Africa water activists resist corporate privatisation as World Bank meets
File: From left: Achike Chude, Vice Chair of Joint Action Front, Aderonke Ige, Associate Director, CAPPA, and Philip Jakpor, Director of Programmes, CAPPA, at the launch of a book on anti-water privatisation.

By Philip Jakpor

Research by the Green Advocates International and the Mano River Union Civil Society Natural Rights and the Governance Platform has listed Nigeria among countries in Africa where human rights defenders experience 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, carried out in mid-2020 and early 2021, was launched yesterday (June 30, 2022) at a virtual occasion graced by the United National Special Rapporteur on Human Rights and the Environment, Professor David Boyd and Mr. Ed O’Donovan, Special Advisor to Mary Lawlor, United Nations Special Rapporteur on HRDs whose remarks focused on measures being put in place to ensure the protection of defenders during COP 27 in Egypt.

Some of the issues for which Nigeria was flagged include sedition laws that journalists or activists who speak out on issues such as corruption through journalism face, criminal defamation, and accusations of publishing false news. Journalists are also publicly harassed, and many are arrested. The cases of Uthman Abubakar of the Daily Trust and reporter Ibrahim Sawab who were detained and accused of publishing classified information were cited. Abubakar was held for two days without charge.

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The travails of activist Omoyele Sowore, an HRD organizing around election corruption, was also cited. Sowore was arrested for allegedly threatening public safety through his call for protests. He was later charged with treason, money laundering, and cyberstalking. Cyberstalking has been included in the Cybercrime Act of 2015 although it has not been considered well defined.

The report noted that though Nigeria’s 2011 Freedom of Information Act was conceived to facilitate access to public records, the Nigerian government usually refuses to release any information sought out.

It further notes, ”Political unrest due to corruption and instability caused by extremist groups has contributed to a dangerous environment for HRDs. The most recent election involved a postponement in voting, disenfranchisement of voters and delays at polling locations, lack of transparency about vote counting, and violence and intimidation. In addition to corruption within the electoral process, the government is also known for its corruption related to the oil industry”

Aside from Nigeria, 15 other West African countries where HRDs face challenges include Benin, Burkina Faso, Cape Verde, Cote d’Ivoire, Gambia, Ghana, and Guinea. 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 because of the extreme challenge defenders face.

In Senegal HRDs are facing tough time due to a Press Code introduced by the government which expanded punishments for defamation charges, gave authorities the power to shut down media outlets without judicial oversight, and enabled the government to block published material deemed to be “‘contrary to morality.’” These are contained in the 2017 Press Code. A new 2018 Code on Electronic Communications could also be used to stifle free speech.  The code allows for the imposition of traffic management on internet usage and the slowing down or complete denial of access to certain websites.

Freedom of assembly is also stifled by requirements for advance government approval of protests.  HRDs who do not adhere to this law can receive a fine and three-year prison sentence, while those who organized unapproved gatherings can receive up to five years imprisonment. Twelve HRDs in 2015 were imprisoned for 21 days for involvement in a banned protest. During the 2012 elections, a temporary ban on all public demonstrations was ordered.

In Togo, after President Gnassingbé Eyadéma — the longest serving president died in 2005 — his son took over the presidency with the support of the military through fraudulent elections. In 2017 HRDs, relying heavily on internet organizing and protests, demanded the President reinstate term limits. In response to this call for an end to corruption, the government shut down the internet for nine days.  The following year the government passed a new cybersecurity law that criminalizes publication of false statements and “breaches of morality.” The law also allows for electronic surveillance. HRDs received a small victory when a 2019 law passed reinstating the presidential term limits, though it is not retroactive.

In Sierra Leone, HRDs working on land rights and mining find it extremely dangerous to confront multinational corporations. Six members of the Malen Landowners and Users Association were arrested in 2014 after peacefully attempting to prevent land grabs by a Belgian company. The HRDs were released two years later after trials on arbitrary charges. In 2010, Kadiatu Koroma suffered a miscarriage when she was beaten and raped while protesting a mining company’s trespassing on her community’s land.

Two years later police fired at villagers near Bumbuna who were protesting the same company’s encroachment onto their land. One person was killed.  These circumstances are brought on by a lack of government regulation of international investors threatening property rights. In 2019 police faced off with residents disputing a palm oil firm in Pujehun District which led to two deaths.

Troubling trends across the region include wanton killings, reprisal attacks, stigmatizations, arbitrary arrests and imprisonments, frivolous charges, unfair trials, and increased government surveillance of defenders with little or no visibility given to their stories.

The report referenced a press release, the latest Global Witness Report, a leading Human Rights monitor, which documents the killings of at least 212 defenders, without a mention of the many killings that are thought to have taken place in the sub-region.

To ensure adequate capture of the violations they face, the main methods that used to obtain information captured in the report were semi-structured interviews which were complemented by an extensive desk review. There were also a select number of interviews done with individuals from organizations who support the work of the HRDs in the region.

In late 2020 and early 2021, Green Advocates International and the MRU CSO Platform embarked upon the assessment with support from the Open society Initiative.

The launch of the Baseline Assessment Report is coming after validation of the document by defenders and international actors in March 2021. The conference among other things endorsed recommendations calling for the enactment of an African-wide environmental rights treaty modeled after the Escazu Agreement in Latin America and the creation of a documentation system to track and report attacks on human rights defenders in West Africa.

In its recommendations, African governments are encouraged to create an HRD-specific law that includes an enforcement mechanism including the clarification of the Cybercrime Act to ensure that it does not target HRDs, repeal or revision of the Public Order Act that eliminates the Act’s infringement of the right to assemble and ensure that mechanisms are put in place to hold police accountable for extrajudicial violations.

The Lead Campaigner of Green Advocates International and a co-author of the report Alfred Brownell, who is also an Associate Research Professor at Northeastern University School of Law, described the Baseline Assessment study as “significant development in the fight to protect, defend and raise the profile of Frontline Grassroots Defenders across West Africa and the World.”

Jakpor works with Corporate Accountability and Public Participation Africa

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