By Stanley Ibe
Twice in the last month, Nigeria’s Police has had to “forcefully” disperse protesters in the country’s capital, Abuja. The protests were directed against the prolonged pretrial detention of Sheik Ibrahim El Zakzaky, leader of the Islamic Movement of Nigeria. Coincidentally, the Police equally banned protests in a strategic location – Abuja Unity Fountain – home to the “Bring Back Our Girls” movement protests over the last four years.
The convergence of the ban on protests within Abuja Unity Fountain and forceful dispersal of protesters raises an important question about standards for policing assemblies. Interestingly, Africa’s regional human rights institution – African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights has been thinking about this topic for some time.
During its 21st Extraordinary Session held in Banjul, The Gambia from 23 February to 4 March 2017, the Commission adopted Guidelines for the Policing of Assemblies by Law Enforcement Officials in Africa as a tool for addressing the tension between the right to assemble freely – which is considered fundamental to enthroning democracy and entrenching accountability – and the role of law enforcement in maintaining law and order during such assemblies. In the context of the Guidelines, the right to assembly can be exercised through demonstrations, protests, meetings, processions, rallies, sit-ins and funerals as well as through the use of online platforms or in any other way people might choose.
In her forward to the Guidelines, Reine Alapini Gansou, former Special Rapporteur for Human Rights Defenders at the Commission, provided a fitting background to the discussion in these words: “The right to peaceful assembly is being severely tested, and one of the most significant challenges, is for instance, the attitude of law enforcement officials in our great African capitals especially during public demonstrations…”
The 28 page Guidelines is divided into six parts with the first dealing with preliminary provisions such as general principles guiding the right to assemble freely with others. The most important of these principles is that everyone has a right to assemble freely with others. This right may however be limited by states but only to the extent that the limitation complies with regional/international standards and the principle of legality. For their part, participants in assemblies are required to comply with existing legislation and respect the right of others.
The second part of the Guidelines sets out organizational and operational requirements for a rights-based approach to policing assemblies including the general rule that the military should not be used to police assemblies except in very difficult circumstances and in a context where they are sub-ordinate to and under the command of police authorities. Part II also recommends the establishment of clear, transparent and single command structure for policing assemblies for obvious reasons – to ensure accountability and transparency of complaints management.
Part III provides guidance on preparation and planning for policing assemblies, including communication protocols, risk assessment and contingency planning as well as facilitation with assembly organizers. Part IV offers protocols for policing during assemblies, including those for communication, deployment, stop, search and arrest, de-escalation, facilitation of multiple assemblies, use of force and fire arms as well as dispersing assemblies.
The penultimate part of the Guidelines deals with policing after an assembly and includes protocols on detained persons – the most important of which references a prior African Commission tool, namely Guidelines on the Conditions of Arrest, Police Custody and Pretrial Detention in Africa (“the Launda Guidelines) according to which no one must be detained beyond 48 hours without access to judicial authority. This part of the Guidelines also provides principles for debriefing on and review of policing assemblies.
The final part of the Guidelines focuses on the most important topic – implementation. It urges states, in accordance with their obligations under the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights, to adopt legislative, administrative, judicial and other measures to give effect to the Guidelines. This part also enjoins states to disseminate the content of these Guidelines; train law enforcement officials; apply the Guidelines and crucially, report on national compliance within the framework of Section 62 of the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights – which requires states to submit reports biennially to the Commission.
The Guidelines offer a framework within which to review and revise law enforcement approach towards policing assemblies in Africa. In the context of the protests I referenced at the beginning of this piece, the Guidelines contains ideas, principles, and protocols by which the Nigeria Police Force can review its performance and prepare to perform better in the future.
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