By Raymond Nkannebe
In an apparent bid not to run foul of the 45 days detention order it had hurriedly secured in somewhat controversial circumstances against the Convener of the ‘Revolution Now’ protest and publisher of Sahara Reporters, Omoyele Sowore, the Federal Government has minted a 7-count charge bordering on alleged conspiracy to commit Treasonable Felony and Treason contrary to sections 516 and 4(1)(c) of the Criminal Code Act respectively. Sowore and his co-accused, are equally charged for allegedly breaching certain provisions of the Cyber Crime (Prevention and Prohibition) Act in that they granted interviews and made statements that were insultive and calculated to stoke illwill and hatred for the person of President Muhammadu Buhari. For completeness, Sowore is also charged for alleged breach of section 15(1) of the Money Laundering (Prohibition) Act without any particulars as widely reported.
Looking at the timing of this charges and the ostensible reasons on which they are pegged, it is easy to decipher that the Federal Government through the office of the Attorney General of the Federation are merely clutching at the straws. It is a needless proxy war in which the Attorney General of the Federation, Abubakar Malami SAN, has enlisted against Sowore on behalf of the presidency.
It would however have been a different thing if Sowore and his Co-convener were as guilty as charged, at least in the court of public opinion. But bad for Malami and his assigns, that is not the situation as far as this writer understands it. Quite to the contrary, it is a struggle in what is currently becoming a fashion of the extant regime in Abuja, to give a dog a bad name, to secure it’s execution, as the popular African proverb goes. This, we shall soon show.
Let us take the alleged offences as they come. Sowore is being accused of conspiracy to commit treason, and treason contrary to the relevant provisions of the Criminal Code Act. Now, treason is a no mean offence for those who might not know. It is synonymous to mutiny under a military set up, and most often than not, the recompense is heavy. The Black’s Law dictionary, Tenth Edition by Bryan A. Garner, defines it as “the offence of attempting to overthrow the government of the state to which one owes allegiance, either by making war against the state or by materially supporting it’s enemies”.
It is instructive to note that because of the maximum punishment for treason, the law requires the highest degree of proof and as a matter of fact, the accused must have been seen carrying on some obvert act tending towards overthrow of the government or supporting it’s enemies. In the United States, it’s Constitution provides for what is called “constructive treason” which is described as any speech that manifests a desire or intent to make war against the state or materially support an enemy, even though the speech is unaccompanied by acts that further the desire or intent. Constructive treason is however not punishable because given the nature of the offence, it requires an affirmative act, and intent alone cannot substitute for an act. At worst, it can only conduce to sedition. But Sowore, lest we forget, has not been charged for sedition.
It remains to be seen what acts of Sowore amounted to treason. It is on record that Sowore and a group of other activists intimated Nigerians and the world that they’ll be embarking on a nation wide march codenamed ‘Revolution Now’ to protest the state of paralysis that has characterised governance and draw global attention to it. That protest was scheduled for Monday,, 5th August, 2019.
In a video clip that went viral, the activist and publisher rallied on Nigerians to come out of their comfort zones to participate in a ‘People’s March’ of sort. No sooner had the referenced clip gone viral than Sowore swooped upon by operatives of the DSS in a move that sapped momentum from the scheduled protest. The operatives would later secure an exparte order of Court mandating detention of Sowore for 45 days as against 90 days that was sought by the operatives. That detention order was due to lapse last Friday, 21st September, 2019 only to be unofficially extended as it were, by the filing of the charge against the famous Rights activist.
It is instructive to point out that nowhere in the viral video clip did Sowore call for Nigerians to take up arms against the government. I’m also going not aware that he had called for Nigerians to attack offices of government or those of private citizens with government patronage. The former Presidential aspirant had only called for a peaceful demonstration of Nigerians against the ills of governance, the sort witnessed in 2012 under the leadership of former president Goodluck Jonathan over increase at the time in the pump price of petroleum. Calls for protest, may we not forget is guaranteed by the Nigerian constitution and have severally been given Judicial imprimatur.
