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A cohort of civil society groups and some concerned Nigerians have written the National Assembly to demand legislative action that would protect electoral integrity, and address shrinking civic and media space in the country.

The cohort comprises Partners for Electoral Reform, Youth Initiative for Advocacy, Growth and Advancement (YIAGA Africa), Premium Times Centre for Investigative Journalism (PTCIJ), 43 other civil society groups and twelve rights activists including popular actress Dorothy Njemanze.

In a letter dated December 16 to the spokesperson of the Senate, Godiya Akwashiki, the group expressed deep concern for a proliferative breakdown of democratic processes if not addressed imminently by the legislature.

“As representatives of the people, we wish to express our deep concern with the following issues that could potentially imperil our two decades of democracy, if not addressed through legislative actions,” the letter read.

The issues referenced are flawed election and election violence; shrinking space for engagement; and assault on press freedom and civic advocacy.

Flawed elections

The group noted that despite some successes recorded in reforming the electoral process in recent times, there are still flaws in elections being held in the country

Citing the case of the twin elections held in Kogi and Bayelsa states in November, it said its findings showed a decline in the quality and integrity of elections “due to the high level of electoral manipulation, a deepening culture of impunity, and violence.”

PREMIUM TIMES reported how the two elections were characterised by electoral malpractices and violence which led to loss of lives.

It said only further legislative action would improve the nation’s electoral system and build citizens’ confidence and trust in the process.

“We fear that if urgent steps are not taken to fix identified areas in need of reform, we risk the prospect of reversing the gains of twenty years of democratic practice in the country,” it said.

Shrinking civic space and attack on press freedom

The group also accused the National Assembly of considering laws that threaten “constitutionally guaranteed rights of the people, including freedom of expression, and peaceful assembly and association.”

“This has created an atmosphere of fear and apprehension, thereby undermining the capacity of citizens to effectively engage in the democratic and governance process.

“Bills like the Protection from Internet

Falsehood and Manipulation Bill (‘Social Media Bill’), Independent National Commission for the Prohibition of Hate Speeches Bill (‘Hate Speech Bill’), and NGO Regulation Bill, each containing provisions that undermine citizens’ constitutional rights, as noted earlier, and taints our democratic credentials,” it said.

Many Nigerians have called for the dismissal of the bills.

The group was not the first to point out the government’s attempts to stifle the civic space.

A recent global index report by a coalition of civil society groups, CIVICUS, said Nigeria slipped from being an “obstructed” nation in 2018 to a “repressed” nation — the second-worst rating a country can have – in 2019 because of her shrinking democratic freedom.

Also, PREMIUM TIMES reported how human rights activists had been in and out of prison for showing displeasure over misgovernance in Nigeria.

The group also bemoaned the deluge of ‘illegal’ arrests of journalists and civic activists, as well as the unlawful and coordinated attacks on journalists and media organisations by state institutions, describing it as undermining “the media as vanguards of transparency and accountability. ”

Using the Cybercrime Act and Terrorism (Prevention) (Amendment) Act 2013, several journalists and rights activists had been detained for condemning bad governance.

Two of such are a journalist, Jones Abiri, and Omoyele Sowore, the publisher of Sahara Reporters.

Mr Abiri was first held without trial for two years before he was finally arraigned for terrorism, sabotage and cybercrime.

Also, Mr Sowore, the publisher of Sahara Reporters, who called for #RevolutionNow protests, was arrested for planning protests to call for good governance in the country.

Court orders to release him have been ignored by the authorities.

A Call for Action

The group noted the legislators’ commitment to use the instrumentality of legislative governance to address the myriad of challenges threatening Nigeria’s national growth and development, such as insecurity, poor economic growth, poverty, weak institutions, and corruption; thus its call for action.

It said the ‘cordial relationship’ between the 9th National Assembly and the executive should “present a unique opportunity to leave a lasting legacy of passing high impact legislations that reflect the will of the Nigerian people, expands the democratic space, and foster national cohesion.”

It called on the 9th Assembly to salvage Nigeria’s democracy through bills, motions, and legislative advocacy on electoral legal framework to protect the integrity of elections, strengthen electoral institutions, and safeguard citizens’ participation in the electoral process.

“Expand the civic and democratic space by upholding constitutional rights and halting further consideration of legislation like the NGO, Social Media, and Hate Speech Bills that restrict essential freedoms guaranteed to all Nigerians under the constitution.

“Increase protection of journalists and media organizations, as well as secure the release of journalists and civic activists who are currently detained, unlawfully, by various security agencies,” it urged.

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