Standing Together to Defend the Civic Space

SPACES FOR CHANGE ‘s| S4C’s regional workshop, Promoting and Defending Internet Freedoms in Nigeria,  held on September 5, 2018, brought together 35 online practitioners in Enugu State, South-East Nigeria, to increase their capacity to push back against the increasing tide of restrictions on civic spaces often targeted at civil society actors operating in virtual, online and offline communities. Participants comprised mainly of bloggers, activists, broadcasters, radio presenters, student unionists, legal practitioners, bankers, and active citizens from across Nigeria, actively using the social media to and mainstream media spaces to advocate for good governance, social justice and public accountability. The Fund for Global Human Rights provided support for the workshop.


Free speech, free association and free assembly are constitutionally-protected rights in Nigeria. These constitutional guarantees empower citizens to form or join groups freely, operate or join organizations and speak out on issues of shared concerns. But these rights are not absolute. For instance, the propagation of false news and the incitement of violence are the major reasons cited for the frequent arrests and prosecution of social critics by the government. In light of this, participants learnt about the range of local and international laws, regulations and policies that strengthen legal protection for free speech, free assembly and  association rights, including the legally-permissble derogations from those rights.  With a better understanding of these laws and legal procedures,  online practitioners were better guided to conduct their digital operations with greater caution and galvanize joint action to confront obstructions to the spaces for civic engagement in Nigeria.


The first presentation, Unpacking Crackdown Rules and Regulations, by Ikeazor Akariwe, a senior legal practitioner, clarified the various ways legal provisions could be construed and enforced in a very restrictive manner.  Examples include the national Cybercrime Act and the Criminal Code, both of which have been, in some cases, overstretched beyond the parameters of the law to validate crackdowns on activists and civil society groups. This explains why activists, including citizens actively using the social media to criticize irregularities in governance need to be circumspect and sophisticated in their engagements on the internet. Refraining from peddling fake and libellous information is also a habit internet users must also imbibe.


The second presentation, Regulatory Compliance with Anti-Money Laundering and Countering Financing and Terrorism (AML/CFT) Regimes in Nigeria: What Bloggers Need to Know, by Tony Abuo, a financial expert, highlighted an array of regulations introduced by the Nigerian government to checkmate illicit financial flows by individuals, corporate entities including non-profit organizations (NPOs) and financial institutions. He started by enlightening participants about the forty (40) Recommendations handed down by the Financial Action Task Force’s (FATF), an intergovernmental and global policy-making body established  in 1989 to set standards and promote effective implementation of legal, regulatory and operational measures for combating money laundering, terrorist financing and other related threats to the integrity of the international financial system. ECOWAS’ Inter-Governmental Action Group against Money Laundering (GIABA), is an FATF-styled regional body in West Africa, that oversees compliance with AML/CFT rules in the West African sub-region, including Nigeria. In compliance with the standards and measures prescribed by FATF and GIABA, Nigeria has introduced new financial regulations and established specialised agencies like the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC), Financial Intelligence Unit (FIU) that monitors the financial processes and transactions by individuals and institutions.


Some of the AML/CFT obligations on organisations and financial institutions require them to report and maintain record of data, business correspondence and account files of all domestic and international transactions for at least five years after the completion of the transaction or a longer period as may be required by the regulatory authorities. NPOs are also required by law to conduct due diligence on their sponsors and customers by identifying and verifying the validity of client’ documents or information and reporting suspicious activities of clients.


The third presentation, Applicability of AML-CFT Rules to Non-Profit Organizations, by Victoria Ibezim-Ohaeri, Executive Director of SPACES FOR CHANGE, dwelt on the rules and regulations that guide the activities of NPOs in Nigeria.  Often times, the government takes advantage of measures designed to counter money laundering and terrorism to introduce restrictive and disruptive mechanisms that impose a greater burden of obligations on NPOs, interfering with their legitimate operations and resulting in the shrinking of civic space.  One example is the proposed NGO Bill that was fiercely resisted by civil society organizations in Nigeria. Replete with vague phrases, the bill proposed to establish a regulatory body over non-governmental organisations in Nigeria even though the provisions of the proposed NGO Bill are already covered under existing legislations and subject to existing regulatory authorities like the Corporate Affairs Commission, the National Planning Commission and most importantly, the Special Control Unit Against Money Laundering (SCUML) that regulates Designated Non-financial Institutions in Nigeria.


The good news is that FATF  revised its Recommendation 8 (R8) which formerly recorded that NPOs were vulnerable to terrorist abuse. The revised R8 now requires risk-based assessments (RBA) which require governments to adopt and apply measures proportionate to the identified risks. For instance, organizations undertaking public advocacy and those rendering humanitarian services are both NPOs, but both of them are exposed to different levels of risk. Adopting RBAs in their assessments helps the government to avoid blanket restrictions on NPOs in general. Ms. Ohaeri also discussed some of the strategies SPACES FOR CHANGE has been using to confront closing spaces in Nigeria. Through research and robust information-gathering techniques, the organization has developed a database of closing spaces in Nigeria: The database tracked incidents of clampdown on civil society actors while also  sustaining the analysis of repressive legislative proposals.


The three presentations provoked questions and discussions around civic engagement and resistance strategies for reclaiming the civic space in Nigeria.  One participant enquired about the laws that guarantee the privacy rights of citizens from infringement by financial institutions under the guise of national security. Another flagged the importance of having a one-stop registration house for all civil society activities in Nigeria.  Another participant emphasized the need to have well-coordinated synergy among activists from all parts of the country, most especially the northern region, in order to present a united front against the menace of shrinking spaces and freedoms.


At the close of the workshop, the participants could not hide their excitement about the new lessons learned about engaging the civic space, and pushing back against the growing tide of restrictions. The workshop ended with the inauguration of the Open Spaces Hub, an informal network of bloggers committed to stand together to use the social media to campaign against restrictions on the civic space.


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