Closing Civic Space in Nigeria

October 2, 2019

The freedom of speech and expression has consistently been under attack in Nigeria. Some people, journalists inclusive have been victims of indiscriminate arrest and detention by security agencies. From military rule to civilian governments, the challenge persists.

We have experienced, time and again, how the government has incessantly restricted civil society and citizens’ rights to organize collectively, protest, and freely express their opinions.

There are existing provisions of law and judicial authorities recognizing the fundamental rights of the Nigerian people to non-violently convene and participate in rallies, demonstration and protest marches. This is enshrined in Chapter 4, Section 39 of the 1999 Nigerian Constitution (as amended) which states that “Every person shall be entitled to freedom of expression, including freedom to hold opinions and to receive and impart ideas and information without interference."

A wave of clampdown on civic space has occurred across Nigeria since 2015, and this has sparked concerns from human rights activists and other advocacy organizations in the face of rising legal restrictions on civil society.

These restrictions are imposed majorly on citizens ranging from journalists who were apprehended for their investigative work, human rights activists who demanded transparency and obedience to the rule of law, citizens who simply wanted to hold leaders accountable and seek better living conditions, and members of the opposition who were perceived to be threats.

The civic space is changing, in terms of who participates and on what terms. The rapid growth of the digital public sphere has dramatically reshaped the civic space for all actors. People have become more vocal on social media platforms, and in its wake, arbitrary arrest and unlawful detention.

One of such cases of unlawful arrest and detention is that of Sowore Omoyele, founder of Sahara Reporters, who was arrested by the DSS on August 3rd for organizing a protest tagged #RevolutionNow.

On Thursday, August 8th, the Federal High Court in Abuja granted the DSS permission to detain him for 45 days. He was accused of money laundering, treasonable felony, cyberstalking the president, amongst other offences. He is yet to be released.

Restrictive methods being deployed to clampdown civic space is evident in the vague provisions of the NGO bill.

Also, the federal and state laws are being interpreted in a way that is beyond their scope, thereby justifying these clampdowns.

Deliberate use of negative rhetoric has stigmatized sections of the civil society. The media is being harassed and intimidated with threats.

Activists, bloggers, CSOs and NGOs have been tagged unprintable names in a bid to discredit them, and further isolate them from the public. The adverse effect of this action is the declining public trust and confidence in these individuals or organization.

We are rapidly being sucked into a vacuum of impunity, and if this is not tackled, could lead to a full blown dictatorship.

We hereby call on the government to be more responsive to the people that elected them to serve, and create an enabling environment for the civic space to thrive.