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Spaces for Change | S4C launched a new report, “Civic Space in West Africa: Trends, Threats and Futures” on February 7 under the aegis of the Civic Space Resource Hub (CSR-Hub) for West Africa.  Derived from the 639 incidents of crackdowns on the civic space in 16 West African countries tracked on the Closing Spaces Database between 2016 – 2022, the report maps the trends, drivers, targets, tactics, enablers, and flashpoints of future threats on the civic space in West Africa.   Combining hierarchical modeling, simple aggregation, and per capita analysis as the key methodologies for analyzing the incidents tracked and foresighting future threats, the results showed a massive drift toward authoritarianism across West Africa, resulting in a heavily-constrained operating space for civil society, dwindling tolerance for criticism and the silencing of dissenters.

Following the presentation of findings, the report launch featured a roundtable discussion between the representatives of civil society organizations (CSOs), media, government, and the private sector.   The reactions from stakeholders highlighted four major issues: declining digital rights, gendered attacks on the civic space, human rights knowledge deficits among state actors, and the imperativeness of collaborative problem-solving. On the first issue, 354 of the 639 incidents, representing 64% of incidents involved the suppression of free speech, predominantly those posted online.  West African countries have also increased the use of regulatory and legislative measures to censor free speech, especially online. Togo, Mauritania, Nigeria, Chad, Mali, and Guinea have all restricted access to the internet or certain social media sites in the last 5 years. The observed trends on the repression of digital rights and data privacy provoked a debate regarding the role of the private sector, especially telecommunication companies and tech corporating collecting large amounts of data collectors and operating at the mercy of government regulators.

Furthermore, the attacks on civic space actors, particularly on journalists and activists, vary across gender lines. While men suffer greater harm in terms of numbers, women are more vulnerable to more attacks than men. Women and other vulnerable minorities like the LGBTQ face greater risks online because of their gender, race, or sexual orientation, and are more likely to be victims of cyberbullying, slut-shaming and intimidation on social media than men. Incidents illuminating the gender differentials were recorded in Liberia, Ghana, Nigeria, Burkina Faso, Gambia, Niger etc. The uniformity of the observed trends across West Africa reflects the poor culture of respect for human rights by state actors in the subregion. The gaps between policies and practices widen when the judiciary, security formations, and civic actors lack functional knowledge of the rights enshrined in their own national constitutions and numerous national legislations.

As the incidents tracked on the Closing Spaces Database reveal, no one is spared from the attacks on the civic space, highlighting the need for collaborative problem-solving between CSOs, governments, and the private sector. The CSR-Hub West Africa is an example of such collaboration and resource-sharing among civil society stakeholders in West Africa. Collaborations, however,  should transcend resource-sharing to the harmonization of aspirations and actions in ways that counter common threats and the cross-border copying of bad practices among state governments. Also, non-governmental organizations must find ways to include organized labour, the private sector, and other pressure groups in their advocacy pursuits. Collaborative solutions must prioritize investments in capacity-building for judges, security formations, and citizens.

The finding that journalists are disproportionately impacted by repressive practices also dominated the discussions. Journalists in the room shared instances where they were harassed by members of the Police Force for simply doing their jobs. They encouraged capacity-building for security forces harping on the thick red lines between human rights and abuse of power. Likewise, advocacy to end slut-shaming of women online and offline is equally imperative. Slut-shaming women is an offshoot of the patriarchal systems obtainable in many countries in the sub-region. Therefore, dismantling patriarchal structures and stereotypes are important steps toward keeping women safe in an increasingly repressed civic space.

The conversations ended on two strong notes. First, CSOs must increase their capacity to anticipate risks and attacks on the civic space, necessitating a proactive approach to policy influencing. The database documented numerous incidents of restrictive regulations and legislations aimed at censoring free speech, restricting public assemblies, or regulating NGOs operating in the region. In countries like Nigeria, both the federal and state governments are involved in churning out these repressive laws. Second, activists advocated for the simplification of research findings. That way, interesting research findings will be accessible to all, and inform the formulation of both individual and collective action, within and beyond the region.REPORT LAUNCH: MESSAGES, ARGUMENTS AND RESPONSES 1