… Activists injured, rushed to hospital
… Journalists mobbed by hoodlums
By Luminous Jannamike
Several civil society organisation, CSOs, on Monday clashed in Abuja over calls for the enforcement of the human rights of Omoyele Sowore, the convener of RevolutionNow Movement, and other citizens unlawfully detained by the Department of State Services, DSS.
The state of confusion created in the streets during the clash left several people injured and hospitalised.
At 9:00am, activists from Amnesty International, Socio-Economic Rights and Accountability Programme, SERAP, and other groups stormed the premises of the National Human Rights Commission, NHRC, along Aguiyi Ironsi street in Maitama for a freedom rally to impress on the commission the need to call for an end to the reign of impunity in the country.
Their rally was a sequel to the 14 days ultimatum issued the President Muhammadu Buhari administration by at least 200 CSOs to stop the crackdown on the freedom of the press; attack on the judiciary, the proposed bills to curb dissent and a general environment of shrinking civic space.
They bore placards with inscriptions such as; ‘Nigerians say no to tyranny’, ‘Stop silencing dissenting voices’, ‘NHRC must protect our rights’.
But minutes into the mass action, civil groups who believed the actions of the DSS were in the best interest of the nation also arrived the scene for a solidarity rally in support of the Federal Government and the security agencies.
Their own placards read: “We will defend our mandate to Buhari at all cost’, ‘NHRC steer clear of issues of national security’, ‘When national security is threatened human rights take second place’ among other similar inscriptions.
In the ensuing commotion, violence broke out and several activists were injured. Also, journalists covering the rally were harassed and their cameras and mobile phones forcefully hijacked by hoodlums who infiltrated the mass action.
In an address to the NHRC Chairman, Mr Tony Ojukwu, the CSOs who organised the freedom rally described affairs in the country as troubling.
They said, “Mr Ojukwu, we are here today because the Mandate of NHRC makes you the face of the nation regarding human rights.
“As such, we ask that you remind President Buhari that there are norms in every democratic system of government. They are freedom of speech; freedom of the press; and the rule of law are key components.
“Persistent human rights violations and restrictions on the civic space by the government of President Buhari and several state governors betray past efforts to push for human rights improvements for the Nigerian people.
“The executive arm of government at the federal and state levels are ignoring the Nigerian Constitution and international human rights obligations and commitments. By doing so, they betray the people of Nigeria and their constitutional oaths of office.
“We urge Nigerian authorities to reverse course and end the growing assault on human rights.
“Nigerian leadership shows no sign of stopping its oppression of the rights and freedoms of Nigerians. Peaceful demonstrators, non-governmental organizations, political opponents, human rights activists and independent media workers continue to be the targets of systematic harassment and intimidation by the Federal Government and several state governors.
“We will continue to mobilise Nigerians to hold their leaders to account and speak truth to power. The power is in the hands of citizens as the Office of the Citizen is the highest office in the land.
“Government must serve the people, not the people enslaved to an insensitive government. We will not stay silent! We will come together and stand together, in solidarity because all Nigerians have a right to participate in decisions that impact their lives.”
They had barely concluded their presentation when serious noisy disturbance rent the air as both the pro-freedom demonstrators and the pro-government prostesters locked horns in what seemed like a shouting match.
There was heavy police presence. However, little or nothing was done to stop the conflicting groups from getting too close for comfort.
The clash degenerated to a point where members of the freedom rally group could no longer stand the commotion and began to flee the scene.
But they were given a hot chase by those sympathetic to the government whose number had become swollen by miscreants who infiltrated the mass action.
Popular activist and convener of Concerned Nigerians, Deji Adeyanju, was caught and beaten by a mob of at least 20 persons.
Our correspondent who covered the rally was among the journalists attacked. Several mobile phones were forcefully taken from members of the press and seized by the hoodlums. But for to prompt response by the police, several persons would have been killed in the course of the melee.
Commenting on the violence, one of the conveners of the Freedom rally, Jaye Gaskia of Take Back Nigeria (TBN) blamed the police for mishandling the mass action.
He said, “What happened here is a concerted attack on the civic space, the rule of law, and the rights of citizens to express themselves by the state and its agents.
“We earlier went to make make a case to the police for them to separate the two protests. But they simply stood and watched. It is not the best of policing even though they eventually intervened to stop the violence.”
Other activists represented in the Freedom rally group were Osai Ojigho of Amnesty International (Nigeria), Osagie Obayuwana of Committee for the Defense of Human Rights (CDHR), Idayat Hassan of Centre for Democracy & Development (CDD),
Auwal Rafsanjani of Civil Society Legislative Advocacy Centre (CISLAC), ‘Yemi Adamolekun of Enough is Enough Nigeria (EiE Nigeria), Lanre Suraj of HEDA & People’s Alternative Front, Megan Chapman of Justice & Empowerment Initiatiave, Kola Ogundare of Socio-Economic Right And Accountability Project (SERAP), Juwon Sanyaolu, and Biola Akiyode-Afolabi of Transition Monitoring Group.
Meanwhile, Ibrahim Kabiru Dala, the convener of Centre for Leadership and Development Initiative, CLDI, which led the pro-government protesters absolved members of his team of blame in the attacks on fellow activists and journalists.
He said, “Our meeting today was coincidental because we had planned and scheduled our rally for today long before they (Freedom group) threatened mass penultimate week. We wrote relevant government agencies for security cover which they have provided today.
“Our mission is simple: to express our solidarity with the Buhari-led government and equally thank the security agencies for protecting ordinary Nigerians from those seeking to throw the country into a state of confusion.”
On the violence that ensued, Dala said: “Deji Adeyanju and his group attacked our members but we resisted them squarely because of our numbers. If we had attacked them, the story would have been worse than it is right now because we clearly outnumbered them.
“What our members did was to simply resist their attacks and chase them out of the streets. We are law-abiding Nigerians.”