DATABASE ON CLOSING CIVIC SPACES IN NIGERIA: AN INDEPENDENT REVIEW

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The Nigerian Civic Space

The term, “Civic Space” is often used to describe those human rights which facilitate the ability of individuals and groups to participate in the polity and governance of their country. According to the United Nations Human Rights:

“Civic space is the environment that enables civil society to play a role in the political, economic and social life of our societies. In particular, civic space allows individuals and groups to contribute to policy-making that affects their lives, including by accessing information, engaging in dialogue, expressing dissent or disagreement, and joining together to express their views.”

Similarly, a Transparency & Accountability Initiative Report noted:

“…civic space is defined as the set of conditions that determine the extent to which all members of society, both as individuals and in informal or organized groups, are able to freely, effectively and without discrimination exercise their basic civil rights. Principal among these are rights of information, expression, assembly, association and participation.

 

From the above, certain constitutionally-protected rights are implicated when the civic space is closed or obstructed, namely: Freedom of Thought, Freedom of Expression, Freedom of Association and Freedom of Assembly. These mentioned freedoms, enshrined in Chapter IV of the Nigerian 1999 Constitution (as amended) are interconnected and simultaneously facilitate citizens’ engagement among themselves and with the government and the general public. As such, any interference with any of these freedoms may invariably result in the deprivation of other rights.  Again, by virtue of these constitutional guarantees, every citizen is a recognized participant in the civic space arena.

 

Freedom of Expression guarantees the right to express views on an issue through any media of choice irrespective of how irking those views are. Press freedoms are concomitant to this right. By guaranteeing the Freedom of Thought, the Nigerian Constitution protects the rights of citizens to hold and express religious or political views, or agitate for the betterment of specific target groups, tribes and ethnic federations without let or hindrance. Closely intertwined with the freedom of thought and expression are the association and assembly freedoms permitting citizens to form and belong to any group for the propagation of their thoughts and ideas, or belong to any political party of choice, hold and disseminate political ideologies. Accordingly, they can carry out protests, hold rallies and form pressure groups. Against this backdrop, the persecution of members and apologists of the Indigenous People of Biafra falls within the purview of civic space infringement within the context of the right to free assembly and free association. In the same way, the selective prosecution of members of an opposition political party is not inconsistent with politically-motivated restrictions designed to stifle dissent and limit democratic participation.

Are Civic Spaces Open or Closing?

According to Michelle Bachelet, United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights during the Dublin Platform for Human Rights Defenders in October, 2019, “Civil society participation is the lifeblood of any healthy democracy and society. When civil society channels flow freely, it means vibrant debate, freedom of thought and opinion, and public engagement in policy.”

For various reasons, governments around the world deploy various tactics to restrict the ability of citizens to engage, critique government failings or hold dissenting views. Some of the reasons advanced for these restrictions range from re-election ambitions to restraining political opposition or covering up the excesses of the governments. Civic spaces are closed when the limitations on citizen’s rights pose severe constraints to their ability to organize freely, including free expression, assembly and association , making civic engagement between themselves and other state and non-state actors difficult. Other notable manifestations of closing civic spaces take the form of repressive laws—such as the various anti-social media bills at the National Assembly; overbroad interpretation of existing laws—like the frequent use of the Cybercrimes Act to punish social media users; the retention of draconian laws—which includes charging journalists or social critics for the crimes of sedition and criminal defamation; and the excessive use of force by security agents to quell protests and  punish citizens beyond the prescriptions of the law.

 

Before now, particularly under the military rule, journalists and activists were the major targets of government crackdowns. Advancements in digital technology have helped to expose the tactics used to perpetuate these crackdowns. Technology has also widened the umbrella of activism, allowing ordinary citizens to have greater access to online and offline spaces for civic action. The internet and social media easily handed citizens a limitless tool for civic engagement, expanding the civic space beyond the traditional media, the streets and town halls. Likewise, the scope of government restrictions has widened, extending to ordinary citizens whose actions make governments uncomfortable and subject them to greater scrutiny.

 

Curating Incidents of Closing Civic Spaces in Nigeria

Since 2015, Spaces for Change has been curating incidents of closing civic space in Nigeria on the digital database: www.closingspaces.org,  (the “database”). The database documents past and ongoing crackdowns on the civic space in a statistically-friendly manner and seems committed to continuously updating the database on a regularly basis. The importance of having such a repository in place at this time cannot be overstated. The existence of the database represents the first step in combating restrictions on the civic space, by demonstrating the manner, tactics, and extent the Nigerian government is limiting civic expressions and participation. Whilst the database documents as much as possible, incidents tracked from public sources, it does not claim to be exhaustive. However, the statistics provoke an imagination of what has not been captured and ostensibly, under-reported.

The database provides a tool in the hands of human rights defenders committed to tackling issues of contracting civic space as they are able to filter through the various rights violated, the perpetrators, the locality it occurred, the tactics applied in each case, increasing their ability to strategize effectively. From analyzing the database, CSOs are able to identify high risk areas and channel efforts and resources to areas of urgency in order to achieve optimal outcomes. The database is also an invaluable resource for international human rights watchdogs who rely on local resources for intelligence-gathering, and in assessing the country’s compliance with its international (human rights) obligations. These watchdogs put the country under pressure to observe and respect human rights, through rankings, which translate into economic outcomes for the country (such as in the rating of bonds, levying of economic sanctions and ability to attract foreign direct investment).

