Silencing of the Lambs : A Personal Reflection Based on Experience Working in and With Civil Society Organizations in Nigeria

February 13, 2018

BY Fadekemi Akinfaderin

When Nigeria’s military ruled the country, they made attempts to crush the voices of civil society actors who challenged the dictatorship. During this period, civil society, especially individual activists, were instrumental in ensuring the restoration of democracy in the country. Since the country returned to civilian rule in 1999, civil society has grown, including an increase in the number of Civil Society Organizations (CSO), yet very little has changed since the military era with respect to repression of voices and organization of citizens. If anything, post-1999, repressive strategies being deployed by the State are more intense but smartly and cunningly cloaked under the cloth of democracy.  

Between 2015-2017, Spaces for Change (S4C), a human rights and good governance organization, conducted a study in which they tracked 103 incidences where the Nigerian government restricted free speech, association and assembly rights.  The study concluded that Nigeria’s civic space oscillates between obstructed, repressed, and closed, based on the CIVICUS five-pronged classification of civic spaces freedom.

Opinions about regulations and restrictions on civic spaces vary significantly amongst the public. The segment of the society, including the State, calling on more control of civil society have used various arguments.  These includes (1) curtailing fraud and financial crimes by CSOs; (2) counteracting terrorism and violent extremism as CSOs are being used as a channel for funding terrorism; (3) upholding religious and culture values since some of the programs implemented by NGOs promote “western agenda”; (4) protecting national interest and sovereignty; (5) protecting rights of public officers against character defamation by activists and (6) preventing public rage and violence against the government due to statements from activist.

The silencing of CSOs and individual activists has taken many shapes and forms in Nigeria, including but not limited to legislative regulation, public bashing and de-legitimization, restriction in use of public spaces, harassment and intimidation by security officials and tokenistic involvement in public policy formulation and implementation.

Evidence shows that the Nigerian Senate and House of Representatives have made several attempts at imposing legislative regulation on CSOs since 2013.  Taking different forms, these proposed regulations have had one common goal: to restrict the operations of CSO by specifically targeting financing.  The 2016/2017 iteration of this regulation did not deviate from the purpose set by its predecessors and was widely opposed. If the legislation was passed, a commission made up of primarily government representatives would be empowered to deregister organizations and  approve projects before organizations could apply for funding.   

In addition to legislative regulations of CSO as institutions, the National Assembly also attempted to gag the voices of these institutions and individual activist through the  social media regulation bill.  If the social media bill passed, it would have required activist to obtain an affidavit from the courts before making posts about the government and public officials on social media.  Failure to obtain the affidavit would have resulted in a prison term of up to seven years or $25,000 fine. The blocked bill would have also extended its reach beyond Twitter and Facebook to include content on whatsapp and text messages as well. Fortunately, these bills were challenged early on in the legislative process because CSOs had access to information ahead of time, were able to scrutinize and mobilize actions against the proposed laws;  however this is not always the norm.  For example, the cybercrime law contains restrictive elements like “cyberstalking” of public officials which are used to gag activists.  Since coming into effect in 2015, five activists and bloggers have been arrested under the “cyberstalking” provisions.

The State has also resorted to publicly bash and question the character of CSO leaders as a strategy to silence dissent.  In some situations, the government has used social media influencers with large a followership to target and attack individuals, pretending to be a “neutral voice”.  BudgIT, a budget education and accountability NGO, was targeted because of its active engagement in the campaign against the CSO regulation bill.  In a counter social media campaign called #NigerianNGOWatch – led by a popular Nigerian political commentator based in the UK – BudgIT and other CSO came under public scrutiny.  As part of the campaign strategy, inaccurate information about BudgIT programs and funding was posted on Twitter to cast doubt about their work and practices, which the organization formally responded to.  This is especially problematic for CSOs who do not engage in service delivery or infrastructure development projects that citizens can’t physically see.  CSOs that engage in advocacy are more  likely to be targeted and labeled as corrupt entities who are getting grants for personal gains.  The aim of this approach is to erode public trust and challenge the legitimacy of these institutions as a voice that questions the State.

Physical harassment and arbitrary arrest was a widely deployed strategy during the military era and the practice continues.  At the end of 2017, BudgIT staff was arrested for holding a community education program in a Niger state.   The arrest was based on the orders for a Senator representing that constituency on the basis that the educational meeting was inciting the community against the legislator.

