Imperative of Enabling Environment for Civil Society Shrinking Space in Nigeria

A PRESS STATEMENT BY DR TOLA WINJOBI THE PRINCIPAL COORDINATOR, CAFSO-WRAG FOR DEVELOPMENT AND THE AFRICAN REPRESENTATIVE, CIVIL SOCIETY PARTNERSHIP FOR DEVELOPMENT EFFECTIVENESS AS PART OF THE ACTIVITIES OF CPDE GLOBAL DAY OF ACTION IN COMMEMORATION OF THE INTERNATIONAL HUMAN RIGHTS DAY 10TH DECEMBER 2019 IN IBADAN NIGERIA, WEST AFRICA

CAFSO-WRAG for Development is a humanitarian, not for profit, and non-governmental organization established in 1994 in Ibadan, Nigeria. Its main task is to challenge the structures and institutions that perpetuate poverty, hunger and preventable diseases, and campaign for the fulfillment of all socio-economic and human rights for sustainable human and ecological development. It is deploying a series of activities including a press conference, roundtable discourse, social media action to tackle the issue of the shrinking civic space to commemorate International Human Rights Day in Nigeria.

The general objective is to advocate for the reversal of shrinking spaces for civil society and the promotion of CSO enabling environment in Nigeria. Specific Objectives include:

  • To create awareness on the shrinking space for CSOs so as for the government to reverse the trend.
  • To popularise CSO role as vital, independent development actors in their own right, and partners for development according to Belgrade Call Action and AAAA.
  • To bring to governments’ understanding that the realization of 2030 Agenda is in a participatory and human rights approach involving the civil society.
  • To present before government-specific asks bothering on the release of civil rights actors and retracting the social media bill before the House of Assembly.

According to the Belgrade Call to Action (2019), over six billion people are living in countries where there are serious constraints on civic space: the conditions are closed for civil society in 23 countries; civil society is highly repressed in 35 countries while civil society faces substantial legal and political obstacles in 53 countries. Civic actors across many sectors are being threatened and persecuted – including those supporting and representing rural communities, indigenous peoples, journalists, trade unions, women’s rights activists, LGBTQ activists, youth, people living with disabilities, and environmentalists. Harassment through arbitrary arrest, detention, targeted use of legal and regulatory measures, and restrictions on finances have become common experiences among civil society organisations (CSOs) in many countries. Deliberate discreditation as criminals, physical harm, and sexual harassment and abuse of women human rights defenders are commonplace. All these happen because the advocacy for peoples’ human rights and promotion of democratic participation are deemed by repressive states as dissent and, therefore, not to be tolerated.

In Nigeria, human rights abuses are common especially as being perpetrated by the state. There is much impunity and violation of the rule of law as governments are adamant to court rulings against them. Many political prisoners like Sambo Dasuki, and Ibrahim El-Zakisaky and some journalists including Agba Jalingo, are kept behind bars despite court injunction to release them on bail while Omoyele Sowore publisher of Sahara Reporters and Olawale Bakare were barely released Thursday, December 5, 2019, being detained since August 2019. Press freedom is being curtailed gradually as some of the time, media houses are shut with impunity on frivolous allegation of publishing inciting materials and falsehood. Commonplace from 2014 to date are clampdowns on the Nigerian press, from the outright closure of media houses to the seizure of large numbers of newspapers seen as anti-establishment and the confiscation of thousands of copies of several newspapers, most notably the Daily Trust, and Leadership, including the sealing of their distribution points in several major towns across the country by soldiers (Bayo Oladeji November 13, 2014).

There have been obnoxious actions and policies including bills targeted at civil society by the Nigerian government in order to stifle the former. Some of these actions required mandatory registration with difficult requirements for CSO operations; regulatory restrictions and nebulous legislation including hate speech attracting death penalty; measures banning public demonstrations and processions except for the Nigerian state; poor and limited spaces available for CSO participation; and lack of technical and financial support for CSOs effective engagement and operations coupled with donor’s fatigue. On top of these draconian policies targeted at civil society is the financial bill requiring mandatory presentation of Tax Identification Number (TIN) by any individual operating a bank account in Nigeria as from January 1, 2020. Not mindful of government’s failure to provide social services for the people, the bill is no respecter of indigent women, poor widows, pauperized pensioners, pensionless senior citizens, petty business people, artisans, unemployed youth including fresh graduates who keep the stipends they have in banks for security reasons. One wonders where an unemployed person, for example, would get money to pay tax when the government has even failed to provide jobs and services for the people upon which taxes are imposed.

