A combined team of security agents from the Nigeria Police Force (NPF) and Department of State Security (DSS) sealed off the venue of RevolutionNow! symposium in Lagos, leaving invited guests and speakers, locked out and stranded for several hours. The symposium organised by the Coalition for Revolution (CORE) was convened a few days after the leader of the RevolutionNow! national protests and publisher of Nigeria’s online news portal Sahara Reporters, Omowole Sowore was detained by intelligence operatives of the DSS on August 3, 2019. The trending RevolutionNow! campaign seeks to mobilize Nigerians from all walks of life to demand a better-governed Nigeria. Nigeria’s security forces insist the protests calling for revolution constitute a treasonable offence.
Security forces arrived the venue—Logos Centre in Oregun, Ikeja, Lagos—in the early hours of August 19, 2019, and barricaded the entrance gate, threatening invited guests to either stay away from the event or face mass arrests and detention. Matching their threats with action, about three attendees were arrested. Undeterred by the arrests, the guest speakers and other attendees regrouped immediately singing solidarity songs, chanting pro-democracy slogans, granting press interviews unanimously expressing their dissatisfaction with the rising crackdowns on civil liberties and the worrying levels of oppression in the country.
SPACES FOR CHANGE’s [S4C’s] Ms. Zikora Ibeh, Program Officer, Defending the Civic Space was among the symposium attendees locked out of the venue. “The right to express dissent is a constitutionally-protected right. There is nothing wrong with Nigerians expressing their dissatisfaction with the way the country is run’’, Ms. Ibeh told newsmen.
The Coalition for Revolution (CORE), an assembly of activists and civil society organisations, decided to hold the symposium in a closed venue because of the government’s hostility towards peaceful street demonstrations. The symposium tagged ‘Democracy, State Repression and the State of Insecurity in Nigeria’ was organized to draw immediate attention to Nigeria’s growing social, economic and security crises and the government’s intolerable attitude towards critics.
It took the intervention of Mr. Femi Falana, a Senior Advocate of Nigeria, to get the premises unsealed and for the meeting to proceed. ‘Sealing off the venue of a public discourse is unacceptable in a democracy’, Falana fumed. He commended the attendees for insisting on their rights to assemble and associate freely. Even under the colonial and military regimes, Nigerians still fought for, and defended their rights. Falana’s intervention did not deter security operatives from unleashing further oppressive tactics. Attendees were ordered to walk in a single file, with their hands raised and present identity cards before being allowed into the premises of the meeting.
Days before the showdown at the Logos Center, a large group of protesters had converged in front of the National Stadium in Lagos State and in other locations across the country to mark 21 Days of Rage, presenting a long list of demands to be met by the government which include paying the N30,000 minimum wage, abolition of tuition fees in universities and secondary schools, ending the killings in the country, freeing all political prisoners including El Zakzaky and his wife, providing employment for Nigeria’s teeming youth population, among others. Police officers used tear gas and excessive force to disperse the crowd of protesters.
Civic space watchdogs like SPACES FOR CHANGE perceive the sealing of the symposium venue as a continuation of the government’s tough stance against citizens’rights to free speech, free assembly and association. The organization is cataloging the repression of civic freedoms in Nigeria in an online database–-www.closingspaces.org. Over 150 incidents have been tracked since 2016. Bloggers, critics, journalists and human rights defenders have been most targeted with repression.
S4C continues to call on the Nigerian government to open up the civic space and desist from the use of excessive force against protesters. It further calls for the release of all persons held in detention in various parts of the country for exercising their democratic rights to free speech, peaceful assembly and association.