Twenty-five civil society actors converged in Lagos on October 3, 2019 to discuss strategies for confronting the resurgence of restrictive legislative proposals designed to shrink the civic space and crush civil liberties in Nigeria. The meeting came on the heels of official plans to re-introduce the rested Non-Governmental Organizations Regulatory Bill (NGO Bill) at a time activists and social campaign organizations are facing a growing onslaught of arrests, detentions, prosecutions and massive crackdowns on their activities. The meeting also afforded them an opportunity to understand and discuss plans for engaging external assessors from the Financial Action Taskforce and ECOWAS Intergovernmental Group Against Money Laundering in West Africa (GIABA) during the second round of Nigeria’s Mutual Evaluation scheduled for September to October 2019.
The meeting began with a review of past and present legislative proposals, including subsisting enactments that threaten the civic space. In 2014, the Nigerian civil society successfully resisted an attempt to introduce a legislation designed to give the Nigerian government maximum powers to regulate international funding to civil society organizations. Two years later, another Bill called the Frivolous Petitions (Prohibition) Bill, popularly known as the Anti-Social Media Bill, which surfaced in the Nigerian legislature suffered a similar fate in May 2016. Barely two months after the Anti-Social Media bill was rested, another bill that aimed to zealously stifle civil society operations in Nigeria passed second reading at the Nigerian parliament. If passed into law, the bill titled, – A Bill for an Act to Provide for the Establishment of Non-Governmental Organizations Regulatory Commission – will empower the Nigerian government, through various bodies to regulate, monitor and interfere with the funding and operation of non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and civil society groups (CSOs). Popularly known as the NGO Bill, overly broad and vaguely-worded provisions of the Bill empower state bodies to refuse, accept, renew every two years or revoke the registration of NGOs, and close down their operations, in accordance with national interest considerations. As with the preceding legislative proposals, efforts to get the NGO Bill passed in 2017 was blocked.
The Nigerian civic space has steadily witnessed a wave of clampdown since 2015, sparking concerns within the civil society community. The clampdown on the civil society manifests in various forms ranging from the arrest of journalists for their investigative work, intimidation and shaming of social justice organisations for demanding accountability from government, prolonged detention, including prosecution and imprisonment of social critics, tear-gassing protesters, sealing protest venues, over-broad application of existing laws like the Cyber crime Act and Terrorism Act 2011, and use of national security concerns to censor the legitimate activities of civic actors online and offline. These incidents are tracked and reported on a digital database –- www.closingspaces.org. Through a range of strategies, advocates have continued to push back against rising restrictions and attacks on civic actors. Accordingly, the renewed attempt to resurrect the rested NGO Bill sends a blazing red flag to the populace, with implications for the rights to the freedom of expression, association, and peaceful assembly.
The highpoint of the meeting was the discussion around the results of the National Risk Assessment (NRA) conducted by the Nigerian Financial Intelligence Unit (NFIU). A National Risk Assessment is a recommendation of the Financial Action Taskforce (FATF) requiring countries to assess money laundering and terrorism financing (ML/TF) risks existing within a system. Adopting a risk-based approach (RBA), the assessment determines the financial and non-financial sectors of an economy vulnerable to threats and risks of money laundering and financing of terrorism. A risk-based assessment allows countries to identify, assess, and understand their ML/TF risks, including prioritise resources and apply counter measures that correspond to the level of risks identified. The RBA is also central to the FATF’s 49 recommendations which are recognised as global standards prescribing methodologies that guide countries in conducting an objective national risk assessment.
The FATF is a global inter-governmental body that develops and promotes policies to protect the global financial system against money laundering, terrorist financing and the financing of proliferation of weapons of mass destruction. GIABA is regional-styled body and a specialised institution responsible for facilitating the adoption and implementation of anti-money laundering (AML) and counter-financing of terrorism (CFT) processes in West Africa.
It was clear the participants drawn from research, advocacy, social justice and media institutions were unaware of FATF’s and GIABA’s regulatory activities around the globe and in the West African sub-region in particular. They were neither engaged during the risk assessments nor aware of the outcomes of the NRA, and the attendant implications on non-profit activities, human rights and civil liberties. Against this backdrop, SPACES FOR CHANGE delivered presentations and resource materials aimed at improving participants’ understanding of FATF Recommendations, the National Risk Assessment, elucidating the process for assessing risks in the non-profit (NPO) sector within the FATF context, NRA results of the non-profit sector in Nigeria, and the forthcoming Mutual Evaluation (ME).
Recommendation 8 of the FATF concerns NPOs – it requires countries to conduct a risk assessment of the non-profit sector by identifying subsets within the sector that are vulnerable to threats and risks of terrorism financing, review and strengthen the adequacy of the country’s existing laws and regulations to mitigate such risks. Most importantly, the RBA advises countries to apply focused and proportionate measures that do not disrupt the legitimate activities of non-profit organisations. On the other hand, the Mutual Evaluation (ME) is a peer review process conducted by a team of experts from the FATF and GIABA who evaluate how effectively a country is preventing, detecting and responding to threats and risks of money laundering and terrorism financing in its economy.
In March 2019, Spaces for Change conducted an indepth analysis of the Nigeria NRA, interrogating the assessment of risks for the non-profit sector. Please see here. Without sufficient supporting evidence, the NRA scored the NPO sector low on many counts and also classified them as Designated Non-financial Businesses and Professions (DNFBPs). Based on that classification, NPOs were ranked as highly vulnerable to terrorism financing and money laundering. Lumping of NPOs with other profit-making businesses sharply contrasts with FATF’s Best Practice Paper which advises that NPOs be assessed as a separate entity considering its unique risks and threats. The report challenged the official classification of NPOs as Designated Non-Financial Businesses Professions (DNFBPs) contrary to FATF standards.
Official statements and tactics employed to crack down on civil society actors are often framed around the objective of enhancing national security. Group discussions that ensued after S4C presentations explored the links between the NRA results of the NPO sector and the surging crackdowns on the civil society, taking into account the past and recent restrictive proposals particularly targeting NGOs in the country. Whereas threats and restrictions to the civic space have always existed in the country, participants agreed that the last few years have recorded an alarming increase in the number of repressive actions targeted at both individuals and organisations, hence the need to strategize on ways to reclaim the civic space.
Unanimously, participants rejected the NGO Bill. They concurred that there is no need for any other dedicated regulatory body for NGOs. What is needed instead is to strengthen the capacity of existing regulatory agencies like the Special Control Unit on Money Laundering (SCUML), Corporate Affairs Commission (CAC), Ministry of Budget and Planning, etc to be more efficient in the discharge of their functions.
The need to create a safe, unifying space for non-profit organizations to work together is one of the major resolutions of the meeting. One such space is the Action Group on Free Civic Space that brings organizations together to develop and present sectoral concerns of the implications of the NRA results and shrinking civic space to FATF/GIABA assessors during the Mutual Evaluation meeting.