Policy and Legal Advocacy Centre (PLAC), a civic group, has taken President Muhammadu Buhari to the cleaners, saying Nigeria’s civic space under the Buhari All Progressives Congress (APC) administration is shrinking.
In the latest edition of its online magazine, PLAC BEAM, the group points out that the public sphere is a crucial element of modern democracy for providing an avenue to people to air and exchange views, which might in time crystallize into a kind of public consensus that informs the government of the thinking of the governed.
According to the PLAC’s publication, ‘’in a modern democracy, it’s a means of mediation between the state and the society by allowing the expression and formation of opinions that serve as form of feedback to inform state policies and actions.
‘’This vital civic space is usually guaranteed by the existence of certain fundamental rights, including freedom of expression and freedom of association. In many ways, the emergence of human rights groups in Nigeria under military rule in the mid-1980s, was in response to a lack of civic space, where people could realise these fundamental rights to express opinion, receive or impart information, even across frontiers, without interference.
‘’Indeed, the civic space and the public sphere in Nigeria expanded in Nigeria greatly with the end of military rule in 1999 and the restoration of civilian democracy.
‘’While the public sphere of old were often found in beer parlours, coffee shops, marketplaces and other public places where people can meet and exchange ideas, it has undergone substantial transformation due to the information and communication technology revolution.’’
Continuing, the PLAC magazine says ‘’the internet, particularly social media platforms such as Facebook, Twitter and Whatsapp as well as websites and email, have transformed the public spheres from the physical to the virtual.
‘’Armed with devices that can easily capture and distribute information on a global scale, a large number of citizens have become empowered to join the traditional media in reaching large audiences in far-flung locations.
‘’This has been a source of worry for many governments around the world, and increasingly so in Nigeria under President Buhari in recent years, with the government taking steps that appear aimed at closing down this civic space that will potentially eliminate the benefits of the public sphere in a democracy.
‘’The following are some recent incidents that point to a shrinking civic space, starting with the most recent:
‘’On August 26, 2021, two Channels Television journalists, Chamberlain Usoh and Kayode Okikiolu, were questioned by the State Security Service, following their interviews with Governor Samuel Ortom of Benue State and retired Kunle Olawunmi, who were very critical of Buhari’s government. The National Broadcasting Commission, the regulatory body for the broadcast industry, also issued reprimands to Channels Television.
‘’On July 26, 2021, the state security police arbitrarily chose 10 media organizations out of scores in the country to cover the scheduled court appearance of Biafra separatist leader, Nnamdi Kanu, illegally barring the rest from access to a public building.
‘’On July 9, 2021, state security police arrested three Israeli journalists and filmmakers (Rudy Rochman, Andrew Noam Leibman and Edouard David Benaym) who were working on a documentary on Igbo adherents of Judaism in Anambra State.
‘’They were held for 20 days and accused of being members of the separatist Indigenous People of Biafra without charge and asked to leave the country immediately on their release, they said afterward.
‘’On July 7, 2021, the National Broadcasting Commission directed broadcast stations not to divulge details of attacks by Islamist insurgents or bandits in their reports in order “not to jeaopardize the efforts of the Nigerian soldiers and other security agents.”
‘’On June 16, 2021 date, the House of Representatives held a public hearing on five media-related bills which included the Nigerian Press Council Act and National Broadcasting Commission Act Amendment Bills. Their combined effect, if passed into law, will allow the government to impose censorship and determine who practices as a journalist through a code of conduct. Journalists could be prosecuted for so-called “fake news” and other breaches of the code.
‘’On June 12, 2021 journalists covering protests were attacked by security agents in Abuja and in Oyo State. On June 2, 2017 Nigeria banned access to the Twitter micro-blogging platform in the country, days after Twitter had censured President Buhari for issuing a tweet threatening the use of violence in violation of the platform’s rules.
‘’On June 7, 2021, the National Broadcasting Commission directed broadcasting stations in Nigeria to stop using Twitter. On May 5, 2021 several newspaper vendors were arrested in Abia state for selling pro-Biafra pamphlets and similar literature, according to reports in the Vanguard and Daily Trust newspapers.
‘’On May 6, 2021 Channels Television and Inspiration FM in Lagos were each fined 5 million naira for interviewing the spokesman of the separatist group, Indigenous People of Biafra, classified as a terrorist group by Buhari’s government.
‘’On May 2, 2021, the Central Bank of Nigeria directed banks to close the accounts of persons or entities involved in cryptocurrency transactions within their systems. This was weeks after cryptocurrency donations were used by young protesters that marched across the country against police brutality and other abuses by the security forces. The central bank said cryptocurrencies tend to be used in terrorism financing and money laundering.
‘’On November 3, 2020, the Central Bank of Nigeria obtained a court ruling to freeze 19 bank accounts it suspected of being used to fund the anti-police protests, #EndSARS Protesters for a period of 180 days pending the outcome of investigation and inquiry currently being conducted by the Central Bank of Nigeria.
‘’Nine #EndSARS protesters from Rivers State were held without charge or bail between October 21, 2020 and February 17, 2021. There were also reports of extrajudicial killings in the Oyigbo community by the army. The killer soldiers carried out reprisals after mobs the authorities alleged were Biafra separatists, killed some soldiers.
‘’On October 20, 2020 troops and the police opened fire on unarmed protesters massed at the Lekki Toll Gate in Lagos, killing at least 10 people, according to Amnesty International.
‘’Nigeria’s COVID-19 lockdown period in 2020 also witnessed various cases of documented human rights violations by the Nigerian Human Rights Commission (NHRC) including extra-judicial killings, violation of right to freedom of movement, unlawful arrest and detention, seizure and confiscation of properties, sexual and gender-based violence, torture, inhumane and degrading treatment and extortion.
‘’On September 18, 2019, the military forced the closure of the international humanitarian group, Action Against Hunger’s main offices in Borno and Yobe States, northeastern Nigeria, accusing the group of ‘aiding and abetting’ Boko Haram, a terrorist organization. No one was arrested or charged for the allegations, neither was any proof provided publicly.
‘’A similarly weird accusation of spying for Boko Haram Islamist insurgents in the northeast was also made by the military against the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) in December 2018. The allegations usually followed interventions by these agencies against human rights violations by the military in the conflict zones. In the case of UNICEF, the ban was reversed following high-level international diplomatic intervention.
‘’A Hate speech bill and a Social Media regulation bill was introduced to the National Assembly in 2019. However, the hate speech bill has not progressed through the required legislative steps, while the social media regulation bill which aimed to penalise “internet falsehoods” was withdrawn following public outcry and lobbying/advocacy by CSOs.
‘’A new Companies and Allied Matters Act was passed and signed into law in August 2020. It introduced more stringent regulations for non-governmental organizations such as suspension of trustees and appointment of interim managers for NGOs.
‘’Other attacks and threats to journalists include Ebonyi State Governor David Umahi’s alleged threat against a People’s Gazette reporter, the alleged blocking of the newspaper’s website by the federal government and an assault on a Punch newspaper reporter by the state security police.’’