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Socio-Economic Rights and Accountability Project (SERAP) has “strongly condemned the intimidation and harassment by the police of Kassim Afegbua, spokesman of General Ibrahim Babangida over a statement he issued on behalf of the former military president.”

The Inspector-General of Police, Ibrahim Idris last night declared Afegbua wanted over the statement he issued on Sunday. Idris ordered the arrest of Afegbua for “making false statements, defamation of character, and for an act capable of instigating public disturbance.”

But SERAP in a statement today by its deputy director Timothy Adewale said, “Everyone has the right to speak out about political or other public interest issues. To do so cannot qualify as ‘making false statements’. And it’s certainly not ‘defamation of character’ let alone rising to ‘an act capable of instigating public disturbance.’ It is the essence of democracy and human rights. Declaring Afegbua wanted is unwarranted because there is no evidence of inciting violence against him.”

According to SERAP, “Afegbua’s statement doesn’t contain incitement to violence. Declaring him wanted simply for exercising his right to freedom of expression is the hallmark of an oppressive government. The police should immediately withdraw its unlawful declaration and end the harassment of Afegbua. President Muhammadu Buhari should publicly instruct the police authorities that it’s their duty to facilitate people’s enjoyment of their freedoms, not to hinder them.”

The statement read in part: “Afegbua’s statement is within reasonable limits, and entirely within his constitutional right to freedom of expression. The allegation that he instigated public disturbance is to say the least, bizarre. Expressing one’s opinion is at the heart of freedom of expression, not sedition. At any rate, Babangida is not known to have lodged any complaint to the police on the matter. He reportedly confirmed Afegbua’s statement. Even if Babangida had issues with Afegbua’s statement, it’s not the police’s business to take upon itself Babangida’s perceived cause of action.”

“This government is striving to promote Nigeria as a free society and a good place to do business, but people in a country that calls itself a democracy shouldn’t be afraid to speak out about political issues. This kind of action by the police can stifle debate on matters of public interest in Nigeria and have broader chilling effect on free speech.”

“People may hold and express strong political views. These may sound offensive, but such expressions should not be branded as criminal simply because they involve critical views about the government and authority.”

“Indeed, the UN Human Rights Committee established pursuant to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights to which Nigeria is a state party has emphasized that the value placed by the Covenant upon uninhibited expression is particularly high. All public figures, including those exercising the highest political authority, are legitimately subject to criticism and political opposition. It is absolutely necessary in a free society that restrictions on public debate or discourse are not implemented at the detriment of human rights, such as freedom of expression.”

It would be recalled that the statement which Afegbua issued on behalf of Babangida detailed the alleged failings of Buhari and called for the emergence of a younger, vibrant leader that could tackle the country’s 21st-century challenges headlong. But few hours after the first statement was released, another one reportedly signed by Babangida was made public. The statement denied the critical issues raised in the first one. However, Afegbua insisted that Babanginda authorised the statement he issued. Babangida also reportedly confirmed to THISDAY that the statement which Afegbua signed on his behalf still stands.

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