HAS the rule of law been suspended in Nigeria? No. Yet, the rampant disregard for the laws of the land in Rivers State by the former Police Commissioner, Joseph Mbu, points to the law of the jungle rather than the rule of law. Mbu, who had a running battle with Governor Rotimi Amaechi for most of 2013, took impunity to an alarming level just before he was redeployed last week after he announced a ban on rallies in the state, citing an “increase in political tension.” He was wrong.
Disquietingly, there seems to be a pattern to this police encroachment on the Executive’s territory. A week before Mbu’s clearly illegal and disdainful order, some senior police officers insisted that Nigerians must secure permits from the force before holding rallies. Among them is Tambari Muhammad Yabo, an Assistant Inspector-General of Police. Yabo prefers to rely on a strange Appeal Court ruling from Ilorin, Kwara State. The court inexplicably countermanded an earlier verdict by the Court of Appeal, Abuja that invalidated the Public Order Act (CAP P42) of 1990 Laws of the Federation. “As a police officer, I’ve the right to choose between the two judgements,” he cheekily said. It is obvious that the police, who have become a political instrument – instead of being the people’s police – are central in the unfolding saga. Who will cut them to size and save our democracy from anarchy?
Police are both a major support and a major threat to a democratic society. It is argued that when police operate under the rule of law they may protect democracy by their neutrality, respect for the law and suppressing crime. In our own case, the Nigeria Police has never been neutral. It has always been an enforcement agent of the ruling party by enforcing its orders and not the law. For instance, shortly after the 2003 elections, the All Nigeria People’s Party organised a rally to protest its claims of rigging. But the police, citing the non-issuance of a permit, disrupted the rally. A party chief, Chuba Okadigbo (a former president of the Senate), allegedly died later from the tear gas fumes he inhaled during the police-induced mayhem.
The party, through Femi Falana, its counsel, secured a ruling at a Federal High Court that the POA, which made a permit from the police mandatory, was a nullity. Two years later, in 2008, the Court of Appeal, Abuja, affirmed the lower court’s ruling that Nigerians do not need the consent of the police, but that of the state governor, to hold rallies. “Police permit, which is a relic of colonialism, has been annulled on the grounds of its inconsistency with the provisions of the Constitution (1999) and the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights … the power was never vested in the Inspector-General of Police and Police Commissioners but in state governors,” Falana argued.
According to the law, anybody or group about to organise a rally can apply to the state governor, even 48 hours before the event would hold. Not only this, the provisions of the POA that require a permit for a rally, as the police want us to believe, violate Section 1 of the 1999 Constitution. This is the position of the law.
But with general elections a year away, our governors have to regain and start using the power granted them by the law. The best way of doing this is for them to seek the interpretation of the law at the Supreme Court, the highest arbiter in the land, a point also raised by the misfiring Yabo. The governors should realise by now that a law becomes better when it is tested at the courts and in implementation. They should put the police in their proper place.
Rights groups and the Nigerian Bar Association should also take up the matter on behalf of groups that want to peacefully associate. Nigeria cannot afford to be left out of the global trend that has quashed the need to get permits for rallies. Indeed, only a mere notification of the police about a rally is required in Malaysia, under the country’s Peaceful Assembly Act 2012. It is the same for many states in the United States of America. The essence is for the police to provide security for such rallies.
Democracy derives its energy from freedom of expression that comes with rallies, disagreements and even protests. The police should stop giving protection only to rallies organised by groups that have perceived leaning towards the government of the day, while obstructing the rallies by other groups.
The federal parliament should not sit and watch this brazen abuse of power. It should find ways to strengthen the laws that can promote our democracy.