[Accra – 30 May 2022] The West Africa Civil Society Institute (WACSI) joins several civil society organisations in West Africa to commend progress made by Nigeria in the protection of civil society organisations (CSOs) from obnoxious restrictive anti-money laundering laws and creating an enabling environment for civic freedoms and civil society operations.
President Muhammadu Buhari, on 12 May 2022, signed into law, three bills: the Money Laundering (Prevention and Prohibition) Bill, 2022, the Terrorism (Prevention and Prohibition) Bill, 2022, and the Proceeds of Crime (Recovery and Management) Bill, 2022. The new anti-money laundering law, following amendments of earlier versions of the bill, effectively removed nonprofit organisations from its definition of designated non-financial institutions (DNFIs), following years of advocacy and constructive engagement with policymakers and technical agencies responsible for implementing anti-money laundering and countering terrorism financing (AML-CTF) regimes including those led by colleagues at Spaces for Change. This represents an important win for civil society’s fight to protect civic space and, “…demonstrates the country’s ability to focus on its state-building priorities and is an opportunity to improve civic space”, as noted by the Nigeria Network of NGOs (NNNGOs) Executive Director, Oluseyi Oyebisi.
WACSI’s Head of Policy Influencing and Advocacy unit, Omolara Balogun, rightly underscored that, “despite the enormous task ahead, we have to ensure that AML-CTF laws are not used as a pretext to further constrain civic space. While it is important to celebrate efforts and progress made by colleagues and Nigerian authorities, the agenda must be sustained through evidence-based advocacy and continous engagement of civil society in the formulation of an inclusive and effective AML-CTF regime that does not jeopardize the ability of CSOs to deliver on their mandates.” She noted further that “Nigeria’s example is worthy of emulation by other governments in the region that have predominantly introduced or passed restrictive AML-CTF laws or NGO laws with little-to-no engagement with CSOs.”
While Nigeria’s progress is commendable, it is important to highlight that the general outlook across the region as far as the formulation and implementation on laws relating AML-CTF and NPO regulations is concerned is worrying. Governments continue to pass controversial laws which are deemed a threat to civic space and civil society operations, and ultimately the third sector’s contributions to development and progress of the region. The CIVICUS People Power Under Attack 2020 report downgraded four West African nations Cote d’Ivoire, Guinea, Togo and Niger from obstructed to repressed due to deterioration of civic freedoms. In 2021, Mali, a formerly thriving democracy, joined the league of repressed, according to the CIVICUS Monitor.
To take Niger as a case in point, despite the important role CSOs have played in multi-party governance, and towards rule of law, democracy, and judicial independence in the country, civil society has come under increasing threat over the past decade. Government legislations including the 2018 Finance Law, cyber security law, and most recently the 24 February 2022 decree by President Mohamed Bazoum supplementing the 1984 ordinance on the regime for associations, are a direct affront to civil society operations and rights and freedoms of citizens.
The adoption of the 24 February decree represents a major setback as far as civic space and freedoms are concerned. It effectively constrains civil society in the exercise of its mandate by giving authority to Nigerien authorities the power to maintain a system of prior approval of civil society activities (Article 4 “the exercise of the activities of NGOs/DAs is subject to prior authorization or approval by the Minister of the Interior”). Among many others, the decree is also seen as restrictive in that it jeopardizes associational freedoms by giving total control of CSO activities to Nigerian authorities. The decree poses several impediments to civil society operations. It places an overwhelming bureaucratic toll on civil societies to register as legal entities, renew their licenses, and/or carry out activities (Articles 4, 5, 8, 37 and 39), obtain funding (Article 34), activity plans and projects (Articles 40, 41 and 44), as well as the use their assets (Article 27). What is even terrifying is the fact that the decree makes it clear that civil society projects or activities must be aligned with the national development agenda and priorities, and any organisation which acts the contrary risks losing license to operate.
For a country that has already seen several downgrades in its civic freedoms over the years, including multiple arrests of activists and journalists, prohibition of peaceful protests, and the adoption of repressive laws, any further restrictions on civil society as this new decree poses represents danger signs as far democracy, freedoms, and development are concerned, as well as offers a fertile ground for the incubation of discontents – vulnerabilities that violent extremist organisations could exploit and further shrink civic space and democracy in the country and across the Sahel.
Nigeria sets a good example, and it is important that other West African neighbors including Niger emulate. Civil society collaborative efforts and the subsequent win in Nigeria should also serve as an inspiration to others across the region which day-after-day continue to advocate and engage stakeholders for inclusive and effective AML/CTF regimes and compliance on Financial Action Task Force (FATF) recommendations.