Nigeria: In praise of the vocation of dissent

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By Chidi Anselm Odinkalu

The #EndSARS generation are proud legatees of a consistent tapestry in Nigerian history. This is both a burden to be borne with responsibility and an opportunity in need of translation.

Dissent has a long tradition in Nigeria. Indeed, it is the only thing that has guaranteed progress in Nigerian history. Its exponents in every generation have paid heavy but ultimately worthy prices, and without them the country would be nowhere. Nigerian women, workers, students and youths have been leaders in this enterprise. In every generation, dissent has also entailed inter-generational engagement. 

The week when the Justice Doris Okuwobi Judicial Commission of Inquiry into the Lekki Massacre and the #EndSARS uprising in Lagos of October 2020 submitted its report was a good time for a retrospective on dissent in Nigerian history. The week also coincides with the 72nd Anniversary of a lethal landmark in the history of dissent in Nigeria: the massacre of 21 coal-miners in Iva Valley, Enugu by the colonial police on November 18, 1949. 

What follows is a bit of a tour of the tapestry of the Nigerian civic space and why it needs to be preserved. It will show four things. First, Nigeria’s civic space has always been raucous through the ages. Second, it has historically been defined by dissent. Third, it has also always been a source of profit for Nigeria’s elite. Fourth, the most avid among these have been politicians, traditional rulers, lawyers and soldiers. I will highlight a few landmarks briefly to show that in the #EndSARS generation is the latest in a supply-line of Nigerian traditions of dissent, as old as the origins of the country’s modern history. 

For Mahmud Aminu 

This also happened to be the week in which Mahmud Aminu was born 53 years ago. Over 30 years ago, in July 1991, I visited the Kirikiri Maximum Security Prison in Lagos. The military were in power; the prison held many high value detainees and access was not easy, but there were people on the inside who were committed to ideals higher than regime interests. They informed me while there that they had custody of the leadership of the National Association Nigerian Students (NANS), then the most active organised body of dissent in Nigeria. They made it possible for me to see these detainees, led as president by a lanky under-graduate, Mahmud Aminu. Also detained with Mahmud was the association’s general-secretary, Chima Okereke. Both of them were final year law students of the University of Jos. 

Among the detainees also was Bamidele Aturu, whose lamentable death in 2014 at the untimely age of 49 robbed the country of an extraordinary advocate. He chaired the NANS Mobilisation Committee but was in fact the Svengali of the group. Aturu had already achieved national fame half a decade earlier when, as an act of conscientious objection, he declined at the passing out of his National Youth Service Corps (NYSC) cohort in Niger State, to accept his NYSC award from the then military governor, Lawan Gwadabe. Having returned to the university to study law, he had also become a prisoner of conscience. They were joined by others in the Ikoyi Prison, including Mahmud’s vice-president, Naseer Kura; as well as Bunmi Olusona, Funso Omogbehin and Christian Akanni. 

The abduction of these student leaders by the state occurred in different locations in Nigeria around May 1991. By the time I saw them, they had been vanished for nearly two months, with no one able to account for their whereabouts. Nuhu Aliyu, who died last August, was then the Assistant Inspector-General (AIG) of Police for Intelligence and Investigations. In retirement, he represented Niger North in the Senate from 1999 to 2007. Eight years before he became a Senator, on June 11, 1991, AIG Aliyu announced that over 200 student leaders were in detention under the State Security (Detention of Persons) Decree No. 2 of 1984. 

The crime of these student leaders was that they were mobilising for a national protest against military mis-rule, emblematised then by the interminable and ruinous transition to civil rule programme of General Ibrahim Babangida. 

The prison officials informed me that they were under instructions to deny the students any visits. I was the head of the legal directorate of the Civil Liberties Organisation (CLO), then the leading human rights organisation in Nigeria. The decree under which they were detained precluded lawful legal recourse against their detention. The then Chief Judge of Lagos, Ligali Ayorinde, assigned our case seeking their urgent release to Nureini Abiodun Kessington, a former Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP) of Lagos State, whom the military appointed high court judge in 1989 against the objections of judicial fraternity in Lagos State. Justice Kessington was unpredictable.

