerian Bar Association, lawyers are responsible for “the encouragement, ensuring, and protection of the public right of access to the Courts and of representation by Counsel before Courts and Tribunals”, whilst Paragraph (h) provides that lawyers exist for “the promotion of the principles of the rule of Law including Fundamental Liberties and the independence of the Judiciary.” So then, a lawyer should be an activist, ordinarily. The NBA itself should be at the forefront of public interest litigations.
Nigeria needs these court cases now than ever before. The activists should wake up and rescue our land. They used to be so very selfless, revolutionary in approach, manifestly incorrigible and given to constant harassment by the government and its agencies. Afterall, activism should be in their blood, a kind of calling indeed, without any expectation of any pecuniary benefit at all. They should be ready to sacrifice their peace, freedom, privacy and even financial benefits, for the common good. It is a ministry of some sort, unto sacrifices. Since the advent of the Buhari administration however, activism seemed to have died a natural death. Two major strikes declared by the labour unions have more or less failed. The civil society groups seem to have lost their voices, so much so that there has been no single encounter between them and the administration, since 2015, a very rare occurrence in the history of Nigeria.
Street protests and rallies, sit at homes and other forms of mass engagement have been very few, in relation to the impunities that have become the lot of our people. To use POS you pay, the tax burdens of the people have increased yet infrastructure is zero. Politicians have become altogether emboldened, in their manipulations, of voters and even of the judiciary. We must rise up and take back our country.
Upon the amalgamation of Nigeria in 1914, the colonial Governor, Lord Lugard, instituted the system of indirect rule in Southern Nigeria. Administrators known as Warrant Chiefs were appointed to take control of administration. Overtime, the Warrant Chiefs became increasingly oppressive, seizing properties and at times imposing very draconian local regulations. They began to imprison those that challenged their powers. As if these were not enough, the British administration then announced plans to impose special taxes on Igbo market women. In November of 1929, thousands of Igbo women embarked upon protests, they attacked the European owned stores, broke into the prisons to release prisoners, they attacked the native courts, burning them down. The colonial police were called in and they shot live bullets that took the lives of about 50 of the women. The Warrant Chiefs were forced to resign and the tax regime was aborted. The women activists had won! It was the first major challenge upon the colonial administration and the impetus that the nationalists needed to advance their cause for independence. The rest is history.
Any system that seeks to intimidate its citizens into forced silence, any administration that prospers upon the hushed voices of dissent or is intolerant of public criticisms generally, is tending towards dictatorship. The United Nations Charter, the African Union Charter and indeed the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, all contain specific provisions that guaranty the freedoms of expression, peaceful assembly, free association and indeed peaceful protests. Nigerian activists cannot profit from this seeming conspiracy of silence, whereby the masses of our people grope in darkness, waiting for direction. All the objective conditions for mass mobilisation, such as increasing unemployment, rise in crimes, poverty, rising inflation, dwindling electricity supply across the land, collapse of vital infrastructure and general failure of governance, should be harnessed by the activists in a constructive manner, to keep the government on its toes.
More than ever before, Nigeria needs the activists. Given the nature of mass illiteracy that permeates the land, it would take a few informed Nigerians, to educate the people on their rights and freedoms. This is where the press comes in, for activism does not necessarily start and end with lawyers and labour leaders. Under and by virtue of section 22 of the 1999 Constitution, the press is to hold government accountable to the people. This is a sacred constitutional responsibility imposed upon the press and nothing should stand in the way of its enforcement, by our mighty men and women of the pen, which is reputed to be mightier than the sword.
The Fundamental Rights (Enforcement Procedure) Rules, 2009, has now provided a template for civil engagement, as it has now empowered civil society organisations, religious entities and in particular, the Nigerian Bar Association, to take up the cases of citizens that are deprived of their fundamental rights. Several judicial authorities have given fillip to the regime of preventive and human rights enforcement litigation. So, let the lawyers and activists wake up and dust their tools and keep Nigeria vibrant, once more.
Let us file as many cases as possible, on every case of violation of the Constitution, on all matters involving recklessness in governance, in all the arms of government, against all acts of impunity and illegality. But of course it must be based on motives that are non-partisan and selfless. The labour unions must rise above bread and butter protests, considering that most of the victims of mis-governance are essentially the workers. The judiciary too must rise to the occasion, to help instill the culture of respect for the Constitution and due process. That way, we can assist our leaders to embrace the rule of law and due process, in truth.
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