HBS: Former military coup leader and now democratically elected president of Nigeria Muhammadu Buhari has described himself as a “converted democrat”. How would you describe the current state of relations between civil society and the Nigerian state?
Eze Onyekpere: When analysing these relations, it is important to distinguish between the different arms and levels of government.
Until recently, the senate considered the so-called Frivolous Petitions Bill. It prescribes stiff penalties for spreading false information through social media and for presenting false petitions. The bill man- dates a petitioner to swear an affidavit either at a federal or a state high court in support of a petition.
While the Chief Justice of Nigeria supported the bill, the executive chose to disassociate itself from it. The Attorney General of the Federation, as the chief law officer of the Federation of Nigeria, also spoke out against the Bill.
Although the feud between the executive, led by Buhari, and the leadership of the National Assembly may have reasons rooted more in power-political struggles between the two than in concerns for civil society, in effect the executive sided with civil society against the Bill.
Eventually strong public opposition led the Senate to retreat. It is not clear, though, whether the Bill has been withdrawn or just stood down to be reintroduced at another opportune time.
However, there now also is a private members bill to regulate NGOs [non-governmental organisations] in the national assembly that has passed second reading in the House of Representatives. The bill, which was introduced by a member of one of the opposition parties, seeks to establish an NGO Regulatory Commission with wide powers to register NGOs or decline registration if it considers their mandate not to be in the national interest. The Commission is to issue two-year renewable operational licenses to NGOs as it deems fit. It also has the power to cancel such a license if the licensee violates the terms and conditions attached to it. NGOs are to submit their annual work plan and budget for approval. Foreign NGO workers need the special per- mission of the Commission to operate in Nigeria; vehicles of NGOs must be branded; donors cannot dispose of project assets at the end of a project, as all assets will be deemed to belong to the Federal Government of Nigeria; whilst the supervising minister can give instructions to the Commission for sanctions against “erring” NGOs. The Commission is to develop a code of conduct for NGOs relating to funding, foreign affiliations, national security, etc. Offences are created with various degrees of sanctions.
Neither the president nor the ruling party has expressed an opinion on the Bill. Thus, the position of government is unclear at this stage.
You just mentioned the need to distinguish between the different levels of government. What are the particular challenges at state level and how do they differ from national level?
State-level governance is less transparent and open compared to the federal government. Many of the states have not passed freedom of information laws, as there is legal controversy over whether the federal Freedom of Information Act applies to states. Essentially, information for in-depth engagement by civil society is not available at the state level. Also, state governors are generally less tolerant of criticism and opposition. Some activists have been hounded with frivolous charges in the courts.
Apart from legislation that would have a direct negative impact on how NGOs can operate, what are some of the other challenges civil society faces in terms of the law?
There are a number of legislative acts that, in theory, should assist civil society organisations and the public at large to hold government to account. In practice, however, these are not always enforced or are used to frustrate the work of NGOs.
In 2011, Nigeria enacted a Freedom of Information Act which sought to liberalise access to public records and information. The Act allows access to public records and information to the extent consistent with public interest and the protection of personal privacy. It also protects serving public officers from adverse consequences for dis- closing certain types of official information permitted by the Act.
However, the experience of government’s response to freedom of information requests is mixed. Whilst a few agencies are ready and willing to provide information as contemplated in the Act, others prefer long costly litigation to wear out the petitioners.
Another example is budgeting and fiscal transparency. There is a wide gap between the provisions of the law and what actually happens. The Fiscal Responsibility Act enjoins the minister of finance in the preparation of the medium-term expenditure framework to hold public consultation on the macroeconomic framework, the fiscal strategy paper, the revenue and expenditure framework, and the strategic social, economic and developmental priorities of government. Such consultation is to be open to the public, the press, and any citizen or authorised representative of any group of citizens who may want to attend and be heard on the subject matter. However, since 2007 when the Act was enacted, consultations have been held only thrice – and none in the last three years.
Buhari was elected on the promise that he would ensure peace and stability. How has the volatile security situation in parts of the country impacted on civic–state relations?
The federal government treats civil society groupings that it considers threats to national security with a heavy hand. The testimonies coming out of the panel of enquiry looking into the clashes between Shiites and the army in 2015 are frightening. Between 12 and 14 December 2015, hundreds of supporters of the Islamic Movement of Nigeria based in Zaria, Kaduna State were killed extra-judicially by the military authorities.
More troubling is the fact that federal government has refused to prosecute the military officials indicted in the massacre.
Government has also responded disproportionately to campaigners demanding sovereignty for Biafra state. Rallies and demonstrations by unarmed agitators are dispersed with maximum force, using live bullets. This is against the professional rules of engagement of both the military and the police in Nigeria. President Muhammadu Buhari has said that Nigeria’s unity is not negotiable and that those who agitate for Biafra seem to re-open a case that was settled during the Nigerian civil war. He therefore forecloses any dialogue or meaningful engagement with the group.
Another big promise of Buhari was to stamp out corruption. Have there been any negative side effects by his anti-corruption war on civil rights thus far?
The right to personal liberty is part of the constitutional fundamental rights. Generally, arrest and detention should not exceed 48 hours for offences that do not attract capital punishment. The state is enjoined to do its investigation properly before effecting arrest so that suspects can be charged in court as soon as they are taken in. The Administration of Criminal Justice Act seems to have liberalised detention with- out trial over a long period of time totalling 42 days – three consecutive tranches of the 14 days in detention currently provided for under the Act. The offences where the law enforcement agents have used this are all bailable offences. As of now, it is mostly used in corruption cases but there is nothing in the law indicating it cannot be used for other alleged offences. This looks like a throwback to the era of legalised detention without trial as practiced by the former military governments. And there is the fear that critics of government may be held on trumped-up charges under this law in the future.
Looking into the future, how do you see the space for civic engagement in Nigeria developing?
Nigeria has a vibrant civil society and there seems to be no government-wide consensus on how to abridge this vibrancy. Attempts have been made in the past to shrink the space but the attempts were not properly coordinated. The current legislative attempt to circumscribe NGO work needs to be confronted head-on by civil society. It should be fought to a standstill, as existing laws are enough to deal with whatever challenges there may be in the sector. Vigilance and proactive action is imperative, whilst we need to continue expanding and expounding the frontiers of the existing space. At the level of individual states, the space is more closed when compared to the federal level. It is therefore especially at the state level where the push for more openness needs to be intensified.
Eze Onyekpere is the director of the Centre for Social Justice in Abuja, Nigeria. He has led a wide range of civil society interventions, including on improving fiscal governance, financial reform and sustainable access to energy. Eze is a columnist for The Punch newspaper and served on the editorial board of Independent Newspapers.
This article was first published in Perspectives magazine by the Heinrich Boll Foundation