Alas, not only Nigeria’s fledgling democracy is being threatened, but the attainment of Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) is also being jeopardized in Nigeria through the action of governments. Upholding human rights is core to development, and the human rights-based approach (HRBA) is a fundamental principle for development effectiveness. It represents a paradigm shift crucial in achieving the SDGs as it affirms the agency of the poor and marginalized people to chart their own destiny by empowering them as rights-holders instead of mere beneficiaries of charity. The marginalised are so pauperised to the extent that they could not discern their rights let alone to stand for them. Thus they are being left behind. Real and transformative progress in achieving core SDGs – including eradicating poverty (SDG1), eliminating hunger (SDG2), addressing gender and all forms of discrimination (SDG5) reducing inequalities (SDG10), promoting decent work and sustainable livelihoods for all (SDG8) – will not be possible without a fully engaged civil society and population. The strengths of civil society are its diversity, its rootedness in communities and territories, its direct development experience, and its capacity for public engagement.

Despite promises of action by many United Nations Member States to “reverse the trend of shrinking civic space wherever it is taking place,” (Nairobi Outcome Document, GPEDC) attacks on CSOs, social leaders and human rights defenders, and the deterioration of enabling the environment for CSOs (GPEDC 2019:8) continue unabated.

CSO representatives, development workers, activists, and campaigners from all over the world gathered in Belgrade, Serbia on 8-11 April 2019 for the Civil Society Summit as part of International Civil Society Week. Foremost at the Summit is the adoption of the Belgrade Call to Action, which asks UN Member States to act to reverse the closing and shrinking space for civil society, to stop the attacks on human rights defenders and the undermining of democratic participation, and to renew the prospects for an inclusive Agenda 2030 and the full realisation of the SDGs. CSO leaders from across the world amplified our messages before the UN High-Level Political Forum in July and the UN Special Session in September 2019.

As civic leaders we demand a robust civic space for democratic participation, ending the persecution of human rights defenders, promotion of access to governance and opportunities for development, and actualise commitment to inclusive participation in realising the SDGs.

We call on governments:

  • To take concrete steps to protect and enable space for civil society, including enabling laws and regulations, democratic accountability based on human rights norms and human rights standards, and the full protection of civil society under attack – such as social leaders, human rights defenders and gender equality activists.
  • To repeal and halt all obnoxious laws, policies, and bills stifling operations of civil society including social media bill that metes out death penalty on the violator.
  • To implement and respect democratic country ownership of national development plans and implements transparency and accountability for inclusive SDG delivery.
  • To recognize the importance of the interconnected themes in achieving Agenda 2030 — civil society voice, eradicating poverty, women’s empowerment, fighting inequality, decent work, climate action and environmental justice.
  • To uphold the rule of law, shun impunity and respect human rights by releasing unconditionally all the political prisoners and prisoners of conscience including the activists and journalists like Agba Jalingo, kept behind bars despite court injunction to release them on bail.

Today 10 December 2019 CPDE in partnership with her partners across the globe is launching a Global Day of Action against Shrinking Civic Spaces in commemoration of International Human Rights Day. CAFSO-WRAG for Development is participating actively in this initiative by deploying multiple strategies to tackle the menace. We have held a series of consultations with stakeholders. We organized campaign action on social media. We held a press conference while we also made press statements. This roundtable discourse aims at bringing to the front burner the dimensions of shrinking space for civil society in Nigeria coupled with human rights violation, impunity and lack of respect for the rule of law by the Nigerian authorities. We hope there would be useful suggestions to stem the tide while we are hopeful that government would reverse the trend of the repressive shrinking space by retracting the social media bill with the understanding that the realisation of the 2030 Agenda is hinged on freedom of speech, respect for human rights, and upholding the rule of law.

I wish you all successful deliberations.

Thank you. D. Tola Winjobi (PhD)
African Representative, CPDE