By Osi Okponobi
I never imagined that a day like this would come, when I will openly condemn a protest or denounce students that are protesting a 'wrong'.
Well I guess with maturity and exposure, ones views about issues and life changes. I will blame it on or put it down to exposure, rather than maturity. Exposure about the ways protests or demonstrations or picketing are organised and done in other climes. How different these climes are compared to where I come from.
Protests, by their nature are a good way of showing or expressing disagreement. By its nature, it is not a bad thing. In fact, it is lawful and a fundamental right to protest. It is protected by the constitution, as part of a body of rights under Human Rights. It is part of the rights under freedom of expression, beliefs and thought. And the right to protest in groups is also covered by the right to associate FREELY (the freely is capitalised deliberately). However, when a protest crosses the line into lawlessness, bullying and assault, or borders on criminality, then it is no longer a protest, but something else.
I remember my days at the University of Jos, where I trained to be a Lawyer. I used to join in protests in those days, but always stood or remained at the fringes. The current Minister for Information, Labaran Maku, was an ardent activist back then, and he was at one time the Students Union President. He was so adept at activism that, if I'm correct to say this, he became the National Association of Nigerian Students (NANS) President. He was very good at student activism in those days.
I remember then that in those days, students used to get beaten up, bullied and chased out of Classrooms or Lecture halls, even if they were not interested in participating or did not agree or believe in the cause(s). Students at the time used to go on rampage and brigandage. Lawlessness used to reign, and cars or vehicles were torched or vandalised by 'us' (I'm counting myself, even though I never carried out these activities). Students used to protest and force their way out of the University and into town, embarking on a looting spree and lawlessness, vandalising vehicles and smashing car windscreens, while the occupants were inside, and beating people up.
As a young student at the time, it all seemed funny and a big joke to me, even though I was always far away from the scenes of the protests, even though I believed in the cause. But I usually enjoyed the protests, mostly because I looked forward to the fact that Universities would be closed and it would be time for me to reunite with friends (from other Universities) and my family and eat home cooked meals. I also looked forward to the opportunity to catch up with my other friends, plus catch up with my school work, etc. While the protests were raging, I used to enjoy my time with friends in a bar opposite the Main campus on Bauchi Road, enjoying a Rock.
When I look back to those days, I look back with trepidations. It frightens me, what we (including myself, as I did not attempt to stop it) used to get up to in those days, in the name of protests. It frightens me to think of the POWER that we assumed then. But why did we think or assume that we had the POWER or AUTHORITY to arrogate to ourselves, the right to FORCE others to believe in our cause or join our protests? We felt that we could BULLY and INTIMIDATE others to join or support us. Why we thought we could HARASS people and vandalise their cars, properties, shops or even block the roads and prevent them from going about their business, makes me cringe, thinking of it. Who gave us such POWERS?
I now live in a decent and civilised society, where protests are expressed decently. Where disagreements are expressed in a civilised manner, and not being bullish or primitive about it. I live in a country where rights are RESPECTED. Where freedom of expression and association is respected. I now live in a Democratic society, where constitutionality and human rights are RESPECTED. Where it is understood that your rights end or stop, where my rights begin or start. In other words, your right to protest ends or stops, where my right to my own freedom of expression, belief and association (or my refusal to associate or participate) starts. I have a FUNDAMENTAL RIGHT NOT TO protest and do not see why I should be BULLIED or FORCED to join in your protest.
I see how Unions in the UK protest (or what we call Demonstrate). I see how protests are organised and how union members are picketed. I see how the rights of those that are not interested are RESPECTED. Workers who go into work are not HARASSED OR ASSAULTED AND BULLIED. It is usually by CHOICE. Members of the public are not harassed or bullied to ACCEPT THEIR WAY AND MIGHT. Employer's properties are not vandalised. That is how to protest or conduct a protest! And in return, members of the public accept or recognise the rights of individuals to protest and they respect it and do not try to stop them. Not even the Police. At least, not until the riots begin to cross the line and affect services or becomes a social problem or menace. Or they take a lawless turn or dimension. Then, the popular public protests starts against those rioting or protesting and causing destruction.
