Of Protests and Riots

by Sam Kargbo

Though often used interchangeably, a protest is different from a riot.  Whereas a protest is a nonviolent expression of dissent or disapproval or displeasure, a riot is an assemblage of three or more persons in a public place taking concerted action in a turbulent and disorderly manner for a common purpose – regardless of the lawfulness of that purpose. Although talking in absolute terms is inadvisable when trying to distinguish between protests and riots, it is important to highlight what the law says about the two. Protesting is part of human nature and it is generally recognised as an inalienable or fundamental human right. It is protected by most constitutional democracies under the umbrella of the right to peaceful assembly and association. Every individual has the absolute discretion to protest either alone or in association with others against actions, circumstances, events, policies, laws or regimes that adversely affect their interest. The individual has the right to share ideas and even mobilise others to push for the actualisation of such ideas. Because protests are lawful, it is not a crime to sponsor or finance protests. Indeed, there are many activists, Not-for-Profit organisations, unions, coalitions or social movements whose existence is centred on aggregating dissents against mainstream or public authorities and institutions. Such persons or bodies could serve as catalysts for change and inclusive or responsive governance. Protests against public authorities can take many forms, including peaceful gatherings, marches, processions, parades, rallies, vigils, motorcades, boycotts, speeches, concerts, bearing of placards, graffiti and petitions.

Protests against Governments or public authorities are more than expressions of frustrations or reactions to the failure or absence of effective official communication channels between the people and the Government. They are often sparked by excessive abuse of power and moments when the aggrieved believe that if they fail to act, the harm that will befall their lives will be irreparable. This might explain why it is believed that people participate in protests to express their grievance stemming from relative deprivation, frustration or perceived injustice. Unlike insurrections or revolutions, protests are not usually prescriptions for change of Government or a call for righting all the ills of society. They are often subject-specific.

At the heart of every protest are grievances. Yes, but protests could also be tools for opportunists who sometimes seize the opportunities protests provide to strike their opponents or score points. That is why it is important for protests to be well organised, structured and controlled. Without that, opportunistic elements will infiltrate and escalate them into riots. Unlike protests, riots are illegal. They are one of those crimes that put a limit to the individuals fundamental right to life. For instance, section 33(2)(a) & (c) of the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, 1999 give a justification for the intentional deprivation of one’s life for the defence of any person from unlawful violence or the defence of property; and to suppress a riot, insurrection or mutiny. Herein lies the danger. If highjacked, protests can snowball into riots that could be characterised by violence, vandalism, intimidation, looting, destruction of properties and, in worse cases, killings.

So, how do societies nurture impunity? At the heart of democracy are collective actions. Democracies are strengthened or weakened by the several and collective attitudes of their respective citizenry. Africans and much of the developing world are yet to establish effective democratic systems because of their poor civic and political cultures. Many decades after independence, not many African and developing countries have developed the right civic and political cultures that empower, enable and condition the proverbial common man or average thinking citizen to assess or respond objectively to the actions or inactions of public institutions, authorities and officials. Instead of striving to limit and subordinate public authorities or institutions to the law and due process, the nationals and citizens of these countries put public authorities above the law, turning public officers to objects of worship. This crass idolisation accounts for these citizens’ inability to see the need to subject the actions or inactions of the deified office-bearers to effective scrutiny, a situation that has led some scholars to conclude that leaders and their styles of governance are a reflection of the values and belief systems of their respective societies. In other words, people get the leaders they deserve.

Several studies have attempted to answer some pertinent questions, like why do people tolerate impunity or support oppressive groups and dictatorial or tyrannical leaders. As varied as their answers are, all the studies agree on one thing: it is the failure of the people that breeds tyranny, oppression or dictatorship. These studies highlight the fact that because the majority of the people of the developing world are material failures, being unable to meet their daily needs or actualise their goals, they surrender their destinies to outwardly strong individuals or groups that promise to make things work for them. Thus, these people – fervent hopers – tend to set their hopes for their material needs in “their people” in government or public institutions the same way they set their spiritual hopes in God, hanging on to God-always-means-well mentality, which also shapes their interpretations of the actions or inactions of public officials and authorities, especially when such officials or authorities happen to be their “own people”– that is, their relations or of the same ethnic group, religion, or from the same geopolitical area.

Ironically, the same studies also reveal that tyrants, histrionics, dictators, oppressors, control freaks, imperative people, harsh, cruel, inconsiderate, arbitrary or vindictive people are emotionally weak people with low self-esteem. Their low self-esteem or fragile high-esteem is what drives them to act the way they do – particularly, controlling others, as the studies assert — to hide their inferior feelings. Name them – all tyrants, despots, dictators or bullies are psychopathic and lack empathy. To them, the world is not about rules, boundaries or people, but about self. Whatever they do not see from their first-person viewpoint does not exist. That is why they tend to exaggerate their worth and accomplishments. You become an enemy or an insubordinate character that must be crushed if you refuse to accept them as your superior. They see themselves not only as special but as messiahs. As far as they are concerned, the rights of others do not exist, because they assume that the world is theirs and the space others enjoy are a gift from them.

Another critical component in the abusiveness of public authorities and officials is corruption. The propensity of the African to convert a public office into a private enterprise is legendary. Every public official sees the public office as his economy and business that will make him or her richer than the world. Worse still is the conniving attitude of the average African who always has excuses for tolerating or egging on the public coffer bandit. The average African only complains when he or she is denied a piece of the loot. As long as a corrupt or corruptive system or individual favours him or her, all is good. That mentality of ‘what is good for me is good for the world’ and ‘what is not good for me is bad for the world’ is at the heart of our sociopolitical problems.

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