“The man dies in all who keep silent in the face of tyranny.” —Prof Wole Soyinka.
THEY were some kind of special breed, always so well revered and even adored! The activists! They were deservedly admired as mirrors of the society, through whom every government is viewed and assessed. Ever spitting fire and roaring, they would pick on every programme and policy of government for thorough dissection and analysis, and then offer cogent alternatives. You ignore them at your peril, as president or governor or public officeholder.
They started as nationalists, to fight colonialism and then later handed over the baton to the activists, at the time mostly within the labour unions. In the words of the learned authors of Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary, Activism is “a doctrine or practice that emphasises direct vigorous action, especially in support of or opposition to one side of a controversial issue.” Thus, one can be a political activist, environmental activist or a human rights activist, the latter which is the most pronounced presently.
Once when he was asked by a journalist if he could be described as a human rights activist, Chief Wole Olanipekun, SAN, responded that every lawyer is an activist by training. Indeed, Chief Alexander Christopher Sapara Williams, the first indigenous lawyer to be called to the Nigerian Bar, stated that “the legal practitioner lives for the direction of his people and the advancement of the cause of his country.” Little wonder, therefore, that lawyers have dominated the rank of activists. It is in their blood. Indeed, by Paragraph (i) of the aims and objectives of Constitution of the Nigerian Bar Association, lawyers are responsible for “the encouragement, ensuring, and protection of the public right of access to the Courts and of representation by Counsel before Courts and Tribunals,” whilst Paragraph (h) provides that lawyers exist for “the promotion of the principles of the rule of Law, including fundamental liberties and the independence of the judiciary.” So then, a lawyer is an activist, by default.
Back to the activists. They were so very selfless, revolutionary in approach, manifestly incorrigible and given to constant harassment by the government and its agencies. The names that readily come to mind are those of Chief Michael Imoudu, Dr Tai Solarin, Professor Esko Tuoyo, Dr Edwin Madunagu, etc. Then, to be an activist was a rare calling indeed, without any expectation of any pecuniary benefit at all. If anything, such adventure would only deny you of your peace, freedom, privacy and even financial benefits. It was a ministry of some sort, unto sacrifices.
I was privileged to work with an activist, Dr Beko Ransome-Kuti, as a clerk with the Committee for the Defence of Human Rights, in his office at Anthony Village, Lagos. I voluntarily took up the offer as a vacation job. He had visible passion and was always at his duty post, very energetic, committed and totally down to earth. He took on the cause of the June 12 annulment with Comrade Chima Ubani, so admirably. He so inspired me with his uncompromising attitude that I thought of leaving school immediately to join him. That was a true activist.
I was again privileged to work full time with another activist, Chief Gani Fawehinmi, SAN, an enigma of no mean repute, but with no comparison at all. Always bouncing and bubbling with life, you would have no difficulty in agreeing with him immediately that most Nigerian leaders do not mean well for the masses. He loathed the idea of collaboration with donor agencies, as he insisted on funding his campaigns and programmes with his own resources, as his own contribution to nation building. And he was ready to lay down his life, for the cause of liberation of the masses. Not to mention the other activists like Mr Femi Falana, SAN, Professor Omotoye Olorode, Dr Olisa Agbakoba, Salisu Lukman, Ayo Obe, Fabian Okoye, Titus Mann, Dr Dipo Fasina, Dr Idowu Awopetu and so many others.
Activism came to the peak in 2012 when Pastor Tunde Bakare, along with Mr Yinka Odumakin and many others, floated the Save Nigeria Group, to protest the fuel subsidy removal, which eventually led to the great oil subsidy probe for which many are still standing trial till date. Nigerians from all walks of life took over the Gani Fawehinmi Park at Ojota, protesting on a daily basis, with the theme of “#Occupy Nigeria.” The Goodluck Jonathan led administration was forced to accede to their demands, eventually. It was indeed a glorious moment for activists in Nigeria.
Since the advent of the Muhammadu Buhari-led administration, however, activism seemed to have died a natural death. Two major strikes so far declared by the labour unions have more or less failed. The civil society groups have lost their voices, so much so that there has been no single encounter between the activists and the new administration, since 2015, a very rare occurrence in the history of Nigeria. So, the question that many now ask is this: What went wrong? What has happened? Whither the activists?
Except some lone voices, Nigeria has lost its activists to politics. Some of the activists are said to have become strategists for politicians and they can, therefore, not find their voices, any longer. With Comrade Adams Oshiomole now a versatile politician, activists are embracing partisan politics. Nigeria has lost its activists to the poor economy. The battle for self survival seemed to have consumed some of the core activists, some of who daily labour to find their bearings, in a failing economy. Nigeria has lost its activists to tribe and religion, two divisive forces threatening to tear the nation apart, but being craftily deployed by politicians to perpetuate gross ineptitude and heartless misgovernance.
Since 2015, we have had cases of unlawful detentions, of a journalist in unlawful custody for two years without trial; 294 persons are said to be rotting away in several DSS cells, we have had cases of wanton disobedience of lawful orders of courts, in the cases of Colonel Sambo Dasuki and Sheik El Zakzaky, just to mention but a few; we have been plunged into avoidable recession, without a whim from the activists, freedom of the press has been curtailed most violently and it is almost an offence now to even be identified as an activist.
