The Unfair Treatment Of Sowore & Others Detained Illegally In Nigerian Prisons

omoyele sowore released

The Unfair Treatment Of Sowore & Others Detained Illegally In Nigerian Prisons

I am writing this piece on Friday, September 27, 2019. It will appear in print and online on Sunday, September 29. There is a very slim chance that by that date, the government of President Buhari would have obeyed the order of an Abuja High Court granting bail to Omoyele Sowore while standing trial for, among other alleged offences, treasonable felony. Given the current administration’s poor record of obeying court orders pertaining to release on bail of its many “enemies”, this is highly unlikely. But it may happen. If it does, some of the things I shall be saying in this piece would have been overtaken by events.

If, however, Sowore is still in forcible and illegal detention by the time that this piece is read in print and online, then much of my observations in the essay will, sadly, be validated by yet another act of deliberate and unwarranted rubbishing of the rule of law by the government.

In this piece, I am joining my voice to the voices of people in Nigeria and abroad that have called for Sowore’s his immediate release. Furthermore, I call for all charges against him to be dropped by the government because his call for massive and prolonged demonstrations is protected by the Nigerian Constitution.

Moreover, I declare that the call of Sowore and the organization known as #RevolutionNow for protests constitute an act of civil disobedience that not only is a valid and honorable part of the political history of this country but also a tradition that President Buhari himself has deployed in pursuit of both his political ambitions and his vision for the country’s development and progress.

But if it is the case that the government will not drop the charges Sowore, I join others in demanding that he should be freed now and be given a manifestly fair and credible trial. Free Sowore now! His continued detention is unjust, unlawful and profoundly anti-democratic.

Since both the detention of Sowore itself and the alleged offences for the detention have been widely reported – and protested – in Nigeria and abroad, it is useful for me to begin here with the things that I find particularly noteworthy in the still unfolding saga. For this, I ask the reader to please take note of the first part of the title of this piece: detention while awaiting trial. As I shall demonstrate in the course of my reflections in this piece, Sowore is only one of tens of thousands of Nigerians languishing in prison, in detention, while awaiting trial.

Among all the profoundly unconstitutional and anti-democratic aspects of governance in our country, this is one of the worst. Thus, Omoyele Sowore’s case is only the currently most talked about and scandalous instance of this extremely anti-democratic pattern or, indeed, tradition. Permit me to make a short elaboration on this particular case before coming to the more general aspects, especially as this has been manifested in the past and present political career of President Buhari.

Sowore has been in detention since early August. As a matter of fact, after his arrest, the order for his detention was granted by a court for 45 days while investigation of his alleged offences was being conducted, with the proviso that if the investigation was not yet concluded in 45 days, the government prosecutors in the case could ask for extension of the detention. But this week – about the 6th or the 7th week of Sowore’s detention – the prosecutors announced that all investigations into the alleged offenses had been concluded.

Moreover, the prosecutors did not ask for Sowore’s detention to be extended – presumably because they have no legal basis to do so. Instead of this, they are saying something more chilling, more sinister, this being the declaration that some of the alleged offenses for which Sowore is being charged are capital offenses that carry the death penalty, an assertion that Sowore’s lawyers have stoutly contested.

The implication of this is as clear as daylight: in the absence of any valid legal basis for the continuation of Sowore’s detention, any excuse, any concocted rationale must be found to perpetuate this Nigerian tradition of detention while awaiting trial that the current administration has taken to hitherto unprecedented levels.

I must quickly correct the last sentence. There is nothing uniquely “Nigerian” about detention while awaiting trial. In many other countries, we do find the phenomenon of so massive an over-congestion of criminal cases in the courts that the judicial system has to either release accused persons before they can be tried or keep them detained for as long as it takes for their cases to be tried and brought to a conclusion.

The peculiar “Nigerian” dimension of this phenomenon lies in two remarkable factors. These are, respectively, the sheer scale of the phenomenon in terms of the total population of Nigerian prisons and the effect that long stretches of autocratic military rule has had on human and constitutional rights violations in our judicial order under both military and elective governance. What does this mean in concrete terms?.

Well, with regard to the first factor, consider the estimate made by some scholars and experts that have studied the issue that sometimes, between 63 to 70% of the population of Nigerian prisons are persons awaiting trial, some of them spending months and years in excess of the stipulated penalties for the crimes for which they were charged! And with regard to the second factor, the refusal of government to obey explicit court orders granting bail for persons awaiting trial, such as we have it in the current case of Sowore, began with military autocracy.

Indeed, the two greatest exemplars of tradition of disobeying court orders by elected Nigerian heads of state, Obasanjo and Buhari, had their “training” for this propensity during their tenures as military dictators. As a matter of fact, the single most pernicious military decree on this phenomenon – the dreaded Decree No 2 of 1984 – was promulgated by Buhari as military ruler. Infamously, the decree called for indefinite detention for any acts intended to cause embarrassment or disrepute to the government, regardless of whether the allegations are true or false!

