When last month, Nigerian youths took to the streets to protest against Police brutality, President Muhammadu Buhari took the outrage like a statesman should. He quickly ordered the disbandment of the notorious Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS), a unit of the Nigerian Police that was the subject of anger of Nigerians.
The protests, which spread across the country, lasted for two weeks, with various governments promising youths of the country that their protests have been heard clearly. The President had to address the nation, where he said that the voices of the youth have been heard loud and clear. He followed it up with an appeal that youths should withdraw from the streets, while giving government time to act on their requests, chief of which was the general reform of the police. Although the protests were hijacked by some hoodlums across states, there was no doubt that the protests had genuine motives.
Thus, when security agencies arrested over 1,900 youths, who participated in the looting, destruction of public and private property, not many Nigerians complained. After all, their criminality was not part of the protests to end SARS.
On November 1, during the Youth Day celebration, Buhari went further to appeal to youths to seek dialogue over protests and promised that his government would not victimize anybody over the protests. Buhari said that the government was willing to listen to concrete and practical ideas from the youth. He also affirmed their constitutional right to peaceful protests. He said: “You must realize that protests cannot last indefinitely.
My government will not lift a hand to stop or suppress you… But there comes a time when activity must move from the street to the negotiation table. That time for you has come. Do not be afraid of this reality. You should welcome it.” While the protests and the violence that followed it have stopped, what is surprising to Nigerians, however, is the seeming U-turn by the government against Buhari’s words.
The Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN) few days after that presidential statement, went to court to obtain an order, freezing the accounts of some youths, who participated in the protests. The freezing order would last for about three months in the first instance, with the CBN accusing the account holders of being used for acts related to terrorism.
The strange request, which was granted by Justice Ahmed Mohammed of the Federal High Court in Abuja, was filed by the CBN on October 20. The CBN lawyers were led by a former Attorney-General of the Federation, Michael Aondoakaa (SAN). “A mandatory order is made empowering the plaintiff/applicant to direct the head office of Access Bank of Nigeria Plc., Fidelity Bank Plc., First Bank of Nigeria Plc., Guaranty Trust Bank Plc., United Bank for Africa Plc. and Zenith Bank Plc. to freeze all transactions forthwith on the 20 bank accounts listed for 90 days pending the outcome of investigation and inquiry currently being conducted by the CBN,” the judge ruled, adding that the order, “when it lapses, may be renewed upon good cause shown by the applicant.”
He, however, pointed out that anybody affected by the order might apply to the court to have his grievance or complaint heard by the court before adjourning the case to February 4, 2021. We do not understand the real motive of the CBN and by extension, the Federal Government in the new move. Although some of the affected persons have cried out and gone to court to seek redress, we believe that freezing of the accounts of protesters is more of aggravating an already tensed up situation.
We think that noble as the CBN intention might be, it is simply a move in the wrong direction. As the President pointed out, it is within the rights of Nigerians to protest any injustice they suffer. Prior to his emergence in 2015, Buhari had actively taken part in protests against the then government of President Goodluck Jonathan and previous ones.
He even protested his loss of elections previously. He was not charged with terrorism. He was not intimidated by anybody. We are more worried that the CBN could within one month freeze the accounts of protesters, while the country has been fighting Boko Haram for years, a clear act of terrorism, without the apex bank making public that it has frozen the accounts of sponsors of the terror group.
Only last week, the United Arab Emirates froze the accounts of six Nigerians, who were alleged to have wired money to Boko Haram insurgents. Are we saying that the CBN is not aware of such? We are of the view that the #EndSARS protest was not and is not terrorism. It can never be. The police are dealing with the criminal side of the protests – the looting, vandalism, murder and similar vices. That is what is expected. We do not expect the government of Buhari to be approbating and reprobating at the same time.
What is expected of the government is to address the genuine grievances of the protesters while the law enforcement agents deal with the criminal aspect. But to freeze the accounts of protesters is unacceptable. It is a provocation for another round of protests. We hope that the government would be honest enough to admit that the country cannot cope with another wave of protests now. It will not augur well for the country.