COVID-19 Restrictions: No Going Back on National Mass Protests From May 26 As Planned, Civil Society Groups Dare FG

the national incident manager, Mukhtar Mohammed Photo
the national incident manager, Mukhtar Mohammed

A coalition of over 120 civil society organisations and activists, which on Sunday initiated a mass action and boycott of the Democracy Day activities by Nigerians from May 26, 2021 to protest the worsening insecurity across the country says it would not be deterred by the latest lockdown/restrictions announced by the federal government on Monday, describing the decision as a “mischief”. The facilitators insisted that “whether the government likes it or not, we will register our displeasure”.

Mobilising the people in their statement on Sunday signed by the 120 CSOs, the coalition invited Nigerians to the “solemn assemblies” on May 28 to mark what it described as the 4th national day of mourning and remembrance for victims of mass atrocities. It also called on Nigerians to boycott the activities lined up by government for this year’s Democracy Day which it erroneously put on May 29 instead of the new June 12 date.

In its statement titled, ‘State of the Nation: A Call to President Muhammadu Buhari to Stop the Bleeding and Take Action to End the carnage’, also lamented the total breakdown of law and order across the country.

Part of the statement said “We are therefore calling on all Nigerians to register their displeasure with the state of affairs across the country by participating in a series of mass actions from Monday the 26th of May 2021, participate in solemn assemblies across the country to commemorate the 4th National Day of Mourning and Remembrance of Victims of Mass Atrocities on May 28th 2021, and boycott all Democracy Day activities on May 29, 2021 in protest of the deplorable state of our democracy”.

Surprisingly however, the national incident manager, Mukhtar Mohammed on Monday at a briefing of the presidential steering committee on COVID-19, announced the reintroduction of curfew, limiting of public gatherings to not more than 50, and closure of bars, night clubs, gyms and event centres, for a period of one month.

But speaking on Tuesday on the African Independent Television, AIT breakfast programme, Kaakaki, two representatives of the conveners of the protest, Abiodun Baiyewu, executive director, Global Rights, and Austin Aigbe, Senior Programme Officer, Centre for Democracy and Development, insisted that come what may, there was no chickening out of the planned protest. While Baiyewu described the fresh lockdown measures as a “mischief”, Aigbe asserted that “a people united can never be undermined”.

Baiyewu was miffed that such COVID-19 measures were being introduced “when the COVID numbers started to drop, and dropped drastically” noting that “we’ve not had serious incidents with serious rise in well over a month, the government then decides to lock down once civil societies say enough”. According to her, “I think it’s very clear the reason why government said so – because they don’t want people out on the streets; because they don’t want to hear dissenting voices. But either way they do it, they will hear Nigerians loud and clear. And how would they hear Nigerians loud and clear? There is a ban on gatherings, even when you have just 50 people. And if you are calling out Nigerians, we have over 200 million Nigerians and I bet your call is on every Nigerian to come out in all the protests and all that”.

Aigbe was amused at the suggestion that the federal government was being proactive in adopting the lockdown measures because it was trying to avoid the Indian and Brazilian experiences where COVID-19 deaths had spiked beyond control. He said the government should apply the same pro-activeness in arresting the festering insecurity in the country. Laughing, he responded “But I will like to advise the government to be proactive in stopping killings and … I don’t get it. COVID-19 is coming down. The lessons we learnt from the lockdown, we don’t want to learn it again.

“During the lockdown was the highest level of mass atrocities, gender-based violence, rapes that went on at a level that we cannot even record. You are locking down the country again? Because the civil societies have decided… The truth of the matter is this; a people united can never be undermined. Right now, Nigerians across the length and breadth of this country are angry because they’ve lost someone; some of their colleagues have been kidnapped, killed, raped and someone said that because India or Brazil have cases, meanwhile we have Indians coming into the country, we have not stopped them.

“We have not banned airlines coming from India; we have not banned Indian citizens coming into the country, and you are locking down a country we just had 49 cases yesterday because you know that you don’t want to embarrass the government. Because they always have a way of saying when people gather, you are embarrassing the government. The government does not think that with the killings, they are embarrassing the people. Across the globe, Nigeria has become … But we must take responsibility right now. The destiny of Nigeria is in our hands. We must, as a people unite to save the Nigerian State”.