Wole Soyinka has stated, perceptively and clamantly, that the government’s kneejerk response to Sowore’s call for massive protests is indicative of the increasing paranoia of the Buhari administration. As if to give proof to this declaration of Soyinka, one of the alleged offenses for which Sowore is to be charged is insulting the President and seeking to foment disrespect and hatred of Buhari: echoes of Decree No 2 of 1984!.

There is a big unintended irony here because, as I stated at the beginning of this piece, Buhari as both a military person and a civilian citizen has been an avid, passionate user of the tactics and strategy of civil disobedience in pursuit of his ambitions and goals. As a matter of fact, of all the 13 executive heads of state we have had in Nigeria since independence in 1960, none has been more of a practitioner of civil (and uncivil) disobedience than Mohammadu Buhari! Permit me to briefly provide a fact-based illustration of this declaration.

Fact: Of all the military coups carried out by executive heads of state in this county, only Buhari’s coup of December 1983 against the government of the late Shehu Shagari was against an elected government.

All the other coups by executive heads of state were “soldier come; soldier go” coups against other military autocracies. The coup led by Major Chukwuma Kaduna Nzeogwu was also against an elected civilian government, but as it only partially succeeded and neither Nzeogwu nor any of his fellow coup-makers became head of state, this is different from Buhari’s successful coup against Shagari.

I neither condemn nor endorse Buhari’s coup against Shagari’s government. I am merely drawing attention to its uniqueness among all other military coups in Nigeria because of the element of paranoia that has been such a prominent feature of the rule of the President as both a military and civilian head of state.

Fact: In 2015, close to the presidential elections of that year that he eventually won, Buhari made his infamous statement of militant, chiliastic civil disobedience in which he stated, inter alia, that the “dog and the baboon will be soaked in blood”. Even the diehard defenders of the President have found it difficult to explain and/or justify the taint of bloodshed as means or ends of resistance to rigging in that statement.

But that is Buhari for you, at least before he acceded to rulership for the second time: forget the courts, forget election tribunals, forget appeals to the international community; there will be blood, there will be fire if the elections are rigged. Looking back now to the declaration and its context in 2015, I remember that nobody took this declaration by Buhari as an empty threat, least of all the government of Ex-President Goodluck Jonathan and his political party, the PDP.

I think Jonathan was shaken by the declaration and shocked into inaction about it primarily because he thought that he could not be sure of the readiness of the security forces of the state under his control to overwhelm or even match the bloodiness promised in “the dog and the baboon will be soaked in blood” speech. For his part, Buhari, I think, sees every potential challenge to his rule in the shadow of that speech, especially if he deems such challenges or threats as potentially or actually popular.

Think about this, compatriots. Sowore and #RevolutionNow, together with their supporters, are numbered in dozens and at most hundreds, not thousands and definitely not millions. But they could grow into millions and multiple of millions, given the state of affairs in the country, especially with the overwhelming majority of our peoples. This is the cause of the fear and the paranoia behind the government’s decision to keep Sowore locked up and deprived of his freedom – while he is awaiting trial.

Incidentally, the great majority of those detained in Nigeria’s prisons while awaiting trial are poor and powerless Nigerians, the very class of people on behalf of whom Sowore and #RevolutionNow are struggling. This is the reason why in this piece I have linked the call for Sowore’s release from detention to the call also for the release of all persons in Nigerian jails awaiting trial in the law courts.

Any Nigerian who is not rich, not influential and is without connections to those in power is a potential member of the hundreds of thousands of those in prison while awaiting trial. All it will take to join the ranks of these damned and wretched of the land is for a person to be arrested on a fateful day, rightfully or wrongfully, for a criminal offense. The elite, the educated, the famous and influential can also be forcibly thrown in this throng.

All that is needed is for you, like Sowore, to insist that you and others will march and protest and demonstrate against the injustices in the land without asking or waiting for the permission of the state to do so in a tradition of moral and altruistic citizenship known all over the world as – civil disobedience. The continued detention of Sowore is intended to discourage, indeed to criminalize civil disobedience by making Sowore a warning to others who may inspired by him and the acts of #RevolutionNow.

I do not think that in the long run the government will succeed in this calculation. But that is an issue that only time and history will tell. Right now, we must insist that Sowore must be freed immediately and be allowed to face his trial not as a detained prisoner.

In the late Festus Iyayi’s collection of short stories titled Awaiting Court Martial, we find many tales evoking and protesting the harrowing emotional, spiritual and ethical landscapes in which not only those literally awaiting trials are in limbo but the whole nation as well. Fear and paranoia are everywhere, among the people and definitely in the innermost recesses of the government. In one story titled “When they came for Akika Lamidi”, the journalist for whom the security police have come in the middle of the night thinks at first that it is armed robbers knocking on his door and trying to beak it down.

He soon finds that it is the secret police. And then he discovers that they are like armed robbers in their mercilessness, only a hundred times worse. They have come now for Sowore. They will not come for you but that is only if you give up your rights and obligations as a human being and a citizen.

About the author: Biodun Jeyifo writes from bjeyifo@fas.harvard.edu

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