In the case of I.G.P V ANPP (2007) 18 NWLR (Pt. 1066) 457, the Court of Appeal endorsed the right of Nigerian Citizens to hold rallies, protests and demonstrations thus:
“Finally, freedom of speech and freedom of assembly are part of democratic rights of every citizen of the Republic; our legislature must guard these rights jealously as they are part of the foundation upon which the government itself rests…. Public Order Act should be promulgated to compliment sections 39 and 40 of the Constitution in context and not to stifle or cripple it. A rally or placard carrying demonstration has become a form of expression of views on current issues affecting government and the governed in a sovereign state. It is a trend recognised and deeply entrenched in the system of governance in civillised countries- it will not only be primitive but also retrogressive if Nigeria continues to require a pass to hold a rally. We must borrow a leaf from those that have trecked the rugged path of democracy and are now reaping the dividend of their experience”. Per R.D. Muhammed, JCA. at page 501, paras. G-H: “
On the second limb of the offence of treason bordering on rendering assistance to enemies of the state, nowhere was it seen or heard of Sowore lending assistance to enemies of the Nigerian state, notably Boko Haram in whatever way. Short of a picture of the man with the leader of the Indigenous People of Biafra (IPOB), Mazi Nnamdi Kanu following a meeting with the duo, there is no scintilla of evidence supposing that Sowore was assisting any of the enemies of the Nigerian state to wage war against Nigeria.
Yes, Nnamdi Kanu may be a fugitive from justice, but a visit by Sowore to the ideologue does not of itself amount to lending support to the group. Sowore, it must not be forgotten has been a vocal critic of all acts of social injustice, and mere identifying with a man who believes his project is anchored on the search for social justice for his people, does not amount, and cannot amount to joining forces with enemies of the state.
To be sure, it is a standard practice globally, recognised and sanctioned by international law. And an example might suffice. At the peak of the Biafra Civil War, Colonel Chukwuemeka Ojukwu received emissaries from the Nigerian side even as the war raged on. And while he exiled in Ivory Coast years later, he severally received visitors on diplomatic trips even as he remained a fugitive at home. It is in this context therefore, that Sowore’s visit to Nnamdi Kanu must be situated. No more, no less.
The other allegations in the hurriedly scripted Charge sheet bordering on Money Laundering and so called breach of of the Cyber Crime Act by way of inciting Nigerians to insult the person of the president, does not deserve any commentary. Their purpose on the charge sheet is nothing more beyond completeness which only helps to unmask the subterranean motives behind the entire charge.
Not only is the portion of the Cyber Crime Act proscribing expletives on the person of a president contrary to the Provisions of the Constitution which guarantees right of Citizens to ‘Freedom of Expression’ with the only remedy of an aggrieved citizen being an action in Tort, it has no criminal element and has no business on the charge sheet. On its part, the allegations touching on Money Laundering, has become a staple-allegation of sorts of the law enforcement agencies against any high net worth Nigerian citizen. It remains to be seen how the cherry picked allegations will be proved. If the choice of the word “revolution” by Sowore and his con-conveners ipso facto amount to treason, then the Judiciary will be letting us know.
Irrespective of how all of that pans out, let us not miss the unintended consequences of the spurious allegations against Sowore and his co-accused. It is an unfortunate detour into the inglorious years of military rule where repression for people action and liberty of the citizenry to enjoy the inalienable rights as endowed on humanity by God, is elevated to a state policy. With the benefit of hindsight, it graduates into a very morbid disposition of the Muhammadu Buhari administration to dissent of any kind. In its wider context, it betrays the inability of successive Nigerian governments to learn from her history. Our Wole Soyinka, described it as “a descent to an unprecedented level of paranoia”, I cannot agree less.
When so called democratic regimes carry on with jackboot mentality, then the civil liberties of the citizenry is threatened. Lest we forget, what is happening with Sowore and the Federal Government at the centre, has its manifestations elsewhere. In Kaduna state,. fiery social media critic of the El-Rufai and Ganduje administrations in Kaduna and Kano states respectively, Abubakar Idris, popularly known by his Twitter handle-@Dadiyatta has been missing for over a month now. He was whisked away while driving into his compound in the early hours of August, 2 2019 with claims around town that the hatchet job was done by operatives of the DSS. The latter has however denied the allegations but has offered no clue as to the bloggers’ whereabouts even at the time of this writing.
In Cross River State, two journalists, Agba Jalingo and Ekanem Ekpo are being detained for some 90 days and charged with treason like Sowore, for reporting an allegation of diversion of 500 million Naira by the Ben Ayade administration in that state. Through and through, one notices an unfolding picture of a descent into authoritarianism of which nothing but outright paranoia can explain away as offered by Soyinka.
And where does this leave us as citizens? It is a wake up call to eternal vigilance. In the particular circumstances of Sowore, the reactions from the citizenry have been anything but complimentary. This is bad. It gives away the impression that government can get away with anything. We really can do better. And there are so many lessons for us out there. The people of Sudan and Hong Kong being the latest in that order. For at the end of the day, no one is really enslaved, unless they lend themselves to slavery.
–Nkannebe, a legal practitioner writes from Lagos. Comments and reactions to firstname.lastname@example.org. He tweets @raynkah