On how this would be achieved, Baiyewu said “The call is on every Nigerian to join and there are ways to join without being non-COVID compliant. And I think that is what they are failing to take into cognizance. Nigerians are tired; we are tired. There is not a single front page news that is good news in Nigeria today; it is insecurity, it’s banditry, it’s kidnapping. It’s one form of corruption or violence or the other. We would not continue to live this way. And so, whether the government likes it or not, we will register our displeasure.

“And all the way from next week until Democracy Day, you will hear Nigerians loud and clear whether in the streets, in their homes, in small gatherings, or in groups. You want groups less than 50, you will get them; but then you would get groups all over the country, in every single corner, street corner, local government area, speaking out against what is going on in this country”.

Affirming that all the listed CSOs are on the same page on the protest, Baiyewu said “Every single organization that is on that list put in their names, and those names were gathered in less than 24 hours which means if we had left the call out even longer, that you would have had even more civil society organizations from across the country because at the end of yesterday, we still had many civil society organization saying why wasn’t our name included. But then we had only a 24-hour window period with which to finish signing that statement and they did”.

Reacting to why it took so long for the CSOs to take the decision to confront the Nigerian government to say enough is enough, she recalled that “In February, we had sent out a statement; we had given a press conference where we had 75 civil society organizations saying that enough is enough. President Buhari needs to sit up or civil societies will be forced to go out and make you sit up. And we spoke as well to the National Assembly and the state Houses of Assembly; we said that, exactly as Austin has said, protect us. But then we see that their allegiance is neither to the constitution of Nigeria, nor the Nigerian State, but to politics, and to political apparatus of government. That, we will not condone as a people”.

Baiyewu stated confidently that strategies had been mapped out to achieve “peaceful, non-violent protests” and that these would be brought out in operation. She was reacting to how to avoid the October 2020 Lekki toll gate #EndSARS experience. “There are also many ways of achieving dissenting opinions in public and we will bring them out. I think what the government is afraid of is that citizens are finally speaking out about their inefficiency but the only way they can stop us from doing that is by becoming efficient.

“Let us see you doing something about the killings, the kidnappings, and the insecurity across this nation. Let us see you fulfill your constitutional mandate which says that the primary purpose of government is the security and welfare of all citizens. Once government begins to fail in fulfilling its constitutional obligations, then it becomes unconstitutional and illegal and that is what they are becoming, and that they do not seem to see”, she posited.

Also contributing, Aigbe recalled that “In our statement we released yesterday, we categorically stated that if the government, security agencies can crack down on protesters they should use the same energy to crack down on insecurity. Why are we protesting? Because we see that the mass atrocities, the killings are too much. We cannot begin to count them. These are faces of individuals – our brothers, our sisters, our mothers, our fathers, our children being killed on a daily basis.

“Yesterday, over 40 was kidnapped in Katsina, the home state of the president. And it goes across the length and breadth of this country. And somebody is locking down to go after protesters? It would be insane. Gather the energy, put your acts together because if you deal with insecurity, the protests will not hold because the whole idea of the protest is to call attention of the presidency. In fact, all of those we elected, you have a responsibility; if you are hearing me now, I speak to you, that you listen to your conscience. We elected you to protect us and not to kill us. You’ve got a responsibility this moment to take action, organize your house together and nip these killings in the bud and not on protesters”.

On how long the protest would last, Baiyewu said it would go on for as long as they needed to sustain it. She lamented that “For six years, they have been making efforts. Ten trillion naira gone into security in six years! Seven years ago, this man knew he was going to be president; the people at the National Assembly knew they would be there. The threats were there 10 years ago. If it’s taking them this long to make things work, because progressively, over six years, things have gotten worse; insecurity got worse from 2019 to 2020; the rate went up by 43 percent of the fatalities of insecurity in Nigeria. The first quarter of 2021, the numbers are even higher. We would do what it takes to ensure that we continue to have a country that we can call our own for as long as we need to and we will not be daunted.

Making reference to the Lekki Toll Gate shootings by the military, Baiyewu stated that “What they did in October last year is a shame on Nigeria’s government, not just internally, but externally. Your allegiance must be to the Nigerian State and the Nigerian State is what unites the people. You divided the people in six years. Now we are coming back together and saying no more”.

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