West Africa: Rights defenders in Nigeria, across West Africa, continue to face harassment and arrests

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Research by Green Advocates International and the Mano River Union Natural Rights and Civil Society Governance Platform has ranked Nigeria among countries in Africa where human rights defenders have harrowing experiences, including intimidation and arrests perpetrated by the state and multinational corporations.

Titled: Securing the Firewall and Connecting the Unconnected: Frontline Defenders Across West Africa Final Baseline Report, the research, conducted in mid-2020 and early 2021, was launched yesterday (June 30, 2022) at an honored virtual occasion by the United National Special Rapporteur on Human Rights and the Environment, Professor David Boyd and Mr. Ed O’Donovan, Special Adviser to Mary Lawlor, United Nations Special Rapporteur on HRDs whose remarks focused on the measures put in place to ensure the protection of defenders during COP 27 in Egypt.

Among the issues Nigeria has been flagged for are sedition laws that journalists or activists who speak out on issues such as corruption through journalism face, criminal libel and charges of publishing fake news. Journalists are also publicly harassed and many are arrested. The cases of Uthman Abubakar of the Daily Trust and journalist Ibrahim Sawab who were detained and charged with publishing classified information were cited. Abubakar was held for two days without charge.

The setbacks of activist Omoyele Sowore, a HRD who organizes around electoral corruption, were also cited. Sowore was arrested for allegedly threatening public safety with his call to protest. He was later charged with treason, money laundering and cyberstalking. Cyberstalking was included in the Cybercrime Act 2015 although it was not considered to be well defined.

The report notes that although Nigeria’s Freedom of Information Act 2011 was designed to facilitate access to public records, the Nigerian government generally refuses to release any information sought.

It further notes that “political unrest due to corruption and instability caused by extremist groups have contributed to creating a dangerous environment for HRDs. The most recent election involved postponement of the vote, deprivation of voters’ suffrage and delays at polling stations, a lack of , and violence and intimidation In addition to corruption within the electoral process, the government is also notorious for industry-related corruption oil “

Besides Nigeria, 15 other West African countries where HRDs face challenges include Benin, Burkina Faso, Cape Verde, Côte d’Ivoire, Gambia, Ghana and Guinea. The others are Guinea-Bissau, Liberia, Mali, Mauritania, Niger, Senegal, Sierra Leone and Togo. Equatorial Guinea, although not part of West Africa, is included in this study due to the extreme challenge defenders face.

In Senegal, human rights defenders are going through a difficult time due to a press code introduced by the government which has increased penalties for defamation charges, given authorities the power to shut down media outlets without judicial oversight and allowed the government to block publications deemed “contrary”. to good morals.'” These feature in the 2017 Press Code. A new 2018 Electronic Communications Code could also be used to stifle free speech. The code allows traffic management to be imposed on Internet usage and to slow down or completely deny access to certain websites.

Freedom of assembly is also stifled by requirements for prior government approval of protests. HRDs who violate this law can be fined and sentenced to three years in prison, while those who organize unauthorized gatherings can be sentenced to five years in prison. Twelve HRDs in 2015 were jailed for 21 days for participating in a banned protest. During the 2012 elections, a temporary ban on all public demonstrations was ordered.

In Togo, after the death of President Gnassingbé Eyadéma – the longest-serving president in 2005 – his son took over the presidency with the support of the army through fraudulent elections. In 2017, HRDs, relying heavily on internet organizing and protests, demanded that the president restore term limits. In response to this call to end corruption, the government shut down the internet for nine days. The following year, the government passed a new cybersecurity law that criminalizes the publication of false statements and “moral breaches”. The law also authorizes electronic surveillance. HRDs scored a small victory when a 2019 law was passed reinstating presidential term limits, although not retroactively.

In Sierra Leone, HRDs working on land rights and mining find it extremely dangerous to confront multinationals. Six members of the Association of Owners and Users of Malen were arrested in 2014 after they peacefully tried to prevent land grabbing by a Belgian company. The HRDs were released two years later after trials on arbitrary charges. In 2010, Kadiatu Koroma miscarried when she was beaten and raped while protesting a mining company’s intrusion into her community’s land.

Two years later, police fired on villagers near Bumbuna who were protesting the same company’s encroachment on their land. One person was killed. These circumstances are caused by a lack of government regulation of international investors threatening property rights. In 2019, police clashed with residents contesting a palm oil business in Pujehun district, resulting in two deaths.

Disturbing trends in the region include wanton killings, retaliatory attacks, stigmatization, arbitrary arrests and imprisonment, frivolous accusations, unfair trials and increased government surveillance of defenders with little or no visibility given to their stories.

The report refers to a press release, the latest Global Witness Report, a leading human rights watchdog, which documents the killings of at least 212 defenders, without mentioning the numerous killings that allegedly took place in the sub- region.

To ensure an adequate capture of the violations they face, the main methods used to obtain the information captured in the report were semi-structured interviews which were supplemented by an in-depth desk study. A number of interviews were also conducted with people from organizations that support the work of HRDs in the region.

In late 2020 and early 2021, Green Advocates International and the MRU CSO platform launched the assessment with support from the Open Society Initiative.

The launch of the baseline assessment report comes after the document was validated by advocates and international actors in March 2021. The conference notably endorsed recommendations calling for the enactment of a treaty on environmental rights at the scale of Africa on the model of the Escazu agreement in Latin America. and the creation of a documentation system to track and report attacks against human rights defenders in West Africa.

In its recommendations, African governments are encouraged to create HRD-specific legislation that includes an enforcement mechanism including clarifying the cybercrime law to ensure it does not target HRDs, repeal or review of the Public Order Act which eliminates the violation by law of the right to assembly and ensure that mechanisms are in place to hold the police accountable for extrajudicial violations.

Green Advocates International campaign manager and report co-author Alfred Brownell, who is also an associate research professor at Northeastern University School of Law, described the baseline assessment study as “a significant development in the fight to protect, defend and raise the profile of frontline defenders across West Africa and the world.

Jakpor works with Corporate Accountability and Public Participation Africa

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