Omoyele Sowore, former Presidential candidate of the African Action Congress (AAC) and publisher of the online citizen newspaper, Sahara Reporters, has been dominating the news since the Department of State Services picked him up in a Lagos hotel on Saturday August 3, 2019 for calling out Nigerians for a mass protest on August 5 2019 against the government under the hashtag #RevolutionNow. He was accused of committing treasonable felony by trying to use violent means to overthrow the Buhari government. On Tuesday August 6, 2019, the DSS brought an application before Justice Taiwo Taiwo of the Abuja division of the high court, (who is sitting as a vacation Judge), and said it would need to keep Sowere in custody beyond the statutorily allowed 48 hours after arrest till all its investigations were concluded.
One of the issues around Sowore’s call for a revolution was that there was a video clip of him where he threatened that after the protest both the government and the DSS would cease to exist. I will have no problem with DSS inviting Sowere to explain what he meant by those statements or what his #RevolutionNow was meant to achieve. Most responsible governments would do so, especially if such threats come from public figures. As a candidate in the February 23 2019 presidential election and a publisher, Sowere, cannot be called an innocuous personality. Many Nigerians however see more to Sowere’s arrest than the official allegation of trying to overthrow the government using revolutionary means.
There are at least three contending perspectives on why Sowere planned the mass protest, and why the government picked him up:
The first is that Sowore, who contested in the last presidential election and scored 33,953 votes, wanted to position himself as the voice and face of the opposition and therefore deliberately courted arrest not just by using a #RevolutionNow hasttag but also by allegedly threatening that both the government and the DSS would cease to exist. In fact, since his detention, Sowore has dominated both local and international news about Nigeria, with groups and individuals opposed to the government coalescing to showcase his detention as another instance of the government’s intolerance or even descent to the dark days of Abacha’s brutal dictatorship. If this conspiracy theory is true, then the government only played into Sowere’s hands.
The second perspective in Sowere’s #RevolutionNow protest is that Sowore is actually playing out the government’s script. It should be recalled that Sowore unreservedly supported Buhari during the 2015 election. According to this perspective, the government, rattled by some of the revelations at the Election Petition Tribunal (where the outcome of the last presidential election is being challenged), has become increasingly jittery about a possible unfavourable judgment and therefore wants to create an Orwellian scenario by creating an impression of either an impending revolution or military takeover as a justification to either clamp down on dissent or even declare a State of Emergency.
The third perspective is that Sowore and Rotimi Amaechi, the former Minister of Transport and former Governor of Rivers State, had a deal during the just concluded governorship election in Rivers, which went sour. It should be recalled that after the courts disqualified the APC from fielding candidates in the elections in Rivers and Zamfara States (except for the presidential elections), Rotimi Amaechi adopted the African Action Congress (AAC), Sowore’s party, as his preferred political party, and sponsored its gubernatorial candidate Awara Biokpomabo during the election- in what was obviously a continuation of his battle with Nyesom Wike for the control of the state. Nyesom Wike won but AAC, which barely had structures anywhere in the country put up a surprisingly impressive performance, polling 173,859 votes to finish runner up to Nyesom Wike who polled 886,264 votes. Sowere, as the party’s presidential candidate, managed to poll only 33,953 votes nationwide. Some conspiracy theorists have claimed that Sowere was promised either monetary compensation or a ministerial appointment for making his party available to Amaechi in Rvers, and chose to fight back with the call for a revolution, when the promises made to him were not redeemed. People who subscribe to this ‘theory’ often point out that Nyesom Wike was the first governor to declare that the #RevolutionNow protest would not be allowed to take place in Rivers State.
The above are of course all conspiracy theories, and as with all conspiracy theories, there will always be elements that seem to validate each theory and a host of others that will challenge it. For this, we will never really know the truth especially as the number of conspiracy theories is likely to rise as the Sowore debacle continues to unfold.
A relevant question here is whether Sowore’s call for a revolution was enough for the DSS to pick him up on grounds of treasonable felony and to subsequently approach a court for an order to hold him for up to 90 days (assuming that Sowore was not playing a government’s script, as some argue)? While I do not have any problem with the DSS inviting Sowere for interrogation (or even picking him up as they did to explain what he hoped to achieve with his planned protest), I believe that it will be counterproductive for the government to try to hold him in detention for up to 90 days as demanded by the DSS.
Even if Sowore called for a revolution and proclaimed that both the DSS and the government would cease to exist, does he really have the capacity to effectuate his threat? In America’s free speech jurisprudence, ‘clear and present danger’ test is often used to determine the circumstances under which limits can be placed on the country’s First Amendment’s guarantees of freedoms of speech, press and assembly. This test was developed in a landmark case in 1919 (Schenck v. United States) by Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. who argued thus:
“The question in every case is whether the words used are used in such circumstances and are of such a nature as to create a clear and present danger that they will bring about the substantive evils that the United States Congress has a right to prevent. It is a question of proximity and degree.” Since Schenck v. United States, “clear and present danger” became both a public metaphor for First Amendment speech and a standard test in cases before the Court where a United States law limits a citizen’s First Amendment rights. Most of the major democracies have similar tests on when a threat can be said to have become potent enough to warrant the abridgment of citizens’ freedoms of speech, association and assembly. In this context some crucial questions are: how many battalions of soldiers has Sowore secretly built up to help him overrun Nigerian army and security agencies to effectuate his revolution? The answer is most likely Nil. Does Sowere have the sort of sophisticated organization needed to mobilize citizens for a revolution across the country (especially given the depth of our fault lines), and to sustain the mobilized citizens for a prolonged period of anti-government protest? The answer is most likely No. If the answer to each of these questions is a resounding ‘No’, then the government may be trying to kill an ant with a sledge hammer.
Since it is extremely doubtful that Sowere has the capacity to pose a threat to the Nigerian state – even if he wants to – my fear is that a mishandling of the Sowere affair, may lead to the creation of another huge monster that may pose a real threat to the government. There are signs that the government may already be doing this by allegedly putting Amnesty International on security surveillance for re-tweeting the hashtag, #RevolutionNow. What exactly does the government hope to achieve by that? Unfortunately if the aim was to intimidate or frighten them, it may end up achieving the opposite effect because it may lead to the various transnational NGOs and civil rights groups uniting against the government.
There is also the question of whether revolution necessarily means a violent change of government (as the government interpreted the word) – assuming that Sowere has the capacity to carry out a revolution in Nigeria. The truth is that any radical change, systemic, in policies, or even ways of doing things, is also called a revolution. In fact in the list of demands presented by Sowere’s group – Global Coalition for Security and Democracy – there was no suggestion of overthrowing the government. The group merely presented a checklist of extremely idealistic demands – abolishing tuition fees in Universities and colleges, returning fuel prices to what they were before 1999, enforcement of the new minimum wage of N30, 000 per month across the country – among others.