Amidst the rise in dangerous attacks on civic space of Nigerians by the government, rights stakeholders have downgraded Nigeria’s civic space from obstructed to repressed, meaning that the nation’s civic space is significantly constrained, which pivots the need to change the narratives and increase collective action by civil society to challenge threats, create opportunities, and widen civic space towards creating a positive change.
Statistics, however, show that Nigeria’s citizens face severe challenges in participating in free and fair elections. This is even as youth participation in politics and decision-making is at the lowest level. Civic space simply put is the space for citizens to organise a political meeting as well other engagements, communicate freely without hindrance, air their grievances, identify and address issues of concern and claim their rights.
Over the years, Nigerians have also faced the problem of limited and declining civic space in other aspects of their lives. On attacks on civic space of Nigerians, from 2015 to date, a non governmental organisation, Spaces for Change, recorded a total of 252 incidents of government crackdown on civic space in Nigeria.
The incident tracked Spaces for Change also shows 63 recorded cases of press freedom/serious attack on journalists, freedom of association 48, free speech 53, torture and degrading treatment 36, right to life 25, political restriction 15 and anti-money laundering/countering of terrorism financing five.
However, while 146 males were affected correspondingly 36 females were also affected during this period. Meanwhile, the South-west region 58, South-east 33, South-south 43, North-west 27, North-central 83 and North-east eight cases.
At the national level, there are indications that this trend will continue, for example, as efforts linger to pursue the Bill to Establish Non-governmental Organisation Regulatory Commission (the NGO Bill) and the Protection from Internet Falsehood and Manipulation Bill (the Social Media Bill) threatening to restrain freedom of speech and civil society activities.
But, the chairman House Committee on Civil Societies and development partners, Hon Kabiru Idris said that LNGOs should have a clear mandate when submitting documentation for registration to avoid ambiguity.
Gaya said that International Non-governmental organisations (INGOs) should rely on the local non-governmental organisations (LNGOs) for access, information and collaborations, as such, LNGOs need to be credible and reliable in providing such information. He also stressed the need for an information resource centre.
The executive secretary, Nigeria Network of NGOs, Oyebisi Oluseyi, while speaking during the USAID-funded Strengthening Civic Advocacy and Local Engagement (SCALE) dialogue series on Safeguarding Civic Space, which brings together CSOs, relevant government agencies and select stakeholders to explore opportunities for improving collaboration toward addressing civic space issues in Nigeria, said the right to the freedom of association is the right of any citizen to join a formal or informal group to take collective action.
Oluseyi said this right includes the right to form a new group and join an existing group.
Speaking further, he said associations can include civil society organisations, clubs, cooperatives, non-governmental organisations, religious associations, political parties, trade unions, foundations and online associations, as well as less defined and new forms of groups such as social movements.
“There is no requirement that the association be registered for the right of the freedom of association to apply. Under the right to the freedom of association, groups have the right to access funding and resources,” he said.
On the right to the freedom of peaceful assembly, he said the right of citizens to gather publicly or privately and collectively express, promote, pursue and defend common interests.
Oluseyi said this right includes the right to participate in peaceful assemblies, meetings, protests, strikes, sit-ins, demonstrations and other temporary gatherings for a specific purpose.
“States not only have an obligation to protect peaceful assemblies but should also take measures to facilitate them,” he said.
He also stressed that the right to the freedom of expression includes the right to access information, critically evaluate and speak out against the policies and actions of state and non-state actors, and publicly draw attention to and carry out advocacy actions to promote shared concerns, without fear of retribution from any quarter.
He said civil society organisations should be assured the freedom to carry out investigations and document their findings under this right.
On protection of citizens, he said the government (federal, state and local) have the duty to protect citizens, respect and facilitate their fundamental rights to associate, assemble peacefully and freely express views and opinions.
Keeping it simple, he said, “When a country or government fulfils its duty to protect, civic space is deemed open, when it fails it is closed.”
To tackle civic space threats, CSOs during the dialogue resolved to work closely on three critical issues affecting civic space freedom.
They resolved to improve “CSO/legislature relationship, build support for a national CSO directory and improve access to SCUML information and registration for CSOs.”
SCUML is the Special Control Unit on Money Laundering an agency of the federal government to ensure that our members comply with extant laws and guidelines.
On methodology on how to safeguard civic space, he said the dialogue stressed the right to form a new group and join an existing group.
“Right to access funding and resources.
Right to participate in peaceful assemblies, meetings, protests, strikes, sit-ins, demonstrations and other temporary gatherings for a specific purpose.
“Right to access information, critically evaluate and speak out against the policies and actions of state and non-state actors, and publicly draw attention to and carry out advocacy actions to promote shared concerns, without fear of retribution from any quarter,” he said.
He also stressed the need to pay attention to laws regulating the formation and operations of nonprofits at all levels and flag regulations that can close the space. This according to him includes those around taxes, data privacy, money laundering and countering of terrorism financing.
“Respect and publicly recognise the right of citizens to peaceful assembly. Participate in campaigns against the use of force on peaceful protesters etc.
‘’Document cases of right abuse by state institutions reported to you by your beneficiaries and relay to the government at the local and state level. Support initiatives to strengthen the use of the freedom of information ACT and efforts to keep the internet open and safe,” he added.