A piece by 2016 Tutu Fellow Victoria Ibezim-Ohaeri titled COVID-19 and the shrinking civic space in Nigeria has been published in Just Security. Victoria leads Spaces for Change, which has a focus on defending the civic space. Her piece examines how the coronavirus pandemic is being used as a cover to shrink civic in the name of 'national security'.
Victoria is the founder and director of research and policy at Spaces for Change, a non-profit organization based in Nigeria that conducts research and advocacy that includes a focus on defending the civic space.
With people's attention on public health, what is being missed is the more worrying concern that state actors are exploiting the pandemic to stifle dissent, clamp down on civic freedoms, and push through restrictive measures, using COVID-19 as a pretext.
At the time of publication of the article, the impact of the coronavirus pandemic has been globally significant with more than four million infections and 300 thousand deaths worldwide. Just Security is an internet publication based at the Reiss Center on Law and Security at New York University School of Law. It publishes explanatory and analytic pieces geared toward a broad policy, national and international security, and legal audience, and offers deep dives that examine the nuances of a particular legal issue.
Victoria, a trained lawyer, points out that in Nigeria, mounting evidence shows a deliberate exploitation of the pandemic to accelerate other non-health agendas.This has been similarly seen elsewhere, too. The database of closing civic spaces in Nigeria is replete with records of disease containment measures radically overstretched beyond context and enforced in ways that hurt civic freedoms. Since 2015, the database has tracked and reported only incidents of socio-political and legal restrictions on online and offline spaces for civil society activities in Nigeria and West Africa. On March 31, a COVID-19 focus was added to the database, following spikes in human rights abuses. These include deaths caused by security operatives enforcing a state-mandated coronavirus lockdown.
She says database records show three notable trends in which health emergency powers have been used to close civic space.
The first is the excessive use of force by state agents to enforce the lockdown. Overzealous conduct of security operatives and other task force officials includes torture, assaults, extortion, and fatal shootings, causing numerous deaths.
The second trend shows state executives overreaching their constitutional powers to advance objectives unrelated to disease control. Mimicking a federal directive that ordered a total cessation of all social, economic, and political activities in only the three most affected states and the nation’s capital, several other Nigerian state governors started prohibiting certain media organizations from covering the activities of the presidency and some went as far as issuing shoot-on-sight orders under the mantle of COVID-19.
The third trend has been the use of legal and regulatory tools to legitimize official restrictions on human rights. Since the first coronavirus infections were recorded, more than 16 different state and federal regulations have been hurriedly enacted to justify heavy-handed exemptions from constitutionally-protected rights. In early May, the Nigerian parliament attempted to pass the draconian Control of Infectious Diseases Bill 2020. The bill had clauses that enlarged governmental powers to grant new and over-reaching powers to law enforcement to apprehend anyone who may be suffering from an infectious disease. It also had clauses that breached individual privacy, confidentiality agreements, and doctor-patient data privacy. Clauses also empowered state agents to arbitrarily restrict freedom of association and gatherings and to be able to subjectively arrest without warrant, confiscate and demolish properties, and obtain information from any person or organization without any restraint.
Scores of people have been arrested and prosecuted for failing to comply with conflicting regulations, reinforcing fears of foul play and targeted attacks. Citizens and corporate entities adhering to federal COVID-19 regulations have been found to be acting in contravention of states’ COVID-19 regulations, and vice versa.
Nigeria's track record on restricting civic space under the guise of 'national security' is poor. Victoria says COVID-19 has just provided cover. Long before the country recorded its first case of COVID-19 on February 27, the civic space had already suffered blows from a plethora of vague governmental restrictions framed around 'national security'. From that vagueness springs legal uncertainty and discretionary power so wide, which are often exercised without accountability. Tactics used to suppress human rights organisations and non-profits prior to COVID-19 have been dusted off during the pandemic, along with arrests, detentions and phantom prosecutions, restrictions on internet freedoms, and curtailing rights on free speech. She argues that while it is clear that some extraordinary measures have been necessary during the pandemic, these prior restrictive tactics are being reframed under the banner of 'public health'.
Her organisation, Spaces for Change, has joined several other non-profits, constitutional watchdogs and legal organisations to shift the narrative and assist people, including representing in court people affected by more than 100 human rights violations. Victoria also says young Nigerians are rising to the challenge and using social media to ask critical questions about democracy and governance. Nigerian organisations are also using technology to respond to and confront new threats to the civic space, including closely monitoring, scrutinizing, analyzing and explaining to the public policies and statutory proposals at greater speed.
The full article can be read at the Just Security website. The cover image is from the original article and shows a police officer impounding a scooter for failing to comply with the stay at home order.