Take the last students riots in the UK or even the last London riots, as examples. The London riots were popularly and overwhelmingly condemned when the protest against the Police killing in Tottenham, a Central London suburb, was taken too far and shops and stores were being vandalised and looted. The cause or the reason for the riots, though initially popular, were no longer a factor, and concerned citizens and the entire country unanimously and unequivocally condemned the riots. Even mothers or parents told on their children and forced them to hand themselves over to the police. One by one, all the protesters were fished out, arrested, prosecuted in court and sentenced.
The same thing occurred during the Students riots in London. Students from all over the country (mind you not all of them) converged in London to protest the increase in Tuition fees and payment. When again the riots crossed the line and became lawless, the public condemned it. Even a top opposition leader (and someone who I had worked closely with before), Mrs Harriet Harman, who also became the Labour leader after the resignation of Gordon Brown as labour leader, following his defeat at the polls, was roundly condemned for even daring to mention that she 'understood' why the protesters were protesting. She was forced to publicly withdraw her statement and apologise, as she was seen as sympathising with the protesters and justifying the lawlessness. That is how it is done in democratic societies.
Another example worthy of mention, involves a protester who broke through security and disrupted a public enquiry, where Mr Tony Blair, former PM, was giving evidence. Though the protester mouthed words at Tony Blair, and disrupted the proceedings, he was eventually escorted out. He was not charged by the Police for any offence, as he did not COMMIT ANY CRIMINAL OFFENCE. He simply made allegations against Tony Blair, which he flatly denied before continuing with his evidence.
I have painstakingly highlighted the above so that we can understand how protests are conducted in a democratic society. We blame the Police, the Military, etc, for not being democratic, while we, ourselves, are not democratic. Most Nigerians are not 'democratised'. We believe in imposing our thoughts, views, beliefs, rights and way of life on others. In a democracy, majority does not always mean right. But majority must carry the day. Majority is not a reason for taking away the rights of the minority. In fact, in a democratic culture, the rights of minorities are even more protected, even though the majority carries the day. Majority, however, does not mean lawlessness must or has to be accepted. All the rights are important in a democracy.
And by the way, who told the protesters that they are always in the majority? What about those SILENT MAJORITY who do not always agree with them. If one counts the number of the protesters compared to the whole university community, one would find out that the protesters are, indeed, in the minority. To every 100 protester, there are thousands of non-protesters. Did the students seek the views or do a survey of these SILENT MAJORITY or consult them or follow 'due process' before embarking on their ill-conceived vandalism and criminality, in the name of protests?
And those of us, who have had the benefit of living outside the country, and see or know how things are done, we should show restraint and not fuel the situation. This is why I disagree, and respectfully so, with the comments by the likes of Professor Wole Soyinka, who wrote an article asking “MKO Abiola family not to misconstrue the PROTESTS (emphasis mine) against the naming of the University of Lagos after their heroic patriarch”. In other words, the family should understand or appreciate the protests, and should not see it as disrespectful to the late icon. No, sir! A protest, when it crosses the line, should not be fuelled or buoyed by comments like, we should understand or appreciate why people are protesting. Such comments are enough to fuel the situation as the protesters would find encouragement. We must avoid statements or comments that would encourage or be seen to be egging them on. We should exercise restraint, and call on the protesters to be civil and controlled about expressing their disagreements. We heard similar comments made by Buhari, which fuelled the post elections violence last year in some parts of the North.
