Freedom of Expression in a Democratic Society vis – a-vis Protest

Several newspapers and social media platforms were inundated with the news that the pump price of Premium motor spirit (PMS) otherwise known as fuel increased to N151.56. This is resulting from the deregulation of the downstream sector and removal of subsidy by the Federal Government of Nigeria. The recent happening in the oil and gas sector can be attributed to the COVID-19 pandemic and its attendant consequences on world economies. 

The hike in the price of petroleum products ignited widespread discontent and anger across various sectors in Nigeria. This is the third time the pump price of Premium motor spirit is reviewed in 2020.  Citizens especially youths expressed their displeasure in the recent increase through different mediums like protest. In Lagos State, protesters were arrested and their properties seized around Ojuelegba by officers of the Nigeria Police Force.  It is pertinent to note that this is not the first of its kind in Nigeria where protesters are arrested and detained.

 The question that seeks to be addressed is whether protest is lawful especially in the Nigeria context.

At different times, citizens have resulted to protest as a means of expressing their dissatisfaction with government policies, laws or mode of governance. According to Wikipedia protest is described as “a public expression of objection, disapproval or dissent towards an idea or action, typically a political one. Protests can take different forms, from individual statements to mass demonstrations. Protesters may organize a protest as a way of publicly making their opinions heard in an attempt to influence public opinion or government policy, or they may undertake direct action in an attempt to enact desired changes themselves”. For a state to be democratic, the people must be allowed to air their dissatisfactions as freedom of expression is pivotal to democracy. Freedom of expression and peaceful assembly are fundamental rights guaranteed by the 1999 Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria (as amended). Sections 39 and 40 of the constitution provided thus:

SECTION 39(1)

“Every person shall be entitled to freedom of expression, including freedom to hold opinions and to receive and impart ideas and information without interference”.

SECTION 40

 “ Every person shall be entitled to assemble freely and associate with other persons, and in particular he may form or belong to any political party, trade union or any other association for the protection of his interests:

Provided that the provisions of this section shall not derogate from the powers conferred by this Constitution on the Independent National Electoral Commission with respect to political parties to which that Commission does not accord recognition”

By the aforementioned provisions of the constitution it can be rightly said that citizens have the right to peaceful protest.

The Public Order Act C382 LFN in the other hand gave State governors the authority to regulate and stop assemblies. The act provides thus:

S(1) For the purposes of the proper and peaceful conduct of public assemblies, meetings and processions and subject to section 11 of this Act, the Governor of each State is hereby empowered to direct the conduct of all assemblies, meetings and processions on the public roads or places of public resort in the State and prescribe the route by which and the times at which any procession may pass

S (2): Any person who is desirous of convening or collecting any assembly or meeting or of forming any procession in any public road or place of public resort shall, unless such assembly, meeting or procession is permitted by a general licence granted under subsection

S (3) of this section, first make application for a licence to the Governor not less than 48 hours thereto, and if such Governor is satisfied that the assembly, meeting or procession is not likely to cause a breach of the peace, he shall direct any superior police officer to issue a licence, not less than 24 hours thereto, specifying the name of the licensee and defining the conditions on which the assembly, meeting or procession is permitted to take place; and if he is not so satisfied, he shall convey his refusal in like manner to the applicant within the time herein before stipulated

The police reacted by disrupting the protests, arresting protesters and seizing of media men properties on the ground that the organizers did not obtain police permit as provided by the Public Order Act. The Public Order Act pose a threat to the enjoyment of the rights provided for in the constitution as it relates to peaceful assembly and expression. 

The CFRN provides that the constitution is supreme and any law inconsistent with the constitution is null and void to the extent of it inconsistency. The court in the celebrated case of All Nigeria Peoples Party v Inspector-General of Police (2008) 12 WRN 65 decided by the Court of Appeal on December 12, 2007 Adekeye JCA (as she then was) held inter alia: “A rally or play card carrying demonstration has become a form of expression of views on current issues affecting government and the governed in a sovereign State. It is a trend recognized and deeply entrenched in the system of governance in civilized countries– it will not only be primitive but also retrogressive if Nigeria continues to require a pass to hold a rally. We must borrow a leaf from those who have trekked the rugged path of democracy and are now reaping the dividend of their experience.”

Muhammad JCA as a contribution to the judgement said: “In present day Nigeria, clearly police permit has outlived its usefulness.  Certainly, in a democracy, it is the right of citizens to conduct peaceful processions, rallies or demonstrations without seeking and obtaining permission from anybody. It is a right guaranteed by the 1999 Constitution and any law that attempt to curtail such rights is null and void and of no consequence.”

Flowing from the decision of the Court of Appeal on the fundamental right of Nigerians to freedom of assembly and expression through peaceful rallies and protests Government at all levels should stop the police and other security agencies from further harassing or intimidating protesters.

He who comes to equity must come with clean hands; therefore, protesters/demonstrators must conduct themselves in a peaceful manner. Otherwise, they may end up being in conflict with the provisions of the law and be liable to prosecution.

“The majority will have its way, but the minority has an inalienable right to have their say.”

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