The activists have lost their identity altogether, as their vocation and calling have been bastardised and eroded by a mysterious anti-corruption war, in which two plus two has not always been four, in the crafty prosecution of that war. We have witnessed scandalous cases of certificate forgeries, of monumental tampering with the public purse, to the extent that the aide of a First Lady vanished with a whopping N2.5 billion of her largesse, whereas Gani Fawehinmi was once in court to stop Maryam Babangida from even bearing the title of First Lady. But now, the activists are all silent. No doubt some of the activists who dared to thread the lion’s path have been harassed, threatened, silenced and even killed. So, the activists have become endangered species! But that is to be expected and should not be reason enough to throw all activists into hiding.
There have been no street protests, no rallies, no sit at homes, to greet the open and brazen rigging of elections, now termed cleverly as “vote-buying,” “see and buy”, as happened in Ondo, Ekiti and lately, Osun states. Politicians have become altogether emboldened in their manipulations, of voters and even of the judiciary, without the usual trepidation for the activists. Whither the activists!
We have witnessed the brazen invasion of the National Assembly by security agencies in a country populated by several human rights activists and Nigeria itself has now become more of an open prison, where Executive Orders are issued to deny the rights of citizens and even take over the statutory functions of the judiciary. And we still have activists, in this same country.
Some have opined that by reason of the fact that the ruling All Progressives Congress (APC) prides itself as a party of “progressives,” at least going by its self-declared manifesto, the party has invariably driven the activists into oblivion. Some readily point out that most activists are either part of, close to or sympathetic to the APC and its leading figures, generally and they, therefore, find it difficult to openly oppose the policies of the party, as they would want to do, ordinarily. So, it is a case of conflict of interests, for some the activists.
But Nigeria needs the activists now, like never before. As we approach the 2019 general election, as we battle to restore the economy of our fatherland back to its prosperous days, as we labour to win the war against corruption and terrorism genuinely, it is good for the activists to come out of their self-imposed sabbatical, to rescue Nigeria and Nigerians. They cannot hide, they cannot keep silent and they cannot be lukewarm or even despair. For unless we rise to confront the several monsters plaguing our land, we are in for more surprises ahead.
In 1955, Rosa Parks refused to stand up from her seat in a crowded bus for a white man to sit down. The bus had already been demarcated, with only a few seats for blacks. She was sitting in the portion reserved for the blacks, when a white man entered and noticing that there the portion reserved for whites was already filled up, Rosa Park was asked to get up for him. She refused and remained seated. This resistance was taken up by the black community in America and several years later, one of them rose to become the president of that same country where it was once a taboo to be identified as a black man. The Rosa Parks in Nigeria must rise up.
Upon the amalgamation of Nigeria in 1914, the colonial Governor, Lord Lugard, instituted the system of indirect rule in Southern Nigeria. Administrators known as Warrant Chiefs were appointed to take control of administration. Over time, the Warrant Chiefs became increasingly oppressive, seizing properties and at times imposing very draconian local regulations. They began to imprison those that challenged their powers. As if these were not enough, the British administration then announced plans to impose special taxes on Igbo market women.
In November of 1929, thousands of Igbo women embarked on protests, they attacked the European-owned stores, broke into the prisons to release prisoners, attacked the native courts and burning them down. The colonial police was called in and they shot live bullets that took the lives of about 50 of the women. The Warrant Chiefs were forced to resign and the tax was aborted. The women activists had won! It was the first major challenge upon the colonial administration and the impetus that the nationalists needed to advance their cause for independence. The rest is history.
Any system that seeks to intimidate its citizens into forced silence, any administration that prospers upon the hushed voices of dissent or is intolerant of public criticisms generally is tending towards dictatorship. The United Nations Charter, the African Union Charter and indeed the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria all contain specific provisions that guaranty the freedoms of expression, peaceful assembly, free association and indeed peaceful protests. Nigerian activists cannot profit from this seeming conspiracy of silence, whereby the masses of our people grope in darkness, waiting for direction. All the objective conditions for mass mobilisation, such as increasing unemployment, rise in crime and criminalities, poverty, rising inflation, dwindling electricity supply across the land, collapse of vital infrastructure and general failure of governance, should be harnessed by the activists in a constructive manner, to keep the government on its toes.
More than ever before, Nigeria needs the activists. Given the nature of mass illiteracy that permeates the land, it would take a few informed Nigerians to educate the people on their rights and freedoms. This is where the press comes in, for activism does not necessarily start and end with lawyers and labour leaders. Under and by virtue of Section 22 of the 1999 Constitution, the press is to hold government accountable to the people. This is a sacred constitutional responsibility imposed upon the press and nothing should stand in the way of its enforcement, by our mighty men and women of the pen, which is reputed to be mightier than the sword.
Activism was recently liberalised through the promulgation of the Fundamental Rights (Enforcement Procedure) Rules, 2009, which has now empowered civil society organisations, religious entities and, in particular, the Nigerian Bar Association, to take up the cases of citizens that are deprived of their fundamental rights. Several judicial authorities have given fillip to the regime of preventive and human rights enforcement litigations. So, let the activists wake up and dust their tools and keep Nigeria vibrant, once more.
Let the activists arise now and deliver Nigeria, so that people on the streets would not continue to wonder, Wither the activists.
Culled from Tribune