Sowore: Dousing the tension, By Dele Agekameh




#TrackNigeria –It is no longer news that Omoyele Sowore, the presidential candidate of the African Action Congress, AAC, at the 2019 elections, has been ‘taken’ by the Department of State Services, DSS. The publisher of Sahara Reporters (an online publication) was picked up in the early hours of Saturday, August 3, by the state agents. Some would say he had it coming, following his attempts to engineer a nationwide protest, tagged #RevolutionNow, against the ‘status quo’. Unfortunately for Sowore, part of the status quo is a democratically elected government led by President Muhammadu Buhari. The DSS deemed his rhetoric, bordering on regime change, as treasonable.

The good news for Sowore is that his movement, if one may call it that, is garnering the attention he may have desired. The bad news is that in recent times, arrests of this nature by the DSS have turned out to be protracted detentions, usually fought in the courts, in the media and on the streets. One cannot tell whether Sowore was prepared for this eventuality, even if one can assume so. What he may not have been prepared for, however, is the likelihood of a charge of treason being successfully proven against him in court.

On that legal matter, Femi Falana, his lawyer, has expressed confidence that a charge of treason cannot rightly be brought against his client in the first instance. Nonetheless, with his freedom now in the balance, Sowore has placed himself in the same corner that Nnamdi Kanu, the leader of the Indigenous Peoples of Biafra, IPOB, and the last person publicly accused of treason, once found himself. Kanu went through the motions, with the protracted detention and bitter struggle in court, and in the media, until he was finally granted bail on strict conditions. Ironically, his subsequent jumping of bail in spectacular fashion may bear strongly on Sowore’s case if this goes to court on similar charges.

While some Nigerians may be caught up on the legality or otherwise of Sowore’s arrest and detention, others have not failed to see a pattern forming. It looks very much like the age-old practice of the state clamping down on dissent. Besides Kanu, who may have paved the way for his own arrest, scores of journalists, protesters and social media influencers have been detained at one time or the other since 2015.

What looks like a history of arrest of critics, when combined with the seemingly excessive clampdown on Kanu’s IPOB and the handling of the Shiite matter, projects high-handedness as a feature of this administration. This is the more reason why the government ought to have applied caution in handling the issue of Sowore and his #RevolutionNow. Sowore is a journalist and an activist who was a candidate at the last elections. This makes him an established member of the opposition. To handle his case without caution, therefore, would be a grave miscalculation.

There is a saying that two wrongs do not make a right. The manner of Sowore’s arrest may be deemed by the international community to be an excessive use of power. In the first instance, he does not have the capacity or capability to cripple the government or to unseat the current President from the Villa. As such, it was obvious that the government really went into panic mode over the “threat” of revolution. The journalists-beating frenzy that the police embarked upon after the DSS “captured” Sowore, also made matters worse. The journalists were only doing their jobs, but the police went after them, flogged, kicked and tear-gassed them before publicly dragging some of them on the floor and bundling them into their vans in the full glare of cameras.

This action by the DSS and the police was what really heightened tension all over the country. The police and DSS should have handled the whole thing differently. For instance, the DSS could have advised the government to invite Sowore for a dialogue. At the dialogue, they could have asked him what the problem really was. As a citizen of Nigeria, Sowore has the right to carry out any civic responsibility, including protest within the limits of the law. If he actually decided to lead a revolution, the government or its agents should have engaged him to find out why he is so embittered and glean what things he wants to change.

The government, and\or its agents, would have then been in a position to explain things to him. But to keep quiet and hunt him down, while the police go out to beat and disgrace journalists doing their jobs is too bad for the image of the country. The fact is that there has always been tension in the country as a result of things like the alleged herdsmen terrorism and the worrisome killings all over the place. The apparent inability of government to check these incessant killings in the country has really put the government in bad light both within and outside the country.

The situation will further be accentuated by whatever ill-treatment that is meted out to Sowore at this point. The only way out is for the government to avoid another protracted detention by releasing Sowore and allowing him to breathe the air of freedom. This way, the tension created by his arrest, as well as the high handedness of the police, would be sufficiently doused. Needless to say, the international community is watching. For this reason, the narrative building around the Buhari administration needs to be carefully managed.

On the flip side, for a loser in an election to embark on a campaign tagged “revolution”, while the main contender who lost out is pursuing legal action in court, may have been asking for trouble. The threat of civil disobedience and rioting in a revolution can be a serious problem for any sitting government around the world. The wave of uprisings in the Arab Spring that coursed through North Africa and the Middle East not too long ago has put governments across the world, especially in Africa, on edge.

By global standards, the governments of about 15 countries that were caught up in the Arab Spring were deemed as repressive, mostly made up of long-ruling “strong men” like Hosni Mubarak of Egypt. Repression often begins with the muzzling of free speech and curtailing of civil liberties. It does not take much for a regime to fall into this unenviable category, especially when press freedom becomes an issue and opposition is met with brute force. Nigeria is not such a place at this time, but if the high-handed tactics of state agents continue, the government’s image may become difficult to manage.

It is now left for President Buhari to ensure that the agents of his government manage their response to problems in a manner that conforms with globally accepted rules of engagement in every situation. Sowore is a small issue in the wide outlay of security threats facing the country at this time and nothing will be gained from making him another big problem.

In proceeding with Sowore’s case, the government should be well minded of what the law allows and balance that with the pulse of the country at the moment. Already, the DSS has obtained an order that allows it to keep Sowore detained for 45 days, based on legal provisions in the Administration of Criminal Justice Act. If there is no real need to keep him, releasing him before the expiration of that order will be a credit to the government.

Nigerians must also show good faith with the government. There are multiple areas of concern at this time and mounting more pressure on the government’s already strained resources will benefit no one. People are understandably feeling the pains of insecurity and the other ills in society right now. It is our civic responsibility to remain peaceful, even in protest, and not allow emotions propel us all into even more problems. 

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