By Ndubuisi Orji
The National Assembly is known by all as the Nigeria’s highest law-making organ. But what is unknown to many is that the National Assembly is also the “headquarters” of protesters in Abuja and, by extension, the entire country.
Gradually, protests at the National Assembly are becoming almost a daily affair, as various groups agitating for one thing or another besiege the National Assembly to ventilate their views.
There is hardly a week that at least one group would not come out to “occupy” the complex of the federal legislature; the “occupiers” sometimes erect canopies to protect themselves from the harsh weather. At times, they come with loud speakers and other musical equipment, which they mount along the road, singing and dancing.
The usual practice is for the protesters to take over the access road leading to the National Assembly from the Federal Secretariat, making it impossible for vehicles to access the complex through that gate for as long as the protest lasts.
Senate President Bukola Saraki, who is the chairman of the National Assembly, in some cases comes out to address the protesters. On some occasions, when he cannot do that personally, he sends representatives. In the light of recent trends, as the protests have started becoming almost a daily affair, protesters are likely to be ignored.
However, that has not deterred demonstrators from besieging the legislative headquarters of Nigeria.
Although the other two arms of government, the executive and judiciary are located in the Three Arms Zone in Abuja, like the federal legislature (the Presidential Villa and the Supreme Court are just a stone’s throw from the National Assembly), hardly do protesters go to these other sites.
From all accounts, only two groups have taken their protests to the Aso Villa in recent times: the Bring Back Our Girls Group (BBOG) and the Association of Wuye Ultra-Modern Market Allotees.
Analysts are of the opinion that the National Assembly has become a place of choice for protesters because of the widely-held belief that whatever message they take to the federal legislators would reached the relevant authorities, given that the lawmakers are the representatives of the people. People also call the legislature the bastion of democracy.
A staffer of the National Assembly, who gave his name as Samuel, said the situation has become a big nightmare to personnel working at Nigeria’s highest legislative complex. According to him, on the days when the protesters block the entrance of the National Assembly, staff, visitors and others who have business to do at the complex are denied access into the edifice through the main gate. Even the legislators are not spared the pains and hassles that come with the incesant protests.
He noted that on such occasions, staff are compelled to enter the premises through the gate leading to Office of the Secretary of the Government of the Federation (SGF).
Interestingly, protests at the National Assembly take different forms. At times, the protesters erect tents at the entrance of the National Assembly, preventing entry and exit from the main gate, vowing not to leave until their demands are met. But, usually, after some days, they quietly disperse.
The situation is usually unpleasant, especially for those who are not driving, as they would have to trek for as long as 15 minutes to get into the legislative complex.
Harvest of protests
In recent times, one of the major protests staged at the entrance of the National Assembly was by members of the Nigerian female football team, the Falcons, over their unpaid allowances after they won the African Women Championship in Cameroun.
Other demonstrations that generated much interest were the Dogara-Must-Go/Jibrin-Must-Go, protests and counter-protests. These started in the wake of the budget padding saga that rocked the House of Representatives last year.
Since the scandal broke out, different groups have continued to call for the prosecution of Speaker Yakubu Dogara and erstwhile chairman of the House Committee on Appropriation, Abdulmumin Jibrin.
Not too long ago, scores of protesters, led by weird musician-turned-activist, Mr. Charles Oputa, popularly called Charley Boy, blocked the main entrance of the National Assembly, seeking an end to corruption.
Another protest that attracted attention of late was by members of a civil society group, Occupy Unlimited, which called for good governance and a corruption-free society. They also demanded for a review of the 1999 Constitution to amend the clause that grants immunity to the President, Vice President, governors and deputy governors, among other issues.
Other prominent protests held recently at the legislative complex, Abuja, were by the Nigerian Medical Association demanding the implementation of the National Health Act 2014; National Association of Resident Doctors agitating for improved welfare of its members and the equipping of health facilities, as well as that of the Academic Staff Union of Research Institutions (ASURI).
Of all the protest days, January 25, 2017, seemed the most remarkable with the drama and tension created by the friction between the members of the Islamic Movement in Nigeria (IMN) calling for the release of their detained leader, Sheikh Ibraheem El-Zakzaky, and security agents.
There was traffic gridlock that day at the National Assembly, because the ASURI had picketed the complex with over 200 of its members protesting the exclusion of colleges of agriculture and other research institutions in the country from benefiting from research funds by the Tertiary Education Trust Fund.
They carried placards bearing various inscriptions, such as “70 per cent of Nigerians are farmers, yet Colleges of Agriculture are denied funding,” “Zero budget for research in 2016 is death sentence on Nigeria’s development,” “Research is key to development and wealth of any nation,” and “Nigeria is in danger. Neglect of research, a coup against our future.”
Secretary-General of ASURI, Prof. Theophilus Ndubuaku, who led the protesters said: “It is absurd and illogical that, in the distribution of funds for between universities, polytechnics and colleges of education, other research institutes and colleges are left out.”
The ASURI had barely finished their protest at the National Assembly when a fracas broke out between the police and the El-Zakzaky group, leaving everybody to scamper for safety after tear gascanisters were fired into the air.
The free-for-all that ensued was a hilarious scene to behold. Little wonder that the photographs made front pages of major national dailies the following day.
A civil rights activist, Musa Adejoh, told Daily Sun that no amount of restriction, threats or barricades would stop Nigerians from going to the National Assembly to voice their grievances.