May 30, 2024
Spaces for Change raises alarm over increasing authoritarianism in West Africa
Spaces for Change raises alarm over increasing authoritarianism in West Africa
– By Alison Godswill

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Spaces for Change raises alarm over increasing authoritarianism in West Africa

. calls for free, fair elections, others

By Eyo Nsima

Spaces for Change|S4C, with the support of the Ford Foundation, has launched the report, CIVIC SPACE IN WEST AFRICA: TRENDS, THREATS, AND FUTURES, highlighting increasing authoritarianism in West Africa.

In a statement obtained by The Daily, www.thedaily-ng.com, Executive Director, Spaces for Change, Victoria Ibezim-Ohaeri, maintained that “Specifically derived from the data curated from the Closing Spaces database— www.closingspaces.org, the report maps the trends, drivers, targets, tactics, enablers, and flashpoints of future threats on the civic space in West Africa sub-region.

“Furthermore, it uncovers the tactics popularly used by governments to obstruct the civic space, the groups most targeted, the rights most violated, and the increasing role of non-state actors in creating a hostile environment for civic participation both online and offline.”

Major findings

On the major findings, she stated: “There are five major drivers of future threats to the civic space in West Africa: coups, elections, youth bulge, digital technologies, and insecurity. Persisting bad governance combined with the widespread anger and the political reawakening among large swathes of unemployed youths in West African countries will incite military coups and more protests across the sub-region. The internet will empower tech-savvy youths to organize, mobilize and propel the rise of people power through continuous expansion of the spaces for civic engagement. As insecurity soars in the Sahel region, international terrorism will redraw the lines between external and internal security, emboldening governments to use insecurity as an excuse to curtail civic freedoms.

“Press freedom is under attack across West Africa, signaling a hostile environment for journalists, bloggers, investigative reporters, and the news media to operate freely. Crackdowns on journalists and media outlets were documented in all 16 West African countries, taking mostly the form of arrests, detentions, office raids, brutality, and seizure of journalistic equipment, sanctions and fines on broadcast media, anti-media laws designed to gag the press, hacking of cellphones, etc. The highest number of attacks on press freedom was recorded in Nigeria, Ghana, and Liberia while Cote d’Ivoire (3), Burkina Faso (4), Sierra Leone (2), and Gambia recorded the least infractions.

“Free speech is the right most at risk in the sub-region. Expressing one’s thoughts, especially online, now comes with greater costs and risks. Internet freedom is equally declining, compounded by harsh consequences and fewer protections for free speech while increased use of regulatory and legislative measures to censor free speech and content on online platforms was notably observed mostly in Nigeria, Ghana, and Liberia.

“Significant constraints on assembly and association rights are making it harder and more dangerous to hold governments accountable, particularly in countries like Niger, Nigeria, Benin Republic, and Senegal. Major crackdowns on assembly rights involved the criminalization of protests, dispersal of, and preventing the planning of protests or other organized public gatherings while limitations on association rights have manifested in the form of deregistration, proscription, refusal to register certain groups advancing their collective interests.

“Journalists are disproportionately targeted by repressive practices more than any other group of civic actors. Journalists covering environmental justice issues, the mismanagement of natural resources, and extractive activities are more likely to get into trouble or experience brutality by security operatives in Nigeria, Ghana, and Senegal while long prison terms and huge fines are frequently slammed on journalists and media outlets in Niger, Côte d’Ivoire’, Nigeria and the Benin Republic. Press coverage for classified operations of the police and the military comes at a great cost in Ghana, Cape Verde, Senegal, and Nigeria where the accused persons are often slammed with criminal investigations or criminal charges bordering on “qualified disobedience,”, “violating defense secrecy” and acts ‘inimical to state and national security.”

“Governments across West Africa are increasingly weaponizing anti-terrorism and security laws to repress civil society organizations and restrict access to foreign funding. The meaning of terrorism has been so expanded that any disagreement with state actors—by anyone whatsoever—can be equated with terrorism. “National security” is also used as an excuse for the huge budgetary allocations and investments in surveillance technologies which are often diverted to surveil activists online. State actors invoke anti-terrorism, cyber laws, and data regulations to justify these clampdowns.

“There is a significant involvement of non-state actors—such as armed/proscribed groups, agitators, militants, traditional rulers, cults, terrorists, corporations and gangs—in the narrowing civic space in West Africa, especially in Liberia, Sierra Leone, Nigeria, and Ghana. The activities of non-state actors could be spontaneous, organized, or isolated events that are perpetrated to advance certain political, cultural, and economic interests or the advancement of religious or ethnocentric ideologies.

“The frequency, risks, and nature of the crackdowns on civic actors vary along gender lines. While there has been a significant increase in the number of women participating actively in the spaces for political, media, and civil society, men are almost three times more likely to get into trouble than women. While men suffer greater harm in terms of numbers, women are more vulnerable to attacks than men.

“Judicial mechanisms are ineffective in reining in overreaching state conduct, distorting the system of checks and balances enshrined in national constitutions. The conduct of state executives—especially security operatives—sharply contrasts with the democratic tenets of separation of powers. Judicial functions are usurped by security agents when crackdowns on civil liberties do not end up in the courtrooms, while the democratic space is narrowed when judges handing down decisions that are unfavorable to the executive are subject to reprisals. The usurpation of judicial functions undermines the independence of the judiciary to act without fear or favor, especially when civic freedoms are threatened.”

Recommendations

The report made some recommendations targeted at addressing the issues and challenges, stressing, “Based on the above findings, the report recommended that free and fair elections be conditioned on an open civic space under national and international electoral laws.

“Citizens and civic groups should design and propose legal frameworks and digital tools that assure them of adequate protection from abuse and censorship while expanding their digital skills and access to online resources and networks.

“Laws that confer powers on states to surveil and derogate from human rights need to be revised because they provide the baseline for power grabs and overreaching actions that exceed the limits of prescribed powers.

“Civil society organizations need to adopt new ways of collaborating within and beyond borders, allowing for complementarity of skills and deepening bonds of solidarity in order to maximize strategy, results, and scale of impact.”

Expectation

It also stated: “It is hoped that the findings and recommendations will help to increase civil society’s preparedness and capacity to reclaim closed civic spaces, foresight future threats, and be able to counter them more effectively. This regional trend analysis was undertaken under the auspices of the Ford Foundation-supported Civic Space Resource Hub (CSR-Hub) for West Africa which offers West African civil society organizations operating in restricted environments the levers and resources to enhance their institutional resilience and effectiveness. The Hub is managed by Spaces for Change and West Africa Civil Society Institute (WACSI).”

 

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