Rivers Crisis: "Police have no legal rights to issue permits for rallies" - Falana

A senior advocate of Nigeria and leading human rights lawyer outlines the position of the law as regards the insistence by the Nigeria Police that organisers of public rallies or assemblies should seek a permit before doing so.

In January 2012, the mass protests against the so-called removal of fuel subsidy were violently disrupted by the police and the army personnel. During its recent industrial action the Academic Staff Union of Universities had cause to direct its members to embark on protests to draw public attention to the underfunding of public universities in Nigeria. The police dispersed the protesting academics with tear gas. A fortnight ago, a political rally in Port Harcourt, Rivers State was brutally suppressed by the police.

In justifying the violent attack, Mr. Joseph Mbu, the Rivers State Commissioner of Police claimed that the rally was unauthorized as the conveners did not obtain police permit.

Since the disruption of public meetings and rallies is an infringement of the fundamental right of Nigerians to freedom of association, assembly and expression it is pertinent to draw the attention of the authorities to the state of the law on public meetings.

Under the Public Order Act (Cap P42) Laws of the Federation of Nigeria, 2004 the power to regulate public meetings, processions and rallies in any part of Nigeria was exclusively vested in the governors of the respective states of the Federation. Thus, by virtue of section 1 of the Act the Commissioner of Police or any other police officer could not issue a licence or permit for any meeting or rally without the authority of the governor. In other words, no police officer was competent to issue a permit for holding any public meeting or rally or cancel any such public meeting or rally without the authority of the governor of a state.

In the case of All Nigeria Peoples Party & Ors. v. Inspector General of Police (2006) CHR 181 the Plaintiffs being registered political parties requested the Defendant, the Inspector-General by a letter dated 21st May, 2004 to issue Police Permits to their members to hold unity rallies throughout the country to protest the rigging of the 2003 elections. The request was refused. There was a violent disruption of the rally organized in Kano on the 22nd of September 2003 on the ground that no police permit was obtained.

In a suit filed at the Federal High Court against the Inspector-General of Police the Plaintiffs challenged the constitutional validity of police permit under the Public Order Act and the violent disruption of the rally. In defending the action the Defendant contended that the conveners of the rally did not obtain a police permit.

In dismissing the contention of the Police the trial judge, the Honourable Justice Chinyere stated inter alia:

“The gist of the provision in section 1 of the Act is that the Governor of each State is empowered to direct the conduct of all assemblies, meetings and processions on public roads or places of public resort in the state and prescribe the route by which and times at which the procession may pass. Persons desirous of convening or collecting any assembly or meeting or of forming a procession in any public resort must apply and obtain the license of the Governor. The Governor can delegate his powers to the Commissioner of Police of the State or to other police officers. Persons aggrieved by the decision of the Commissioner of Police may appeal to the Governor and the decision of the Governor shall be final and no further appeal shall lie therefrom.”
In the light of the foregoing, it is submitted, without any fear of contradiction that the power to issue licence or permit for holding public meetings, assemblies and processions was never vested in Inspector-General of Police and Police Commissioners but in the State Governors. 

Police permit which is a relic of colonialism has been annulled on the ground of its inconsistency with the provisions of the Constitution and the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights on freedom of assembly, association and expression. 

To that extent, the disruption of public meetings and rallies by the police and other security agencies ought to be resisted by Nigerians as it is illegal and contemptuous.