Children and protests: The legal and socio-moral questions


On Monday, November 6 and Tuesday, 7th November, pupils of some primary schools stormed some streets and roads in both the northern and southern parts of Kaduna metropolis to protest the threat by Kaduna state government to sack about 21,780 of their teachers.

I personally witnessed the protest staged by the pupils of Narayi Primary School on my way to court on Tuesday around 8:15am. Expectedly, these protests have attracted diverse comments and reactions from the public. While some are in support of it, some others are against it.This is normal.

Globally, the rights of children to hold opinions, to participate in issues affecting them, and to assemble and stage protests against those issues that are contrary to their interests have become increasingly recognized. And, it needs to be stressed that children can as much engage in peaceful protests as much as adults.

The constitutional provisions guaranteeing such fundamental and basic rights did not discriminate between children and adults. Section 39(1) of the constitution of the federal republic of Nigeria, 1999 (as amended) provides as follows: “Every person shall be entitled to freedom of expression including freedom to hold opinions and to receive and import ideas and information without interference.” Also, section 40 of the same Constitution provides thus: “Every person shall be entitled to assemble freely and associate with other persons, and in particular he may form or belong to any political party, trade union or any other association for the protection of his interests…”

The use of the word “every person” in the opening of both sections re-echoes our stand that the constitutional provisions did not discriminate between children and adults. Other countries with similar democracy as Nigeria also have similar constitutional provisions. For instance, Article 37 of the Kenyan Constitution states that “every person” has the right, peaceably and unarmed, to assemble, to demonstrate, to picket and to present positions to public authorities.

Based on the foregoing, it is okay to hold the view that the Nigerian constitution recognises and endorses the legal capacity and capability of children to form and express an opinion, and to assemble and stage peaceful protests regarding situations and issues affecting their everyday life, especially school life.

The socio-moralist may see the participation of children in protests as wrong. He, too, is entitled to his right to form and hold an opinion, whether in person or in group; in isolation or in consultation. Some of the arguments that may be used to justify the socio-moralist viewpoint is the susceptible and vulnerability of the children to be used by adults to stage the protests; the undue advantage the adults may take to use the children as “human shield” to stage the protest and vent their agitation or grievance against the government for a cause which the children may have no direct concern; the physical risks which the children may be exposed to in the course of the protests; the absence of parental consent to use the children in the protests; the risk that children could be manipulated at that early stage of their lives; the need to protect children from adult issues. And so on.

In a country as ours where socio-moral standards, like the educational standard, has collapsed, it will be difficult to put the socio-moralist opinion on a strong pedestal and expect it to stand. The socio-moral rectitude of these children is shaped by the kind of society and community they live in. These are children that are growing up to witness all sorts of protests, peaceful and violent, staged by the adults as a means to communicate to a government that has not given the people the desired attention.

The same children are always being used by politicians during campaigns to carry posters and placards, and to chant political songs on the streets and roads in support of their candidates. What then is socially or morally wrong if the same children later protest against the same politicians because of bad leadership and governance? If the children have now come to the conclusion, as the adults do, that the only way to attract the attention of the government is to stage a demonstration and make their demands, where then is the place of social morality?

Besides, with the global consciousness and awareness, children are now capable of seizing issues around them and forming their independent opinions around those issues. Children are social actors in the society; and they possess the reasoning skill to face even complex questions of justice, political, social and moral issues with regard to situations affecting their everyday life, as well as more complex situations that are not part of their experience. I think it is the society that has justified the use of protest as a means to pass a message to the government.

Therefore, the counter argument to the socio-moralist is that, if the adults are justified in staging a protest to ventilate their rights, what is socially and morally wrong in children also staging a protest to ventilate their own rights, especially those rights that are special and peculiar to them?
If the government feels strongly against the participation of children in protests, or the extent to which children can engage in protests, the extant provisions in the constitution and other laws should be amended or reviewed to reflect that.

For instance, laws may be made pursuant to section 45 of the Constitution to limit or prohibit adults from using children to stage protests. Alternatively, the Child’s Right Act or Law can also be reviewed or amended to reflect such limitations or prohibitions. But, whether this limitations will meet best global standards, or serve the best interest of the children is another issue all together.
The participation of children in peaceful protests may not be socially and morally right, but it is a legal right.

Kanyip is a Kaduna-based legal practitioner.


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