A few years ago, government officials attempted to shutdown a training on sexuality education for teachers on the basis that it goes against Nigerian cultural and religious values.  As the lead facilitator,  I personally was called in for questioning by the Department of State Security (DSS) officials.  The only reason I was not detained was because I was able to provide evidence that the training was done with the permission and collaboration with the state government.

While individuals leading work on behalf of their organizations are in great danger of being harassed by security officials, it also goes beyond that.  This approach works to diminish the ability of organizations to engage citizens in accountability actions, as individuals are choosing to be less vocal and visible on social issues for fear of being targeted by state law enforcement agencies. This was the case with the #ENDSARS Campaign, an accountability campaign demanding the dismantling the Nigerian Police Force Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS) based on documented incidents of unlawful detention, humiliation, extortion.   Once the campaign gained national attention, the police launched an investigation against the coordinator of the campaigns and sadly individual security officers were further emboldened to intimidate young Nigerians through arbitrary stop and search procedures on public roads.   

Public spaces serve as physical space for movements and activists to organize but also as a symbolic rallying point for historical resistance to oppression, especially by the State. The government intentionally restricts access to public spaces in order to decrease visibility of those who are critical of public policy.  The State gives space to groups who seem to be improving the government’s public image while refusing access to those raising critical questions about actions or inactions by the State.  

In 2011, there was a national outrage in response to a video of a gang rape at the Abia State University.  Several groups, includinga team I was coordinating, were calling for accountability from the Federal Ministry of Education, National Universities Commission and the Abia State government. As rallies were being planned across the country, I was called for questioning by DSS and subsequently denied a public rally permit on the basis that the rape could not be substantiated and the rally could be hijacked by “terrorists”.  Women’s groups in Abia, the state where the rape took place, experienced similar denials. This is a strategy to prevent any tanishing of the state governor’s public image. The government also sponsors counter movements to disrupt groups who organize and gather to oppose government actions. Under the previous political administration, the #BringBackOurGirls campaign was targeted on this basis in 2014 at the Unity Fountain, a public meeting space.

Weakening influence of CSOs on public policy issues in the form of tokenistic engagement is another common strategy deployed by the State.  An example is the Sustainable Development Agenda, where there appears to be corporate takeover since CSO voices are not strong both in terms of quantity and quality. The coordinating office for SDG implementation in Nigeria has set up a Private Sector Advisory Group (PSAG) that follows the same model as the UN Global Compact Business Coalition for 2030.  The advisory group is led by a local oil company and due to its financial resources, the company has a lot of influence on the SDG implementation in Nigeria.  Stronger CSO voices in the SDG agenda coordination group would challenge the role of Private Sector Organization (PSOs), especially those with questionable business practices that are detrimental to the achievement of the 2030 agenda and also call for strong regulation of PSO in this regard.  Sadly, dissenting and critical voices are often not invited back into policy spaces under the notion that they are being disruptive and not proposing solutions.  Their seats are usually taken over by organizations with limited knowledge and experience.   In some cases, public officers create “replacement organizations” or bump the participation of organizations where public officials have significant interest, allowing the government to tick a tokenistic CSO participation box.

While restrictions, especially legislative restrictions could affect all types of organizations, the organizations working on issues that are not aligned with “national interest” or “social and cultural values” are more likely to experience greater attacks.  This will be the case for those working on human rights , especially organizations working to advance women and girls’ rights, including LGBTQI+ rights.  It is critical for human rights organizations to become more aware of the different tactics deployed by the State to silence their voices and develop proactive countermeasures against the most commonly used reactive approaches.  

We need to be better prepared, to create stronger alliances to get access to information but also to support each other to be that dissenting voice against state manipulation, control and regulation.  While this might be an unpopular view in the SRHR and women’s rights movement, there are times where we will have to work with the opposition to resist actions that could threaten and have wider repercussions on civil society beyond their purpose or mandates. This would strongly apply in the case of legislative restrictions, as thematic issues are not the focus of these regulations but rather a broader clamping down on ALL CSOs.  

Nigerian organizations and movements must put in place strategies and plans to protect the security of leaders and activists who are visible and vocal critics of the state.  Women’s funds like Urgent Action Fund – Africa provide technical and financial support to human rights defenders, specially women human rights defenders in order to protect them physically but also to protect their voices. Cross-border and regional alliances are needed to learn about new strategies for resistance but also to amplify our voices, and bring international attention to specific cases as well as the growing global trend of silencing civil society.