The Sun News

Back from the gallows

For 37 Nigerians recently discharged and acquitted by a Port Harcourt, Rivers State, magistrate’s court on charges of treason and treasonable felony, they must be among the luckiest human beings alive today, following their dramatic return from the gallows. Otherwise, as their trial lasted, their prospect was to be eventually hanged, unless, of course, Nigeria police authorities were ignorant of the gravity of treason offences for which the accused were maliciously arraigned.

Treason trial is not common in a stable political environment like Nigeria of the moment, with the memorable feat of peacefully voting out a ruling party after 16 years of uninterrupted civil rule. Treason trials belonged to colonial Africa and post-Independence years on the continent. Colonialists employed treason trials to subdue nationalists, agitating for independence or incarcerate them. Kwame Nkrumah of Ghana, Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe, Jomo Kenyatta of Kenya and Ahmed Ben Bella of Algeria were among the political elite, who were baptised by British and French colonial administrations with prison terms before being elected leaders of their respective countries to assume independence.

Ironically, hardly had these nationalists assumed power than they adopted the very repressive and authoritarian political tactics of the departed colonial masters. In extreme cases like Guinea, President Sekou Toure tried his strongest rival, Diallo Telli, first Secretary-General of the defunct Organisation of African Unity (OAU) and hanged him in defiance of pleas from all over the world. Ghana’s Nkrumah seemingly jailed his erstwhile political mentor, Dr. Joseph B. Danquah, for alleged treason, an incarceration from which the man did not come out alive. Zimbabwe’s Mugabe narrowly missed executing his major rival, Joshua Nkomo, for alleged treason, as the man escaped to South Africa. In Kenya, political opponents were neatly taken care of with mysterious disappearances, ending in death and, in response to public concern, President Jomo Kenyatta advised those concerned to be aware that the vulture was around, whatever that meant.

Here in Nigeria, treason trial of opposition figure, Obafemi Awolowo, and his confidants was the major fallout of the 1962 crisis in the Action Group, an intractable development that climaxed in the January 15, 1966, military coup.

All these events were preceded by high political tension in the countries concerned. Accordingly, treason trial in a democratic setting, at least, in the past, was such that it was mostly self-serving to secure the ruling class. In effect, you had better not be arraigned for treason than to nurse the illusion of being acquitted. The evidence to be tendered during trial would have been so marshalled as to be largely compromising, if at all disputable. Whatever the situation, treason felons don’t agitate in the public. Any plot to overthrow a government is completely in secret. Hence, the punishment is death.

This was the gravity of the offence of treason, which the Nigeria police so trivialised in every aspect for some unknown reasons. When did it become treasonable to express political support for a Nigerian or world leader? When did it become an offence to agitate in public for human rights guaranteed by the Nigerian Constitution and United Nations principles of self-determination? When did it become the rule for a treason trial to commence clandestinely about 5pm (if not later) completely unknown to fellow Nigerians?

These were some of the issues raised by the purported treason trial of the Biafrians at the Port Harcourt magistrate’s court. In fact, but for the fact that the virtually unannounced (secret?) trial was exposed in this column, drawing the attention of the media, human rights groups, the Nigerian Bar Association and other pressure groups to the danger going on for a treason trial, we might just have been confronted with a sudden judgement as provided for a treason offence.

The Biafran agitators alleged (before they were arraigned) that some of the demonstrators were  murdered by the police, an allegation since listed by Amnesty International. That allegation was countered by the treason trial, which has since beclouded any necessary investigation of the alleged fatal casualties on the January 20, 2017, Biafrans’ demonstration of support for newly-sworn-in American President, Donald Trump, and the demand for secession of Biafra from Nigeria.

Were the police and trial magistrate, therefore, being magnanimous in the handling of the alleged treason trial, leading to the sudden acquittal of the Biafran agitators? At stake was the reputation of police in the alleged extra-judicial killings of some of the agitators, if the trial had continued. More than that is the negative publicity the Nigerian government would have attracted, if the purported treason trial had commenced at all.

In the midst of such negative publicity, there was no way the treason charge would have been sustained.  On all fronts, therefore, Nigeria would have lost. A treason trial arising from open demonstration (of Biafrans) in support of President Donald Trump and open agitation for United Nations’ principle of self-determination would have whipped up such fury that it would have attracted international observers for the trial.

There were series of fallouts from this purported treason trial. At the centre of rebuke of police action is our constitutional right to demonstrate, assemble, agitate and express views on any cause, as long as such exercise of fundamental human right is peaceful. When, therefore, any security outfit denies Nigerians or forcefully represses such expression of human rights, there is only one name for such unlawful action, state terrorism. Resistance to such state terrorism must be the joint effort of every group, the media, student unions, trade unions, human rights groups, rather than being left to only Biafran agitators. If the police should succeed in clobbering one pressure group on the serious issue of our right under the Constitution to assemble, demonstrate and express divergent views, no other group will enjoy the advantage of exclusively exercising these rights in the future.

Another fallout of this controversy is that our police are at their best when confronting Biafran agitators, a performance, which compelled soldiers, as the only fitting force against Boko Haram and Niger Delta militants.

Yet another fallout. This time, from the pronouncement of the magistrate in discharging the alleged treason accused. The magistrate advised the Biafran demonstrators to desist from their exercise in the future. This is untenable and unacceptable, coming from such a courageous magistrate. Let’s face it, otherwise, the magistrate would not have pronounced the law as it is. That is, he discharged and acquitted the boys, according to him, because there was no diligent prosecution by all those concerned, the Federal Attorney-General, the police and the Director of Public Prosecutions.

Remarkably, the magistrate never said, by demonstrating support for President Trump or even agitating for Biafra, the accused broke the law. The truth, therefore, was that there was never any crime committed by the Biafrans in the first place. Agitation for a cause or demonstration against or in favour of any government anywhere in the world is an inalienable constitutional right not subject to the favour of any government.

The duty of law officers is, therefore, to guarantee such rights for the citizenry and not to deny or abridge rights of expression.

In setting the accused free, the magistrate based his ruling on lack of diligent prosecution by all the authorities concerned. Did the magistrate have a choice? Yes, as he could have joined in a conspiracy to keep the accused indefinitely in prison, on the excuse of waiting for the prosecution to commence. The magistrate, therefore, merits commendation. But the prosecution never had a case and never intended to prosecute the poor boys, except putting them away in prison to terrify them against this legitimate cause.

It was true that in many parts of the world on January 20, 2017, there were demonstrations against newly sworn in American President, Donald Trump. But against that hostility, Biafrans demonstrated their support for President Trump. There should be no apology. Humanity relishes divergence of opinions on any issue. Therefore, there was nothing strange or criminal in the action of the Biafrans.

Yes, they took the occasion to further their agitation for Biafra. In so doing, they did not break any law as long as they were non-violent. In fact, their latest acquittal by a law court, more so, on the ground of non-diligent prosecution of the charges against them, is the very reason or the legitimacy of their action. Their acquittal was not by the grace of their police prosecutors.

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