By JEREMY PHILIPS
NIGERIA is facing threat of more civil unrest in 2021 as the US adopts a major foreign policy change that will transform civil society organisations into the hub of interactions in pursuit of its strategic interests in the country, signalled by the imminent “alignment with the#EndSARS movement and its call for good governance, democracy and human rights”.
The protests staged by the movement last October were unprecedented in logistics, deployment and support services resulting in record-breaking scale of civil disobedience, destruction of security infrastructure, public and private property, looting and killings that fuelled speculations of a foreign-funded attempted coup.
There has been increased advocacy for such a foreign policy shift among leading US think-tanks and lobbyists led by the US Center for Strategic and International Studies, CSIS, ranked number one think-tank, and bipartisan organisation that “ strives to define the future of national security” and Freedom House, another American think- tank devoted to the support and defence of democracy and “embattled human rights defenders” around the world.
Already some prominent civil society groups in Nigeria associated with the EndSARS protests in October last year have recently raised the tempo of their social media agitation, especially on Twitter and attempted to stage new protests over the decision of the Lagos probe panel returning the Lekki Toll Gate to its managers. This follows a categorical declaration by CSIS Africa in a report titled: “What to Watch in Sub-Saharan Africa in 2021”, that “2021 will be a turbulent year for sub-Saharan Africa”.
This was corroborated by another report titled: “Nigeria’s #EndSARS Revolution Shifts Gears”, stating “it is not over” and predicting “more protests” by the EndSARS Movement that is set to evolve during the year into multiple civic education platforms. The US Ambassador, Mary Beth Leonard, has just opened the first “Window on America” community centre at Lekki “where young people develop their ideas as well as their leadership and entrepreneurship skills through programmes and workshops designed especially for them.” She said visitors to the window will “typically include” students, teachers, entrepreneurs, academics, journalists, civic organisations and community leaders, who will access its services, programmes and resources “at no cost”.
In the next few months, 12 more will be opened in major cities across the country, including Abeokuta, Awka, Benin City, Enugu, Osogbo, Uyo, Zaria, Minna, Dutse, Makurdi, Gombe and Lafia, the ambassador disclosed.
The CSIS Africa Programme has been churning out other reports providing rationale for the unfolding change in US foreign policy. A November 2020 memo titled: “Nigeria: Learning from #EndSARS – A New U.S. Policy Toward Nigeria”, dismissed the Trump Administration’s US-Nigeria policy as “inert, ineffective, and lacking a moral compass”.
It identified “a bigger strategic priority” for the Biden Administration in building a strong, values-based relationship with the Nigerian people or “people-to-people diplomacy”, a veiled pointer to ongoing elevation of non-state actors and CSOs as priority partners in pursuit of US interests in Nigeria. It implies a departure from the norm of bilateral government-to-government interactions that will result in pro-US CSOs and activists displacing elected political leaders at all levels of government in interactions for pursuit of US strategic interests.
The report also denounces US cooperation with the Federal Government and the Nigerian Army by casting aspersion and levelling serious allegations referring to the insecurity situation: “judging by their actions, US officials don’t grasp how Nigeria’s government and military perpetuate the crisis for financial and political gain”, adding “turning a blind eye to military corruption, abuses, and humanitarian law violations, Washington has pushed ahead with controversial arms sales and is planning more.”
The report is concluded with brash intimidation of the Nigerian Army by suggesting that soldiers would hesitate from confronting the US-backed EndSARS protesters in future. “The United States should align with the #endsars movement and its call for good governance, democracy, and human rights. perhaps then, the nigerian army would think twice before opening fire,” it said.
Freedom House raised the tone in a March 1, 2021 memo from its Africa Programme titled: “Civil Society Should Be at the Center of Foreign Policy” that decried how “democratic backsliding” was widening the distance between citizens and their governments, imploring the Biden Administration to reconfigure the US engagement with civil society organisations, which are “more authentic representatives of citizen interests than their governments and more aligned with human rights norms”.
It emphasized that civil society increasingly fills the gap that authoritarian drift has created between citizens and governments which have become “so unresponsive and authoritarian that they are beyond transformation”, ominously adding: “Citizen coalitions have been at the forefront of peaceful protest movements that have toppled regimes”.
The memo noted that American diplomats routinely meet with civil society leaders, and US as the “largest funder of civil society organisations globally” is a major source of funding for civil society organisations that “operate in capitals, remote rural regions and everywhere in between”, citing the Obama Administration’s Stand with Civil Society as a good initiative whose “momentum was lost during the Trump presidency”.
Freedom House then pushed for relaxation of US regulations on CSO funding which limit their ability to innovate and set their own agendas, making case for resources to be deployed to support “core funding” for civil society organisations, which they can use to pay operational costs while spending a portion on initiatives driven by their priorities.
The CSIS Africa Programme has also been promoting advocacy discussions among US diplomats and other associates under the theme: “Beyond Strongly-Worded Statements Into Africa” where traditional diplomatic interactions are dismissed as mere rhetoric “that rarely translates into concrete and strategic action”, while raising recommendations for foreign partners and donors in holding autocratic regimes accountable—beyond strongly-worded statements.
Meanwhile, Freedom House, the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), and the McCain Institute have since launched aTask Force on US Strategy to Support Democracy and Counter Authoritarianismthat “endangers U.S. national security and the post-World War II political order”.
In its mission statement, the Taskforce said the situation demands urgent, stronger diplomatic development and security strategies for which it has been convening “a senior-level, bipartisan Task Force of leaders, experts, and former policy makers to develop practical recommendations for a U.S. strategy that places the advance of democracy and the fight against authoritarianism at the heart of American foreign and national security policy.”
Not to be outdone, an international coalition comprising 80 civil society organizations under various US sponsored fronts, many of them in Nigeria, despatched an “Advocacy Letter” dated February 9, 2021 to US Secretary of State, Antony Blinken demanding strengthening US support for “Human Rights Defenders” by elevating the protection of human rights defenders as a U.S. foreign policy priority and commitment to play a global leadership role on this issue as the Biden Administration prepares to re-engage the U.S. government at the United Nations and other multilateral institutions.
Philips, a journalist, wrote from Lagos