Expanding the Scope of Closing Civic Space Documentation in West Africa

The online database of closing civic spaces in Nigeria – www.closingspaces.org – has expanded its focus to include incidents of repressive governmental actions that narrow the space for the civil society in other parts of West Africa. The website now documents and reports the restrictions of civic space in the whole of West Africa: Benin, Burkina Faso, Cape Verde, Cote D’Ivoire, Gambia, Ghana, Guinea, Guinea Bissau, Liberia, Mali, Mauritania, Niger, Nigeria, Senegal, Sierra Leone and Togo.

In recent times, the exercise of governmental power in ways that have considerably repressed human freedoms and contracted the spaces for civil society and civic engagement have been witnessed in Nigeria and beyond. Launched in 2017, the online database initially tracked and documented incidents of governmental restrictions on free speech, association, religious and assembly rights of citizens, groups and organizations that occurred between May 2015 – May 2017 in Nigeria. Thanks to the latest updates on the database, new incidents that occurred beyond 2017 up to 2019 are now documented on the website.  Documentations show that the regular targets of the rising clampdown on the civic space range from journalists to NGO workers to social critics, bloggers, and activists challenging official corruption, human rights abuses, environmental injustices, and so forth. Official justifications often advanced for the restrictions are usually framed around the objective of protecting national interest, national security or other related considerations such as countering financing of terrorism (CFT) and anti-money laundering (AML).

Expanding the scope of the database was borne out of the need to map and compare human rights trends in the sub-region and use the statistics as a thermometer for checking the democratic temperature in the countries that have ratified a host of international an regional human rights treaties. All the countries in the West Africa sub-region have ratified the African Charter on Human and People’s Rights, the United Nations Universal Declaration of 1948, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and International Covenant on Economic, Civil and Political Rights, all of which recognize and protect the rights to free speech, free association and free assembly of citizens.

The website is easy to navigate. When visitors to the site click on the West Africa menu button, a drop-down menu appears, indicating a long list of countries in West Africa. Every click on each country listed directs to a new page detailing incidents of closing spaces in the named country. About 150 separate incidents have been tracked in Nigeria, with 37.33% revealing attacks on journalists alone. The database has tracked 10 incidents in Benin Republic; 13 in Senegal; 10 in Ghana; 8 in Guinea-Bissau; 6 in Cote D’Ivoire; 5 in Burkina Faso; 4 in Niger Republic; 3 in Mali; and then 1 each in Gambia, Guinea, Sierra-Leone and Togo. Countries like Cape Verde, Mauritania and Liberia have no documented case on the website yet. The documentations further reveal a consistent pattern of crackdown from one country to another. The tactics used by governments to repress the civil society in the West African countries are so similar, leading to an inference that their governments are probably copying from one another.

The database forms part of SPACES FOR CHANGE’s broader agenda to protect civic freedoms in Nigeria. By tracking and reporting the continental drivers of restrictions on civic space, SPACES FOR CHANGE aims to provide civil society organizations, journalists and activists with the levers to push back on the surging restrictions. What the database has done is to enhance their access to reliable evidence that they can use to hold up a mirror to the government and demand accountability.

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