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.” (Metrowatch)