NGO bill under consideration poses "grave danger to democracy"
Civil society and others have sounded the alarm over an NGO Regulatory Commission Bill under consideration in the National Assembly that could potentially "endanger constitutional guarantees of freedom of association, assembly, speech as well as freedom of conscience and religion". In response to the proposed law, 54 organisations and activists have signed a statement calling on the authorities to remove the law from consideration. The signatories warned that:
"In the grand scheme, this NGO Bill will create a government apparatus with ungoverned discretion to determine whether an NGO exists or for how long it will operate based on the dominant political whims of the day".
Civil society has outlined the major drawbacks to the law, but most worrisome would be the additional powers to the government to control NGO activity and greater decision-making power over which organisations can be registered. The bill has already passed the first two readings and public consultations will be held in September 2017.
In recent months, there have been reported cases of the government cracking down on independent media outlets, critical voices and journalists. Several examples of such instances are as follows.
On 10th March 2017, a correspondent for Punch Newspaper was expelled from the Presidential Villa after the newspaper published a report in which a UK-based medical doctor expresses an opinion on the current state of the president’s health. President Buhari’s health has sparked debate in Nigeria, as he has spent 103 days in London on medical leave. The newspaper's report mentions "cancer" as a possible ailment, which did not resonate well with the presidential administration. The correspondent’s expulsion was criticised as a deliberate violation of the right to freedom of expression and the press.
On 29th March 2017, the senate suspended Senator Ali Ndume for six months for raising false allegations against two of his colleagues, which prompted a round of protests demanding his reinstatement. The suspended senator called for an investigation of Senate President Bukola Saraki and Senator Dino Melaye after Sahara Reporters uncovered alleged forgery of customs documents and a university certificate. Senator Ndume has taken the case to court, arguing that his suspension is unlawful and an infringement on his right to freedom of expression. He has demanded compensation of N500 million (approximately 1,400,000 USD) to cover his outstanding salaries and allowances. The hearing on the case was set for 1st September 2017.
On 22nd May, security operatives and officials of Nasarawa state, acting on orders from the governor, demolished the building of a privately-owned radio station. A special assistant to the governor said that the action was not politically-motivated but rather a regulatory measure against illegal construction. The Nigerian Union of Journalists (NUJ) condemned the action, describing the demolition as an “open attack on the press which has the potential to deprive citizens of the right to balanced reports”.
On 12th June, armed officials of the Economic and Financial Crime Commission (EFCC) raided the premises of The Sun newspaper in Lagos, claiming to be executing a pending ten-year court order. However, the newspaper insists that the incident showcases the EFCC chairman’s personal vendetta against it after a recent investigative report that allegedly traced an expensive property to the chairman’s wife. In a statement released by the newspaper, EFCC operatives are accused of subjecting The Sun’s staff to “crude intimidation, psychological and emotional trauma, even as some of the men accused our organization of publishing pro-Biafra, Boko Haram and Niger Delta militant stories, as they surveyed our premises”, accusations the EFCC has denied. The Media Foundation for West Africa (MWFA) as well as the Nigeria Union of Journalists (NUJ) condemned, in the strongest terms, the use of armed men to carry out an inspection of The Sun's facilities.
On 3rd July 2017, a Lagos State High Court judge presiding over a case ordered all journalists to leave the courtroom in the middle of a hearing. The judge’s directive followed a complaint by the State Counsel that journalists presented a bias in their coverage of the case proceedings. The counsel outright accused journalists of being sponsored by those pressing charges to fight the government.
On 2nd April 2017, the Dean of Students Affairs at the University of Lagos (UNILAG) ordered the arrest and detention of thirteen students for staging a protest over the suspension of their visually-impaired colleague. The students were accused of violating the Criminal Law of Lagos State of unlawful invasion and disruption of criminal activities by storming the Lagos-based television station, Television Continental (TVC). Although the management of TVC denied the police’s accusations, the students were only released one week later, and after allegedly being tortured by prison guards.
On 18th April, members of the Islamic Movement of Nigeria (IMN) staged a series of protests across northern Nigeria to demand the immediate release of their revered leader, Sheikh Ibrahim Zakzaky, who remains in detention despite a court order for his release. The protest in Kaduna state started out peacefully but quickly turned violent as police opened fire on the crowd, injuring one woman. Human rights groups, such as Human Rights Watch (HRW), have criticised the government in Abuja over the crackdown on Zakzaky's followers. They say nearly 350 IMN members have been killed in army raids of Shia gatherings over the past year. On 16th August 2017, the members of the IMN peacefully carried out another protest, still calling for the immediate and unconditional release of their leader.
On 30th May 2017, the two main secessionist groups, Indigenous People of Biafra (IPOB) and the Movement for the Actualization of the Sovereign State of Biafra (MASSOB), successfully embarked on a peaceful sit at home in the southeastern region of Nigeria to mark the 50th anniversary of the Biafra independence declaration that resulted in a bloody civil war. This order was fully complied with by citizens of the five states, thus paralysing economic activities, as only police and military personnel were seen parading the streets.
In an attempt to forcefully suppress protest actions in southeastern Nigeria, including in five Igbo land states - Abia, Anambra, Ebonyi, Enugu and Imo - on 9th September, the Nigerian Army announced the start of a military operation Python Dance II. Barely 24 hours after the military's announcement, the Nigeria Army allegedly invaded the home of the IPOB leader Nnamdi Kanu. According to the group’s spokesperson, Emma Powerful, about five youth were killed and about 30 were injured during the invasion. Meanwhile, the Nigerian Army has denied attacking Kanu’s home but admitted that it fired warning shots to disperse "hoodlums" (Pro-Biafra youths) after being allegedly blocked from entering the FMC-World Bank road in Umuahia.
Residents of southeastern Nigeria have condemned the incessant physical intimidation, attacks and harassment by the armed security forces and have called on the military to respect the constitutional rights of the citizens residing in all regions of Nigeria, namely the fundamental rights as enshrined in chapter four, section 40 of the Constitution of 1999 (as amended) which states that “every person shall be entitled to assemble freely and associate with other persons, and in particular he may form or belong to any political party, trade union or any other association for the protection of his interests”.
On 8th August 2017, during a protest in Abuja calling for ailing President Buhari to “resume or resign”, a Silverbird reporter, his cameraman and Nigerian Veteran musician, Charley Boy, were assaulted by the police for taking the protest to a sensitive area, such as the largest market in town, and were further accused of “ethnicizing the protest”. After beating the journalists, the police officers snatched their camera and deleted its contents. The incident has been widely condemned by the press and civil society in the country and the International Press Centre (IPC) called for a public apology from the assailants and urged the Inspector General of Police to investigate the assault and take necessary actions.