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People hold banners and flags as they protest against police brutality in Lagos, Nigeria, Monday Oct. 19, 2020. © AP Photo/Sunday Alamba

(Abuja) – Nigerian authorities appear to have used coercive financial measures to suppress protests against police brutality and independent media reporting, Human Rights Watch said today. The authorities should urgently lift arbitrary restrictions, including unblocking bank accounts of protest supporters, dismissing or reimbursing arbitrary fines, and investigating and appropriately disciplining officials responsible for any abuse of authority.

Days after nationwide protests over an abusive police unit began on October 8, 2020, people interviewed told Human Rights Watch, the Central Bank of Nigeria instructed private banks to freeze several organizations’ and individuals’ accounts to stop the flow of funds supporting the protests. The National Broadcasting Commission, the state-run television and radio regulator, has fined three independent television stations that reported on the violent security force response to protests, using footage posted on social media that the commission claims were unverified and contributed to the violence.

“Any attempts to suppress legitimate protests and genuine calls for accountability by arbitrarily blocking funds would be a gross abuse of power,” said Anietie Ewang, Nigeria researcher at Human Rights Watch. “Such action would indicate a wider problem of malfeasance and impunity that threaten democracy, human rights, and fundamental freedoms.”

Security forces have responded with excessive force to the protests calling on the authorities to abolish an abusive police unit called the Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS) and end police brutality, tagged EndSARS. Security forces fired teargas, water cannons, and live ammunition at protesters. On October 20, viral social media footage showed men dressed in military fatigues shooting at protesters in Lagos, sparking international outrage and condemnation. There have been credible reports of several deaths as a result of the shootings, which Human Rights Watch is investigating.

Human Rights Watch interviewed seven people on telephone and secure messaging apps between October 23 and 27, including representatives of three organizations and two individuals whose accounts were frozen after receiving or disbursing funds related to the protests. Human Rights Watch also interviewed one protest organizer in Lagos who said he and other organizers had received reports from over 10 vendors and donors whose bank accounts were blocked after receiving or donating money to support the protests.

Those affected said their bank accounts were frozen without any prior notice or legal proceedings, and in all cases bank staff had said that the restrictions were based on Central Bank directives. Bank staff told at least four people that the directive was related to transaction records that included references to EndSARS.

At the onset of the protests on October 8, a civil society group known as the Feminist Coalition began receiving donations to support protests through a fund set up by a Nigerian online payment processing company, Flutterwave. During the first several days, the fund had raised about 25 million Naira (about US$55,000). The payment link for the fund became inoperative on October 13, and media reports said it was to block funding channels for the protests.

Media also reported that the payment platform had been temporarily suspended to prevent the illicit flow of funds. This led to an outcry on Twitter with the hashtag #IstandwithFlutterwave. The company claimed, however, that their services were fully operational and the payment link was inoperative due to maintenance, raising questions about the timing of the maintenance operation.

The link remained inactive until October 22, when the Feminist Coalition announced that it would no longer accept funds. Media reported that the Naira bank account used by the Coalition to receive donations was also blocked on October 13. The Coalition had stated in a tweet that was later deleted that it was under attack, with its bank account blocked, Flutterwave link deactivated, and coalition members threatened.

Adewunmi Emoruwa of Gatefield, a Nigerian public strategy and communications firm, told Human Rights Watch that when the protests began, Gatefield said it would provide financial support for independent journalists and citizens to document the protests, through an existing initiative called Gatefield Impact. The initiative is aimed at supporting independent journalism in Nigeria, and receives funds to support the effort from others, including the Feminist Coalition.

As of October 15, Gatefield had disbursed funds to 23 journalists and sent airtime for phone internet access to about 100 people documenting the protests out of a total of about 30 journalists and 260 other people it planned to support. On the same day, the staff handling the payments realized that they could no longer carry out transactions from the Gatefield Impact bank account, which had been operational for seven years.

When they contacted the bank to ask why the transactions – which all referenced EndSARS in the payment records – were not being processed, bank officers told them they were carrying out a random internal compliance review and asked the organization to submit a number of documents to update their records. The account remained blocked even after the documents were provided the following day.

Gatefield tried to use other bank accounts, but by October 16, Gatefield’s three accounts had all been blocked. Bank officials said the action was based on Central Bank instructions. After Gatefield’s lawyer threatened to sue the bank in an October 23 letter, the bank unblocked all except the Gatefield Impact account. It sent a letter, on file with Human Rights Watch, to Gatefield’s lawyer, stating that the account was restricted at the request and directive of the Central Bank in exercise of its regulatory powers. The account remains restricted.

Nigeria’s Banks and Other Financial Institutions Law appears to require the Central Bank governor to obtain a court order stating that the account’s transactions may involve the commission of a criminal offense to freeze any account.