I recall that the case first came up on a Thursday morning. The previous day, I had visited the law offices of the doyen of those kinds of cases, Kanmi Isola-Osobu, in his office opposite the Panti Police Station in Yaba, to brief him. Kanmi was lawyer to Fela Anikulapo-Kuti and to the students movement. When I turned up at the High Court in Igbosere, prepared to argue the case for the release of the students, Justice Kessington stood down proceedings and asked me into his chambers. As I entered, he had lit up a stick of Benson and Hedges and behind rings of cigarette smoke, let out a huge laugh: “You want me to order soldiers around, ehn?”, he bellowed. He told me he could easily issue an order for the release of the student leaders but that he would not issue an order that “the military boys” would ignore. Going back in time, he told me the story of how he was appointed a judge and went out of his way to reassure me that the students will be released but that it would require him doing something unorthodox. When we returned into the court hall, the judge called up the case again and summarily adjourned it by one week. 

On the adjourned date, the judge took a few cases, then asked the registrar to call up the case of the student leaders. We had mobilised a few people to be present in court as supporters. When the case was called up, the judge congratulated me for getting my boys out and simply struck out the case. He invited me into his chambers again and told me he had gone to see the soldiers who ordered the arrest of the students and explained to them why they should release them. He also warned them, he said, that he would embarrass them if they did not release the students by the next adjourned date. As he went into court that morning, they sent him a message saying the student leaders had been released. Since he had given us what we wanted, he said, he would strike out the case.

All of those student leaders went on to become citizens of consequence. Despite the best efforts of the military and university authorities to stop them from graduating or becoming lawyers, Abdul Mahmud Aminu, Chima Okereke, and Bamidele Aturu would go on to graduate and be admitted to the Nigerian Bar in 1993. Naseer Kura and Mahmud became delegates to the National Conference of 2014. Theirs is another generation that suffered for dissent in Nigeria.

All of those student leaders went on to become citizens of consequence. Despite the best efforts of the military and university authorities to stop them from graduating or becoming lawyers, Abdul Mahmud Aminu, Chima Okereke, and Bamidele Aturu would go on to graduate and be admitted to the Nigerian Bar in 1993. Naseer Kura and Mahmud became delegates to the National Conference of 2014. Theirs is another generation that suffered for dissent in Nigeria. They were not the first nor would they be the last.

In the Beginning

In 1851, the British intervened in the struggle over the Obaship of Lagos between Akitoye and Kosoko, resolving it in favour of the former, who was reinstated as Oba, a seat from which he had been de-stooled in 1845 by Kosoko. In 1853, Oba Dosunmu succeeded his father, Oba Akitoye and would proceed in 1861 to conclude the cession of Lagos to the British. 

Two years later, in July 1855, Christopher Sapara Williams, whose paternal roots were in Ilesha, was born in Freetown, Sierra Leone. Admitted to the Bar of the Inner Temple in England in November 1879, Sapara Williams returned to Lagos, where, on January 13, 1888, he became the first Nigerian enrolled to practice as a lawyer. He went on to become quite an influential political actor over much of the next quarter century, until his untimely death in 1915. He is buried at the Ajele Cemetry, now occupied by the Ajele Stadium.

In 1885, just as the countries of Imperial Europe concluded their carve up of Africa in Berlin, Oba Dosunmu died. His son, Oba Oyekan 1, succeeded him. At the death of Oba Oyekan 1 on September 30, 1900, a fierce succession battle ensued in which the leading lawyers of the day took sides. Christopher Sapara Williams was a lawyer in that dispute. When the dust settled, Oba Dosunmu’s grand-son, Eshugbayi Eleko, ascended the throne in 1901, to one of the most tumultuous periods in the history of Lagos. This period also coincided with the colonial consolidation in the territory that would become Nigeria. In the inevitable conflict between the colonists and dissenting natives, lawyers proved pivotal. 

