This article was first published on Open Global Rights.

Linking online campaigns to offline action has become critical in challenging closing spaces in Nigeria.

Are the spaces for civic engagement, including for civil society operations, expanding or contracting in Nigeria? CIVICUS—a global civil society alliance—classifies civic space freedom into five categories: open, narrowed, obstructed, repressed and closed. An open civic space allows citizens and their organizations to organize, participate and communicate without hindrance. On the other hand, a civic space is obstructed when state authorities undermine them, using illegal surveillance, bureaucratic harassment, and demeaning public statements, including restrictive legislation.

Lately, Nigeria has witnessed a marked increase in the exercise of overbearing governmental power, which has not only created an atmosphere of fear in the country, but has also considerably contracted the spaces for civil society and civic engagement.  Indeed, a recent study by Spaces for Change (S4C) found that civic space freedom in Nigeria oscillates between closed, repressed and obstructed. Government agents, including the security forces, have particularly targeted bloggers and activists demanding accountability for official impunity. Abubakra SidiqJohn Dan FulaniAku ObidinmaMr. Iroegbu EmenikeJamil MabaiAudu Maikori, to name but a few—have been arrested for various flimsy reasons such as making Facebook posts critical of the government. The clampdown on bloggers and activists comes months after a restrictive legislative initiative to regulate social media—the Anti-Social Media bill—was stopped by campaigners and pressure groups. Shortly afterwards, another bill (popularly known as the NGO Bill 2016) passed its second reading before the Nigerian parliament. If passed into law, this bill will empower the Nigerian government, through various bodies, to regulate, monitor and interfere with the funding and operation of non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and civil society groups (CSOs).

To fight back against this climate of fear, Nigerian organizations like S4C are now deploying a variety of tested and untested advocacy strategies. There are two specific aspects to S4C’s advocacy approach. The first is how we transform data crowdsourced online into offline advocacy action. The second is how we sustain the advocacy by purposefully linking online advocates with offline communities, delivering research information to enlist new voices and actors while mobilizing active citizens and organizations to act on findings.

In its work around closing spaces in Nigeria, S4C usually monitors public policy and conducts research to understand the relevant policy landscape, while amassing a wealth of information needed to engage the issues at stake, identify problems and illuminate the gaps in understanding. In May 2017, the organization’s groundbreaking research examined the link between the Financial Action Task Force (FATF) Recommendation 8 (R8) and restrictions on civic freedoms in Nigeria. Prior to its revision in 2016, R8 espoused that non-profit organisations are particularly vulnerable to terrorist abuse and urged countries to ensure that that they cannot be misused. S4C’s study detailed how domestic efforts to comply with this international provision have not only opened the door for states to introduce restrictive legislation, but have also given them further grounds to crush dissent, violate civil liberties and impose restrictions on civil society. But few national level activists and organizations are aware of FATF, let alone know how compliance or operationalization of FATF by states fosters over-regulation, whether unintentional or spurious. What a research-led action agenda does (could do) is offer domestic activists new entry points and levers to push back.

Activism supported with hard facts and figures is most effective to get the government to back off.

We have also learned that activism supported with hard facts and figures is most effective to get the government to back off. We produced a database of closing spaces in Nigeria, presenting the evidence of governmental restrictions usually framed around the objective of protecting national interest, national security or other related considerations. This systematic data collation and policy monitoring not only creates evidence-based counter arguments to unpopular policy prescriptions, but it also enables the early detection of injurious provisions surreptitiously inserted into draft legislations. Damaging bills often bear confusing titles (e.g. “Frivolous Petitions Bill” was the title for the anti-social media bill), and the harmful content is only detectable through constant vigilance and policy analysis.

The flip side is that research information can be boring and dense, with too much data and diagrams that are not easy to navigate. Getting out the research quickly to diverse audiences forces the organization to think creatively, and to figure out other untested and innovative advocacy approaches that might be less risky and harder for the government to undermine.

Indeed, a major step towards influencing change is to break down research in simple terms that anyone can understand. S4C has used social media (such as Facebook, Twitter and WhatsApp) to humanize difficult research questions and findings in ways that give out early-warning signals and provoke uncensored conversations around imminent threats to civic spaces. For instance, S4C frequently initiated and moderated online debates on Facebook around the NGO Bill. Online conversations present unhindered spaces for a wide spectrum of stakeholders to engage in a no-holds-barred examination of the bill. Sometimes, a staff member of the organization with a large following on social media leads the debate on their personal timeline. Sometimes, we identify other popular bloggers or social media personalities who can do so.

Using the paradigm of collective moral responsibility to frame issues of closing spaces is empowering, and broadens the support base more rapidly. When S4C distilled the data from these conversations into blogposts, published articles, policy briefing papers or memoranda submitted to the national (federal) legislative committee considering the bill, discussion participants felt a sense of ownership, especially when they saw that almost everyone’s views were not only recognized and documented, but also channelled to policy and decision-making arenas.

Beyond advancing expert opinions directly to policymakers, another important step is to mobilize citizens to participate in the legislative deliberations. Free briefing papers are disseminated widely with a set of arguments that ordinary citizens can use to articulate their positions regarding certain bills at public hearings. After the public hearing, S4C reports back to the online constituencies that participated in the campaign. This reporting back helps to sustain public interest and forge alliances with a wide range of interested stakeholders, regardless of their social, economic and political persuasions.

Our work on online and offline collaboration has helped us to ensure that the issues affecting closing spaces are placed on the front burner of the national and international consciousness. This approach, however, has its highs and lows. One challenge is that mobilizing people online takes time, commitment and a lot of youthful energy, often requiring daily monitoring and nurturing. That means spending enormous amounts of time on the internet, posting updates, replying to messages, answering questions and addressing concerns from a broad spectrum of people. But the unparalleled learning and results that come with coordinating online-offline action make up for these challenges. As Nigeria’s parliament heightens steps to consider the NGO Bill, the need to innovate, to engage and confront the attack on civic freedoms has only just begun.

Victoria Ohaeri is the founder and director of research and policy at SPACES FOR CHANGE | S4C, Nigeria.  She leads the organization’s knowledge-building and accountability campaigning initiatives. She is an alumnus of Harvard Law ‘15 and a 2016 Desmond Tutu Fellow.

Photo by NESA by Makers on Unsplash