The Central Bank, in what appears to be an attempt to belatedly justify its actions, obtained a court order on November 5 directing five banks to freeze twenty bank accounts, including that of Gatefield and other people Human Rights Watch interviewed whose accounts were frozen, for a period of three months. The application for the court order, on file with Human Rights Watch, was filed on October 20, several days after the accounts were frozen, on the vague basis that the bank accounts are “under investigation,” without providing details on any specific alleged offenses. Other documents supporting the Central Bank’s application state that the account holders are suspected to be involved in “terrorism financing via their bank accounts.”

On October 26, the broadcast regulator announced it had fined three independent television stations for allegedly sharing “footages obtained from unverifiable and unauthenticated social media sources,” which it claimed “stimulated anger and heightened violence.” The fines ranged between 2 million (about $5,200) and 3 million naira (about $7,800) for each station. The regulator said the stations violated provisions in the broadcasting code that make broadcasters responsible for verifying materials, including from social media, before airing them.

Two representatives from one of the television stations told Human Rights Watch that the regulator did not give the station prior notice or any opportunity to provide information on their fact checking process before announcing the fine. “The statement issued by the NBC is the very first we heard of it, and we don’t know how they arrived at this conclusion that we should be fined,” said one staff member.

The NBC had warned on October 20 that broadcasters must “perform the role of a peace agent” in reporting on the protests and must “use materials carefully in order not to embarrass individuals, organizations, government … or incite violence.”

When the regulating agency is investigating a complaint against a broadcaster, the Nigeria Broadcasting Code requires it to inform the broadcaster and request a response in writing, among other measures. In a statement on October 27, the Broadcasting Organization of Nigeria, a coalition of public and private broadcasters, rejected the fines against the television stations and said that the agency should follow due process by first issuing a formal query to each of the stations involved and giving them an opportunity to defend themselves.

On November 9, Human Rights Watch shared the findings of its research with the Central Bank of Nigeria and the Nigerian Broadcast Commission, requesting a response, but at time of writing has not received a response.

“Any restrictions on bank accounts and media outlets for their activities related to recent protests appear to be not only arbitrary and illegal but would also run afoul of the government’s stated commitment to reform and accountability,” Ewang said. “The authorities should immediately remove all punitive financial measures that appear to have been placed on individuals or organizations simply for providing information or supporting people exercising their fundamental rights.”

For more details on the recent protests and restrictions, please see below.

SARS, and the EndSARS Protests

The Nigerian police force has a long history of unethical, corrupt, and criminal conduct. Its Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS) is especially notorious for brutality against citizens. The squad was formed in 1992 as a special police unit to combat armed robbery and other violent crimes. It has, however, repeatedly been accused of committing the crimes it was created to respond to, and its members have been implicated in widespread human rights abuses, including extrajudicial killings, torture, arbitrary arrests, unlawful detention, extortion, and sexual violence.

Nigerians have said they believe that the unit has deliberately profiled and targeted young people, especially those with tattoos, dreadlocks, and visible possessions such as phones and laptops. A report by Amnesty International said the victims are predominantly male, ages 18 to 35.

In December 2017, Nigerian citizens began a social media campaign tagged #EndSARS to document physical abuse and extortion by SARS officers. They also called for disbanding the squad. That month, the police Inspector General announced plans to reorganize SARS units.

Following widespread complaints and renewed outcry on social media against SARS, in August 2018 Nigeria’s vice president and then-acting president ordered an immediate reorganization of SARS to ensure that officers strictly adhere to the rule of law and respect human rights. He also directed the National Human Rights Commission to set up a judicial panel to investigate the squad’s activities.

The police also announced reform measures to ensure accountability for alleged abuses by SARS officers, including by centralizing SARS operations at the federal command, which led to the squad changing its name to the Federal Special Anti-Robbery Squad (FSARS). High-ranking police officers were appointed to supervise its operations, which were restricted to responding to reports of armed robbery and kidnapping.

After holding public hearings across Nigeria’s six geopolitical zones, the Judicial Panel of Inquiry – which the National Human Rights Commission created in 2018 to investigate SARS activities – presented its findings and recommendations to the president in 2019. The panel among other things recommended firing and prosecuting some SARS officers. There is, however, little or no indication that the recommendations were carried out while SARS abuses have continued.

The recent protests were sparked by a video that surfaced online on October 3, allegedly showing a SARS officer shooting a young man in Delta state. This generated an outcry on social media, especially Twitter, where the hashtag #EndSARS began trending globally, and led to protests in over 20 states across Nigeria and in other cities around the world since October 8.

Responding in part to the protesters’ demands, the government announced on October 11 that the SARS unit would be disbanded and that its members would be integrated into other police units following “psychological tests.” SARS is to be replaced by a Special Weapons and Tactical Team. Many protesters and activists raised concerns that the same abusive behavior by former SARS officers would continue, even by a new unit with a different name.