The Eleko turned out to be a chronic dissenter around two issues: Racial segregation privileging whites and free expression for native populations. Over one century later, these same issues – discrimination and freedom of expression – and how we react to both, continue to define Nigeria. 

Several issues crystallised these flashpoints. One was the Water Tax (for the establishment of Iju Water Works) in 1908 and another was the control of traditional lands. The so-called “water riots” that followed the imposition of Governor Egerton’s Water Tax in 1908, were the protest of the people of Lagos under the Eleko against the colonial Water Tax. Egerton had taxed the natives to raise money to build the Iju Water Works, which was to supply pipe-born water exclusively for the white people. The natives, led by the Eleko, rose up in protest, arguing that since the piped water was meant mostly for the white people, the responsibility for paying it should be theirs. 

In the aftermath of the “riots”, three things happened. In 1909, first, the colonists established Kings’ College (KC). In the same year, secondly, they passed the Sedition Ordinance(s) of 1909. While the Sedition Ordinance became a ready tool in dividing and co-opting Nigerian public opinion, KC (or the Old School as it would come to be known) became the school of choice for generations of children of Nigeria’s elite. It was not the last time the elite would profit from the aftermath of dissent. The third thing was the onset of political party organising in Nigeria.

Christopher Sapara Williams, who was also a member of the Legislative Council and whose candidate, Adamaja, had lost the stool to the Eleko, nevertheless, challenged the Sedition Ordinance, describing it with considerable prescience as “a thing incompatible with the character of the Yoruba people, and has no place in their constitution…. Hyper-sensitive officials may come tomorrow who will see sedition in every criticism and crime in every mass meeting.” Sapara Williams was one of Nigeria’s first defenders of dissent. In 1903, he denounced the adoption of a Newspaper Ordinance as “repugnant to all senses of justice and an outrage upon the established principles of English liberty, which we as subjects of his Majesty, the King, have undoubted right to.” Nevertheless, deploying the fear of prosecution, the colonists successfully split elite opinion, attracting the support of some pro-establishment types, led then by another famous lawyer, Kitoye Ajasa, who would later become a close confidant of Lord Lugard. 

Conscience v. Collaboration

The difference between Sapara-Williams and Kitoye Ajasa foreshadowed the ideological divide in Nigeria between conscientious voices of dissent and a collaborationist elite, which has consistently profited from it in politics and the professions. 

This theme of collaborationists profiting from dissent has defined Nigerian politics. It is true of what happened with the return to civil rule in 1979. 20 years later, in 1999, the politicians who were rooting for the interminable rule of General Sani Abacha were there to profit and banish from political leadership, the human rights, pro-democracy and NADECO activists who had made it all possible. 

Sapara Williams was not afraid of going against colonial inclinations. He was, arguably, the father of the “restructuring” debate. In 1904, he reportedly proposed to Governor Egerton that “the present boundary between the Colony and Protectorate of Southern Nigeria and the Protectorate of Northern Nigeria be re-adjusted by bringing the southern portion into Southern Nigeria, so that the entire tribes of the Yoruba-speaking people should be under one and the same administration.” He lost the argument but triggered a battle over internal equity and the re-balancing of Nigeria, which is still very much alive. While Sapara Williams had his nomination for a knighthood turned down, Kitoye Ajasa, who would later go on to become the leading Freemason in the territory as seven-time Worshipful Master of Lagos Lodge No. 1171 between 1901 and 1928, won the confidence of Lugard, becoming both a knight and a judge. For most observers, it seemed clear that the material benefits of collaboration with officialdom far outweighed the troubles from dissent.