God forbid, if I was caught in the middle of the protest. I cannot imagine how I would have felt, not being used, or rather, no longer used to this type of bullish manner of protesting or expressing disagreements. I probably would have come down from my car and asked the students why they feel their rights to protest on the road is SUPERIOR to my right to drive on the road to my destination. I probably would have been mobbed or killed or my car destroyed. And the sad thing is that nobody would have condemned them, rather, they would condemn me for trying to enforce my FUNDAMENTAL HUMAN RIGHT TO MOVE FREELY. I probably would have been harassed and bullied and shouted down, before taking their further action. And knowing the stubborn me, I would still have been protesting my rights, in a civil but firm manner. In the eyes of the public, I would not have been seen as the victim, but a stubborn person who deserved what he got.
I do not condemn the right of anybody to disagree or protest. That is perfectly normal and entrenched in our constitution and our laws. But it is not in our constitution for people to be harassed, bullied and shops looted, while cars are vandalised. It saddens me when I read about tales of Petrol stations being vandalised and looted. What does that have to do with protesting a name change or the renaming of an institution? There are more civilised and democratic ways of expressing disagreements than what was or is still on display.
Even those protesting, what are they really protesting about? From what I have read so far, there are different categories of protesters. The first category are protesting the very idea of the name change. They fancy the name UNILAG to 'MAULAG', because it sounds more flash. Theirs is about the nomenclature. Others are protesting because they say it changes HISTORY, a 50 years history. These are the Archaeologists or Historians that wish to preserve our history. What is historical about the name 'LAG' or 'LAGOS' appearing after UNI? Lagos is a Portuguese word meaning Lagoon. Is that historical?
Some of the protesters are protesting because they feel the memento or gesture is not nationalistic enough, but seeks to 'tribalise' or 'ethnicise' the worth of MKO Abiola, who was a national hero. They want an edifice in Abuja or Owerri, instead, named or renamed after him. Another group are protesting that 'due process' was not followed. This group is also not certain or sure about what they mean by this 'due process' or what form it should follow. While one group says the University's Governing council should be the ones to decide on a name change, others say it is the National Assembly, as the University was created by an Act of Parliament. Yet another group believe the President should have 'consulted widely' before renaming the University.
In other words, from the totality of the above arguments or reasons, changing the name UNILAG to MAULAG (for short) would have been accepted if 'due process' or enough consultation was done, and not that the name is not good enough or the honour is not nationalistic enough. What this brings out is that even if 'due process' was followed, some people would have still protested or had a reason to protest. Those who feel the University's Governing council is the appropriate body, would have protested. While those that feel the name was not nationalistic enough or that the honour was 'tribalising' Chief Abiola (of blessed memory), would still have protested. Likewise, those that feel the name is not 'flash' enough and nice sounding or breaks a part of tradition or a 50 years history.
To those that prefer Abuja Stadium to Unilag being renamed after Chief Abiola, is the stadium more iconic than a 50 years historical landmark? Whichever way one looks at it, some people would have disagreed one way or the other, and had a reason to protest. Protesting, as I have said before, is not a bad thing. But in protesting, should we break the law? Should we intimidate, harass and bully others? Should we vandalise cars, loot shops and Petrol stations? I dare not think any right thinking and DEMOCRATIC person would support the protests.
There is no justification for brigandage, vandalism, lawlessness, intimidation, looting, destruction or criminality. This is the culture we must embrace and entrench in this our new democratic dispensation. The protests and the protesters must be condemned! Two wrongs CAN NEVER make a right. You cannot right unlawfulness with lawlessness or right a wrong with a wrong. That is barbaric or jungle Justice! I am neither in favour nor in opposition to the renaming. Perhaps, I wouldn't go as far as the President has done. But criminality is not the solution. I, therefore, condemn the criminal protests!
I make no other point, lest some people ask, is it right, what the President did? I am not arguing for or against, and this is not about the rightness or wrongness of his action. I am simply condemning criminality! Those who criticise or condemn the President for not following 'due process' (as they understand it) should equally condemn the rampaging students for not following DUE PROCESS for expressing grievances. Again I remind everyone that TWO WRONGS can never make A RIGHT! You can only right UNLAWFULNESS with LAWFULNESS, and not with CRIMINALITY or UNLAWFULNESS! God bless Nigeria.
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