Protesters remained in the streets calling for more far-reaching reforms and critical action to address police brutality, especially in the wake of more brutality and attacks against protesters.

Crackdown on Protest Supporters

According to media reports, the recent protests were organized and carried out largely by young people with no clear leaders. Yet organizations such as the Feminist Coalition played a significant role in supporting the protests. The coalition initially donated funds to support protesters in Lagos, but it soon began receiving donations to support the protests across the country. After its online donation link became inoperative and its Naira bank account was frozen, the coalition began raising funds through bitcoin. The Twitter CEO, Jack Dorsey, endorsed the effort, providing a link for donations, which gave the movement a huge boost.

As of October 22, when it stopped receiving donations, the coalition had raised almost 148 million naira (about $328,000).

From the money raised, and through individuals or groups organizing protests in various states, the coalition was able to provide food, water, health kits, ambulances, and private security, among other support. The coalition also covered the medical bills of injured protesters and organized legal services for those arrested. Many of these services were interrupted or completely cut off due to the account freezes, according to people Human Rights Watch interviewed.

A 28-year-old Nigerian healthcare worker told Human Rights Watch that he noticed his private bank account was blocked two days after he received money to provide medical supplies for the protests in Rivers State. Following inquiries, his bank said the instruction to block his account came from the bank’s head office in Lagos following a directive from the Central Bank. He said that his medical team was then handicapped because they could not access the money they needed to get supplies to respond to emergencies or help people in need of care during the protests, including when protesters in the town of Oyigbo in Rivers State were allegedly injured by security forces and needed an ambulance to reach a hospital.

“Apart from the fact that we could not help people, I have been unable to access my personal funds since the account was blocked,” he said. “That is where I have all my money; I am really stranded right now. I am living off other people, hoping to be able to pay them back once the account is functional again, but I don’t know when that will be.”

An organizer at a protest location in Lagos said that they received several reports from donors who said that their accounts had been blocked after they contributed funds to designated accounts and vendors who had been contracted to provide food, water, and other services to protesters. He said that many vendors running businesses that require access to funds in their accounts had been affected. “We had to rally around to find other ways to pay the vendors directly because we knew how badly their businesses will be affected with their accounts inaccessible,” he said.

A doctor who runs a health technology company and who helped provide medical supplies in about 40 protest locations across various states said that the company’s account was blocked on October 20 for about three days after it made payments to provide an ambulance at a protest location. When he asked the bank why the company could not carry out transactions, an officer told him that the account had been blocked based on instructions from the government because they had carried out transactions related to the EndSARS protests.

“I saw it as part of my civic duty as a healthcare professional to ensure there were medical supplies at the protest where large numbers of people were gathered in case of an emergency,” he said. “It is the human thing to do, and I was shocked that our business was made to suffer for that.”

A protest organizer in Ilorin, Kwara State said that she noticed that her account was blocked on October 17. She had received funds to support the protests on October 10, with a reference to EndSARS in the payment record. After reaching out to the bank several times, her account officer told her that the account was restricted for security reasons. Further interaction with a bank staff member revealed that a directive to freeze her account came from the Central Bank because it was linked to the protests.

The bank account has been blocked since and has caused her great difficulty. “I run a shop where I sell clothes, and that is the only account where I deposit or withdraw funds to stock my shop,” she said. “How can I run my business without access to my bank account? My business is really suffering.”

On October 21, Nigeria’s House of Representatives adopted a resolution urging the Central Bank to remove restrictions on all illegally frozen accounts within seven days, following a motion by a member of the House who stated that the bank had frozen more than 5,000 accounts without due process.

Threats to Media and Free Speech

The fines imposed by the broadcast regulator on Arise Television, Africa Independent Television, and Channels Television follow a pattern in what appears to be a renewed drive by the authorities to muzzle free speech.

In 2019, the Nigerian Broadcasting Commission suspended the broadcast licenses of two subsidiaries of Daar Communications, the African Independent Television (AIT) and Raypower Radio station, providing broad and vague reasons, including that the stations were mainstreaming unedited social media content in their broadcasts. Shortly thereafter, the Department of State Security Services declared a crackdown on social media users for posting materials described as threatening to the country’s peace and stability.

Citizens and civil society groups in the same year spoke out against a proposed law before the National Assembly seeking to regulate engagement on social media. The Social Media Bill would prohibit statements on social media deemed “likely to be prejudicial to national security” and “those which may diminish public confidence” in Nigeria’s government. It proposes punishing these offenses with a fine, a prison sentence of three years, or both, and seeks to allow law enforcement agencies to order internet service providers to disable internet access.

Following the EndSARS protests, Nigeria’s information minister solicited support for a national policy on the use of social media, through a submission before the House of Representatives Committee on Information and National Orientation. He also underscored the need for the government to deploy resources to acquire relevant technology that would allow control of social media platforms, while citing the role social media played in galvanizing the protests.

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