The issue of control over traditional lands in Lagos would end up before the highest court with jurisdiction over the territory, in the case of Amodu Tijani, decided by the Privy Council in July 1921. The Eleko rallied behind the Idejo chiefs, led by Amodu Tijani, who had the support of Herbert Heelas Macaulay, grandson of the first African Anglican Bishop, Michael Ajayi Crowther, and veteran dissenter. For the hearing before the Privy Council in 1920, Herbert Macaulay travelled to London with the Oba’s Staff of Office in support of Amodu Tijani and the chiefs. While in London, Herbert Macaulay issued a statement claiming that the Eleko was the King of over 17 million Nigerians and in possession of territory more than three times that of Great Britain. Despite a healthy revenue of over four million pounds, he claimed, the British had reneged on a treaty commitment to compensate the Eleko. Embarrassed at being publicly called duplicitous in this way, the British required the Eleko to disown Herbert Macaulay. He issued a public statement clarifying his position on Herbert Macaulay’s statement but declined to disown him through the Oba’s Bell Ringers, as required by the colonists. 

Unable to secure the support of the popular Oba, the colonists chose to head off rising tension by deposing him. On August 6, 1925, they issued an ordinance de-stooling him and two days later, on August 8, they arrested and removed him to internal banishment in Oyo. Oba Ibikunle Akitoye was installed. His rule lasted an uncomfortably brief three years, largely because he lacked the support of the people of Lagos. Indeed, in 1926, he suffered physical attack. Supported by the elite and people of Lagos, the deposed Eleko took his case to the courts, fighting all the way to the Privy Council, which decided in favour of his claim for leave for a writ of habeas corpus on June 19, 1928. 

Just as the Eleko was being reinstated in Lagos, the Aba Women’s uprising took off in 1929. Like the Lagos Water Riots, it was also dissent over colonial taxation in the foreground of what would become the colonial head count in 1931. 

On November 18, 1949, the colonial authorities killed 21 miners and injured 51 others in Iva Valley, near Enugu. The result of the inquiry that followed was the creation of the Ministry of Labour. Following the adoption of McPherson Constitution in 1951, Ladoke Akintola became Nigeria’s first minister of Labour, as a direct result of the Iva Valley Massacre. He had broken into political leadership as one of the nominees of the Action Group into cabinet. Until then, he was the Legal Adviser of the party. On November 20, 1953, Akintola’s colleague and friend in cabinet and Deputy Leader of the Action Group, Chief Bode Thomas, died suddenly. Early in the following year, the party elected 41 year-old Akintola to succeed Bode Thomas as the Deputy Leader. Fast forward to independence in 1960 and the party of collaboration with the colonists, which had opposed independence, emerged as the party of power. 

Profiting from Dissent

This theme of collaborationists profiting from dissent has defined Nigerian politics. It is true of what happened with the return to civil rule in 1979. 20 years later, in 1999, the politicians who were rooting for the interminable rule of General Sani Abacha were there to profit and banish from political leadership, the human rights, pro-democracy and NADECO activists who had made it all possible. 

In the Niger Delta, a mutual admiration club of politicians and their contractors have plundered the the Niger Delta Development Commission (NDDC) and 13 per cent derivation, for which activists paid with their limbs and lives. 

This is an abridged version of a much longer detour through Nigeria’s history. The lessons are evident. Dissent has a long tradition in Nigeria. Indeed, it is the only thing that has guaranteed progress in Nigerian history. Its exponents in every generation have paid heavy but ultimately worthy prices, and without them the country would be nowhere. Nigerian women, workers, students and youths have been leaders in this enterprise. In every generation, dissent has also entailed inter-generational engagement. 

Mahmud Aminu continues to be an exemplar of the best of this tradition. Even more, he is now investing in ensuring that dissent has a guaranteed future in the post-digital Nigeria. For that, we must be grateful to him and to successive generations of Nigerian dissenters. The #EndSARS generation are proud legatees of a consistent tapestry in Nigerian history. This is both a burden to be borne with responsibility and an opportunity in need of translation. 

Chidi Anselm Odinkalu is a lawyer and former chair of the governing council of the Nigerian National Human Rights Commission (NHRC).

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