By Angela Atabo

Global Rights, an international Non-Governmental (NGO), advocating for sustainable justice, on Thursday rated civic space engagement and freedom low under Former President Muhammadu Buhari.

Global Rights made this known in a report after carrying out an assessment of the civic space under Former President Muhammadu Buhari to check the level of compliance to the rules during his eight years administration.

According to Mr Ken Henshaw, the Lead Researcher, at a One-day Training for Journalists on the Scorecard Report of the Buhari’s Administration’s Impact on the Civic Space organised by Global Rights; the foundation of any free society is the civic space.

Henshaw said civic space is created by a set of universally-accepted rules, which allow people to organise, participate and communicate with each other freely and without hindrance, and in doing so, influence the political and social structures around them.

He added that a well-protected civic space is the etos of democracy because a robust and protected civic space forms the cornerstone of accountable, responsive democratic governance and stable societies

He said that findings of the scorecard report revealed that during the eight -year term of Buhari’s administration, Nigeria witnessed a notable decline on all frontiers of civic space and basic freedoms.

He said that some notable factors like economic challenges, insecurity, human rights and civic freedoms among others contributed to the shrinking civic space under Buhari.

“In 2022, Nigeria’s civic space ranking stood at “repressed. The Human Rights and Rule of Law Index ranked the country as the 21st worst country in its 2022 index.

“From several bills intended to stifle civil society, to the arbitrary ban on Twitter, to the #EndSARS crisis to profiling and shutting down humanitarian NGOs in the North-East region all challenged the civic space .

“Others are :several infractions on freedom of expression, access to information and press freedoms, to the suppression of a secessionist movement in the South-East region and the quashing of religious freedoms of Shiite adherents of the Islamic Movement of Nigeria in the North.

“Moresom from disrupting opposition political party rallies, to flagrant disregard for the rule of law, in particular, judicial orders; the administration painted Nigeria’s democratic canvas with authoritarian brushes and strokes of impunity. ‘’

Mr Leonard Oragwe, the project’s Senior Researcher , said the report revealed that administration was characterised by auspicious relationship with the media, a frosty relationship with civil society organisations, and a clear desire to control access to information, curtail freedom of expression and monitor how and for what purposes citizens assemble.

Oragwe said that NGOs and media outfits were targeted for performing their duties and there were also several legislative attempts made by the administration with regards to the civic space.

He said that if all the attempts made it into law, it was safe to say Nigeria would have emerged as one of the most repressive democracies globally.

He added that the report also pointed out that in response to the spate of infringements by the Buhari administration, the period witnessed an increase in the number and intensity of organizations working in defence of space and the protection of basic freedoms.

“The Socio-Economic Rights and Accountability Project (SERAP) led 176 Nigerians to the ECOWAS Community Court of Justice, obtaining a ruling against the government’s Twitter ban.

“A class action lawsuit was initiated by Enough is Enough Nigeria against four mobile telecommunications operators in Nigeria, for obstructing access to the messaging platform.

“The plaintiffs in the suit filed a N5 billion claim at the Federal High Court in Lagos. Digital platforms became a battleground for NGOs and activists, where blogger-NGO collaborations thwarted the passage of restrictive social media legislation.’

“The State of Digital Rights Under the Buhari Administration President Buhari’s refusal to sign the Digital Rights and Freedom Bill (HB 490) was one of the defining instances in Nigeria’s discussion of digital rights.’’

Oragwe said that the Bill titled “An Act to provide for the protection of the human rights online, to protect internet users in Nigeria from infringement of their fundamental freedoms and to guarantee the application of human rights for users of digital platforms or digital media and for related matters” was introduced .

He said that wile governmental actions in the eight years under review were largely inimical to the civic space, there are a few positives of note that should not be overlooked.

“Although the initial response to the #EndSars protests of 2020 by the Government was majorly dismissive, the Buhari administration soon realized that the fervour for change within the protesters was not going to abate, without a proper response from the Government.

‘The Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS) was disbanded and when this was seen as nothing but a face-saving measure, the National Economic Council (NEC) proceeded to direct the immediate establishment of State-based Judicial Panels of Inquiry to investigate complaints of police brutality or related extrajudicial

“These panels were set up with the mandate of delivering justice for all victims of the dissolved Special Anti-Robbery Squads (SARS) and other police units.

“Thirty States heeded the call to set up independent panels to investigate alleged human rights abuses committed by the defunct SARS and other units of the Police received around 2,888 petitions. Most of the Panels completed their assignments and made recommendations to the government.’’

He however, said that most of the reports presented to state governments were not released to the public and in instances where they were made public, there has regrettably been a lack of political will to implement them.

“While a lot of focus has rightly been placed on repressive civic space legislations like the Companies and Allied Matters Act 2020, It is also pertinent to mention legislation like the Money Laundering (Prevention and Prohibition) Act, 2022.

“ The operational landscape for Civil Society Organizations (CSOs) in Nigeria saw slight improvements with the enactment of this law. This positive change stemmed from the exclusion of CSOs from the designated nonfinancial business and professions list.’’

Oragwe said that as a result, regulations were adjusted, reducing the reporting frequency for Non-Profit Organisations from a monthly to a quarterly timeline.

He said that some of the recommendations in the report for the present and future administrations,included strengthening of the legislative frameworks ,promoting judicial independence and the rule of law.

They also include: enhancing civil society engagement; promoting media freedom and literacy; building a culture of human rights and civic education; advocating for data protection and privacy; enhancing digital security and literacy.

Others are; Addressing Structural Inequities and Corruption; Engaging the International Community; and Fostering Youth, Women and Persons with Disabilities Participation.

According to Mr Edosa Oviawe,Programme Manager ,Global Rights ,said the research was informed by the fact that it was necessary to learn from the past and chat a positive way forward for this administration.

Oviawe said that so, with support from the Heinrich Boell Foundation,Global Rights decided to undertake an assessment of the impact of President Muhammadu Buhari’s administration on the nation’s civic space.

“This assessment is presented as a scorecard which documents the health or otherwise of Nigeria’s civic space over and confidence in government.

“The report tracks legislative and executive actions between May 2015 to May 2023 that significantly impacted the enjoyment of civic freedoms in Nigeria.

“ We considered it necessary to weigh Buhari’s administration’s track record as a means of creating a historical record of what truly transpired in those years.

“This records will now serve as a baseline that informs strategies and action plans for civic actors in the future as they combat the effects of operating in a repressive and often closed environment.’’

Oviawe said that it was also the sincere hope of Global Rights that the Report would arm citizens with crucial information and context that will inform their choices when they carry out the vital duty of electing their leaders in future.

“This scorecard report is equally important to the press who are vital actors in safeguarding the civic space.

“They will benefit from studying this scorecard as a contextual tool for enriching their analyses of past and current events.

“It will also serve as a pointer on adapting strategies to perform their most essential duty of voicing the thoughts of the citizenry and holding the powerful to account,’’ he said

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