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Nigerian Rights Official Criticizes Draconian Law


With key elections scheduled for next year, Nigerians are increasingly worried about a law that grants the police wide powers to stop public meetings.

The Public Order Act gives the Nigerian Police broad powers to break up any meeting for which a police permit had not been obtained.

Anyone arrested at such so-called illegal meetings could face prosecution and a jail term.

The police have been invoking the law to crack down on protests against the ruling party's push for a constitutional amendment to keep President Olusegun Obasanjo in power.

Buhari Bello, executive secretary of the National Human Rights Commission, says the law is unacceptable in a democracy.

"The Public Order Act is a legislation that is not justifiable in a democratic society," he said. "Don't forget the Public Order Act was promulgated as a decree in 1979 under the military regime. Therefore, it has no place in a democracy. It has no place under a constitution that has chapter four of the constitution that gives fundamental human rights to citizens and gives us section 40 that says everybody has the right to a peaceful assembly and association."

Successive governments in Nigeria have used the law to muzzle the opposition. Etannibi Alemika, a criminology professor, says the Nigerian public must be mobilized to press for the abrogation of the Public Order Act.

"It is an instrument of power in the hands of government, to deny others opportunities to meet, to assemble, to protest," said Alemika. "But I think it is the responsibility of the generality of the citizenry to do that which they should do, to mobilize all organs of government especially the legislatures, to ensure that the law is either amended or repealed."

The law had narrowed the political space in Nigeria and often precipitated violent anti-government protests. With crucial elections due in 2007, the Nigerian opposition is keen on a level playing field.

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