 

Unpacking the Platform

By its design, the job of analyzing the database has been made easy. Any attempt to undertake further analysis would be pretentious. This is a testimonial of the deep thought and planning invested in designing the database. What would be necessary at this point is to highlight the ramifications of the data contained in the database.

First, the facts. Every entry represents an incident that was independently tracked and verified. The database, as of July 29, 2020, reports 320 incidents in Nigeria and the West African subregion chronicled according to six distinct categories. Out of the 320 incidents, 252 incidents occurred in Nigeria alone.  The categorizations took into consideration the rights overlap often resulting from a single incident which causes multiple violations. This means that the arithmetic addition of incidents that appear under each category will result in a total exceeding 320.

 

Before delving into the analysis of the 320 incidents, its needs emphasizing that it is not every violation of human rights qualify as a civic space issue. On account of this, the database focuses only on those rights that promote a free civil society. It also makes distinct categorizations between related incidents of shrinking the civic space that target particular groups. For instance, press freedom and freedom of speech, though related, are listed as separate and distinct categories. Although they both fall under the purview of freedom of expression guaranteed under Section 39 of the Nigerian Constitution, the distinction between “freedom of speech” and “press freedom” may have been drawn in order to distinguish attacks on journalists from that of non-journalists.

 

Author’s visual of the categorization of civic space incidents on the database

The above chart shows that the Freedom of Expression—comprising press freedom and the freedom of speech—bears the highest share of repressive activities in the Nigerian civic environment. This finding underscores that free expression is the bedrock of democracy, and a necessary ingredient for enabling free civil society.  Tellingly, the majority of  the incidents reported under the freedom of speech category are linked to civic engagements on social media. That, again, is another pointer to the probable motive behind the persistent introduction of restrictive legislative proposals to control dissent or regulate free expression on social media.

 

Another notable observation is the high number of association rights violations recorded on the database, which provides an indicator of the Nigerian government’s attitude toward organized dissent. Protests against governments at all levels have been met with high-handedness by the police and other security agents. The proscription of the Indigenous People of Biafra and subsequently the Islamic Movement of Nigeria as terrorist organizations underscores the governments repulsion toward organized dissent and its propensity to abuse legal processes to achieve these aims. Even the internationally acclaimed Bring-Back-Our Girls movement advocating for the release of children kidnapped by the Boko Haram terrorist group has not been spared from attacks by the government.

Further, the chart further represents how political differences have become a driver of closing civic space. As mentioned before, the ability to hold contrary political views is integral to a free civic space. While in certain circumstances, politicians in the opposition parties have engaged in acts which cross the red lines and should result in legal action, their counterparts in the ruling party remain unpunished or overlooked when they commit similar offences. Such selective administration of criminal justice has been perceived a tactic to stifle political dissent. For instance, the Nigerian government arraigned popular politician, social critic and member of the opposition political party, Dino Melaye, twelve times in one year for a number of clear and unclear offences. Just recently, a former managing director of the Niger-Delta Development Commission had her home raided, and harassed by state security operatives as a result of her efforts to bring to light, alleged fraudulent activities perpetrated by the Commission. Under the section—political restrictions—the database recorded 15 incidents perceived to be politically-motivated attacks and prosecutions.

 

Anti-money laundering and countering financing of terrorism (AML/CFT) regimes also form part of the popular tactics often used to stifle political dissent, harass journalists, and impose restriction on the activities by nongovernmental organizations (NGOs). A case in point is the forced closure of the international humanitarian group, Action Against Hunger’s main offices in Borno and Yobe States, northeastern Nigeria on September 18, 2019, following an accusation of “aiding and abetting” Boko Haram, a terrorist organization. 6 other incidents are reported on the database.

In addition to the overbroad application of AML/CFT laws, closing civic spaces in Nigeria are reflected in the degrading and inhuman treatment security forces have meted out on social critics, journalists, religious and ethnic leaders, including NGO workers. The 55 incidents reported under the Right to Dignity category encompass the indiscriminate arrest and unlawful detention of actors in the civic space with about 20 cases resulting in the loss of personal liberty. The database also reports incidents of loss of life and property resulting from government clampdown on civic freedoms which invariably results in the reluctance of many Nigerians to freely express themselves or join peaceful protests for fear of losing their lives (33 reported incidents) or their properties (2 reported incidents).

 

In terms of location, the highest number of incidents were recorded in the North Central geopolitical region with 85 incidents. Most of these incidents took place in the Federal Capital Territory, Abuja, which is understandable given that it is Nigeria’s seat of political power. The region with the second highest number of incidents is the South-West with 66 recorded incidents, majority of which occurred in Lagos State alone.

The numbers for the South-South and South East regions are 44 and 37 respectively with North West and North East recording the least numbers at 26 and 7 respectively. Low number of incidents should not be construed as a better human rights record. It could instead reflect a low level of civic engagements in the region or low reportage of incidents. The database also categorizes incidents along gender lines by identifying incidents affecting men and women, with 147 incidents attributed to males and 37 attributed to females. If there are any positives to be taken from reported incidents involving females, it is the fact that women are equally at the forefront of civic engagements in Nigeria.

Beyond the Database

The database demonstrates, at a glance, why the fight to keep the civic spaces open must not relent. It also offers a tool of engagement and not merely for the sake of keeping statistics. This is why the interest of non-Nigerians in the database is a welcome development. At the time of writing, about 30% of the visitors to the database emanate from outside Nigeria. This notion of human rights beyond borders is actively manifested by the reportage to civic space crackdowns in other West African countries. It is expected that the database would grow into a truly pan-African resource for human rights defenders.

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