SPACES FOR CHANGE | S4C is deeply concerned about the increasing clampdown on the civic space ahead of the 2019 general elections. The Nigerian civic space is witnessing the biggest crackdown in history, with international rights groups threatened with closure, media houses raided, social critics arrested, detained and facing bogus criminal charges while civic groups are being vilified, harassed, and their personnel subjected to intense surveillance. The intensity of the crackdown on activists, social critics, media houses and right groups, in particular, has assumed a deeply-worrying dimension especially as
the scheduled general elections draw near. This trend, if allowed to continue, has enormous potential to undermine democratic values, crush civil liberties and erode the credibility of the electoral process.

Between May 2015 – January 2019, S4C tracked 150 incidents of governmental power exercised in ways that considerably repressed human freedoms, with particular implications for free speech, association, religious and assembly rights of citizens, groups and organizations. Documentations show that the regular targets of the crackdowns range from journalists to NGO workers to social critics, bloggers, and activists challenging official corruption, human rights abuses, environmental injustices, and so forth. Out of the 150
cases tracked, 56 were journalists, 21 were involved in public protests, 13 activists, 24 critics (including social media commentators, bloggers and active citizens, 5 public figures, 6 members of the Indigenous People of Biafra (IPOB), 6 students, 4 members of political opposition parties, 4 labour union leaders, 5 religious leaders, 4 teachers and 2 clergymen. As statistics show, the civic space has been under siege as no profession or any aspect of human endeavour has been spared.

Further aggravating the deteriorating state of civic freedoms is the coordinated attempts to shift the onslaught to other arms of government, particularly the legislature and the judiciary. On Tuesday, August 7, 2018, heavily–armed security operatives of Nigeria’s Department of State Security Services (DSS) barricaded the entrance of the Nigerian federal parliament preventing federal lawmakers from accessing their offices to carry out their lawful legislative duties. As if that was not sacrilegious enough, the latest plot to forcefully remove the Chief Justice of Nigeria, Justice Walter Onnoghen through a knee-jerk asset declaration trial, has left many Nigerians in shock.

The latest assault on the country’s most senior judicial officer comes months after the invasion of the homes of certain justices of the Supreme Court in the middle of the night by armed security operatives based on questionable allegations of corruption. Analysts aver that the serial attacks on hallowed democratic institutions form part of a broader ‘agenda to undermine the other two arms of the federal government capable of exerting oversight, and creating the necessary checks and balance of power that could prevent the executive from fully transforming into tyranny.

The marked increase in the exercise of overbearing governmental power has not only created an atmosphere of fear in the country, but has also considerably contracted the spaces for civil society and civic engagement. We make bold to state that civic spaces are closing to such a level that poses a threat to the country’s hard-earned democracy. Activists, local and international non-governmental organizations, media houses, religious groups, social movements now operate in fear, with many of them wondering who the next victim of state repression will be. Those who dare speak up, including those sympathetic to opposition political parties face higher risks of being arrested, detained and left to languish in prison, with phantom charges slammed on them. As evidence shows, journalists and activists engaged in drawing attention to pressing issues and influencing change bear the brunt of these attacks.

Free speech, free association and free assembly are constitutionally-protected rights in Nigeria. The shrinking civic spaces in the country contravenes UNHRC Resolution A/HRC/RES/24/5 on Rights to Freedom of Peaceful Assembly and of Association, which obligates states to respect and fully protect the rights of all individuals to assemble peacefully and associate freely, online as well as offline. Gagging civil liberties is antithetical to democracy and stunts the development of any country and hinders citizens from participating in critical conversations and debates that inform and enrich the quality of governance.

SPACES FOR CHANGE calls on the President Muhammadu Buhari-led Nigerian government to halt the persistent attack on persons and groups making meaningful contributions to the democratic process. We specifically demand the release of all persons still languishing in detention for expressing their civic rights and freedoms. We further demand the discontinuance of all phony charges pressed against political activists, opposition politicians, and other eminent Nigerians, especially Deji Adeyanju, Dino Melaye, Justice Walter Onnoghen, among others.

We implore the government to channel its energy towards upholding the human rights principles that give democracy meaning. With bated breath, Nigerians look forward to seeing the serious measures put in place to provide level playing field for all political parties for the conduct of transparent elections.

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