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Omoyele Sowore, pro-democracy activist and founder of Sahara Reporters news agency.    © 2016 Mohamed Nanabhay (via Wikimedia)

(Abuja) – The detention of  a pro-democracy activist on August 4, 2019 may well signify the Nigerian government’s growing intention to shut down dissent.

The Department of State Security arrested Omoyele Sowore, claiming that his call for nationwide protests on August 5, called Revolution Now, was an insurrection aimed at a forceful takeover of the government.

“If Omoyele Sowore has been arrested in an attempt to stop the protests he helped to organize, that would be a damning indication of the government’s increasing intolerance for critical voices,” said Anietie Ewang, Nigeria researcher at Human Rights Watch. “The mere use of the word revolution as a slogan is not enough to support a claim of violent insurgency and should not be treated as a crime.”

Sowore, the publisher of a New York-based Nigeria news website, Sahara Reporters, ran against President Muhammadu Buhari in the March 2019 presidential elections. His political party, Africa Action Congress, declared August 5 the beginning of “Days of Rage” to protest, among other things, an alleged lack of a level playing field in the March elections. Sahara Reporters posted video footage of his arrest by armed security officials. The security agency’s public relations officer, Peter Afunaya, said that Sowore was arrested “for threatening public safety, peaceful co-existence, and social harmony in the country” by calling for a revolution through the protests.

Based on media reports, the Nigerian government placed Amnesty International on a security watch on August 1 for allegedly reproducing a message by the organizers of the Revolution Now protests in a tweet. The reports were soon followed by protests at the organization’s Abuja office by people demanding that the group leave Nigeria. Amnesty International released a statement restating its commitment to human rights in Nigeria despite “sponsored protests” and efforts to smear the organization. In a tweet from the Nigerian Presidency’s Twitter account on August 4, the government criticized Amnesty International, claiming it was promoting tweets that called for the overthrow of the country’s constitution.

Despite Sowore’s arrest, his supporters carried on with the planned protests on August 5. In Lagos State, officials of Operation MESA, a joint Internal Security Operational platform made up of the Army, the Navy and the Air Force, surrounded the National Stadium, where the protesters planned to convene. A journalist told Human Rights Watch that armed security officials were stationed at the protest venue as early as 6 a.m. before the protesters arrived:

The police warned the protesters to leave before they fired tear gas. I saw policemen arrest and throw two of the protesters arguing with them about the use of tear gas in their van. I left the area immediately to avoid any trouble for myself.

The police allegedly arrested and detained a Sahara Reporters journalist, Victor Ogungbemiro, and eight protesters at the scene.

The Rivers State government banned Revolution Now protests in the state and ordered the arrest of protesters, according to a statement issued by the governor’s special assistant on electronic media, Simeon Nwakaudu.

The right to peaceful protest is a fundamental human right guaranteed under both Nigerian and international law.

“Nigerian authorities should end the harassment and intimidation of individuals and groups that legitimately criticize government action and policies, including Amnesty International,” Ewang said. “Sowore and other detained protesters should either be charged within the constitutionally guaranteed 48-hour period or released unconditionally.”

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