A group of civic groups under the aegis of the Action Group on Free Civic Space (AGFCS) in Nigeria has expressed worry over the decline in the constitutionally-protected rights enjoyed by Nigerians, with persistent clampdown by the government on people expressing the rights.
The groups expressed this at a press conference in Lagos, in commemoration of the one-year anniversary of the #EndSARS protests.
The AGFCS said it has observed an increase in the gagging of civic space and clampdown on civic actors after the #EndSARS protests.
“If there was anything beyond the nauseating horror of police violence that the flood of protests exposed last year, it is indeed the frightening reality that constitutionally protected rights and civil liberties once enjoyed by Nigerians have deteriorated to the lowest points.
“As of today, the digital www.closingspaces.org – records an alarming number of 435 incidents of crackdowns on civic actors and Nigeria’s civic space with vicious attacks directed at freedom of expression, association, and assembly, and most significantly in recent times, media and digital rights,” the groups said.
Victoria Ibezim-Ohaeri, the executive director of Spaces for Change (S4C), said incident tracking of closing spaces has showed increasing number of crackdowns on civic space and actors.
“We compared the crackdowns we saw before #EndSARS and after #EndSARS. We saw that the governmental energy and power which was used to clamp down on activities on organised descent has quadrupled. That is to say of we were seeing an average of three per month, we are now seeing 15, that is very high.
“EndSARS instilled fear on the government, it made them release that people understand the capacity and depth of their power and they are willing to use it. All the trends we are seeing are attempts by the government to push back and limit the ability of the people to use their power,” she said.
AGFCS, in its findings, revealed that Nigeria has progressed into a dangerous era of “digital unfreedom” unmatched by any period in the history in her democratic journey.
“This much we have seen with consistent censorship of internet and media freedoms in the country, the unconstitutional ban of Twitter, and many draconian policies aimed at gagging the press.
“Perhaps, a more troubling knowledge is the fact that Nigeria has now become a surveillance state judging from its misuse of digital laws, technologies, and importation of sophisticated hacking tools to arbitrarily intercept communications of targeted civic actors, illegally monitor opposition voices in government, silence dissent and generally restrict people’s right of the expression and access to information, especially on cyberspaces,” the groups said.
AGFCS urged the Nigerian government to distance itself from “undemocratic attempts to oppress individuals, activists, dissenting voices and civil societies when they speak up.
Attacks on protesters
The civic groups also condemned the “brutal attacks” on peaceful protesters who were clamouring for a change in the policing system, especially on the night of October 20 last year at Lekki Tollgate.
“What is most worrying is that one year later, despite overwhelming evidence gathered from earlier on ground investigations, video footage, eyewitness testimonies, hospital reports, and most recently forensic reports that Nigerian security forces opened fire on protestors, no one has been held accountable.
“We hereby demand the immediate arrest and speedy prosecution of every person responsible for perpetrating the horrid crime of police brutality in Nigeria and most importantly, the murderous attacks of October 20, 2020,” the groups said.
Lucas Koyejo, the south-west coordinator of the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC), said the anniversary of the #EndSARS protest provides an opportunity to reflect on what the movement means to the public, police and to the Nigerian government.
“The protest has a lot of positive impacts, it was a wake-up call to the governed, the government, and the police, especially the five points demand of the protesters were accepted by the police,” he said.
Mr Koyejo added that the judicial panels set up in different states have heard lots of cases of police brutality and brought succour to some of the victims.
Okechukwu Nwanguma, the executive director of Rule of Law and Accountability Advocacy Centre (RULAAC), said the pattern of abuse that sparked #EndSARS still continues.
“It will seem like the police began to operate with animosity. Fundamentally, nothing has changed in terms of the way the police are behaving.
“Security operatives have continued to criminalise and brutalise protestors, engage in extra-judicial killings and offensive shoot-on-sight rhetoric despite the passionate marches against police brutality last year,” he said.
The AGFCS urged the Nigerian government to recommit to its sacred trust of duty by upholding the rights, dignity, freedoms, and well-being of every Nigerian above all parochial interests.
The group added that it will continue to stand in firm solidarity with victims and survivors of police brutality and other heinous crimes against humanity in Nigeria.
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