China 'stealing' Africa's fish

As a new Netflix documentary puts illegal fishing under the spotlight, Britt Collins reveals the devastating impact China – and the EU’s – supertrawlers are having on Africa’s coast.

While West Africa has been pre-occupied with the pandemic, its waters have been secretly plundered by Chinese trawlers.

Though Chinese and European supertrawlers have been moving untracked in the continent’s seas for decades, taking advantage of the weak government enforcement, encroachment has intensified over the past few years, exhausting wild fish stocks, polluting the continent’s waters and seriously threatening food insecurity for poor coastal communities.

‘Africa’s waters have become a free-for-all,’ said Ali Tabrizi, the British filmmaker whose hit Netflix documentary Seaspiracy uncovered shocking revelations about the multi-billion-dollar seafood industry.

‘West Africa is home to one of the last strongholds to life in our oceans, teeming with rare marine wildlife, a refuge for mating and feeding. These massive trawlers are like floating slaughterhouses.

China, in particular, is invading the waters of other countries without detection and stealing the fish.’ 

‘Since the WHO declared Covid-19 as a pandemic, we've assisted our government partners around the continent of Africa to arrest 17 vessels for illegal fishing, three in Benin, two in Gabon, six in the Gambia and six in Sierra Leone,’ said Captain Peter Hammarstedt, the director of campaigns at Sea Shepherd, a global marine conservation charity.

‘Of those vessels, all but one were either flagged to the People’s Republic of China or had beneficial ownership [there].’

The plundering of the African coastline is just the continuation of centuries of exploitation of the continent’s natural resources.

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Subsidised Chinese and European Union (EU) fishing fleets are cornering one of the most pristine, wildlife-rich seas, wiping out countless fish species and killing thousands of dolphins and whales as bycatch.

About 200 of Europe’s taxpayer-funded fleets are currently prowling its shores, via the EU’s opaque ‘Sustainable Fishing Partnership’ agreements – denounced by politicians as little more than license to steal from some of the most impoverished communities on earth.

The EU, alongside Japan and China, is one of the world’s top three fishing subsidisers.

These massive government incentives given to an industry keep prices artificially low that means local business can’t compete. 

Without subsidies, these distant-water fleets wouldn’t be economically viable. 

Long accused of ‘looting’ Africa for oil, precious metals and the endangered wildlife its safari industry relies on – rhinos, elephants, lions — China is by far the worst offender of illegal fishing, plundering the continent’s seas with its vast armada of super trawlers (pictured below in Zhoushan, China, in 2011).

In the belly of the beast - Trawlers in Zhoushan, China, August 4, 2011 (Edited).jpg

Just one of these industrial trawlers can have a colossal impact, capturing over 12,000 tons of fish a week – more than twice the sustainable catch for a country like Liberia, Mauritania or the Gambia. 

As the world’s biggest seafood exporter, China accounts for more than a third of all global fish consumption.

Having long exhausted the dwindling reserves in the South China Seas, the Chinese fleets have been moving further out to sea in recent years to exploit the distant waters of other nations, particularly along the West African coast. It has forced out local fishermen and ravaged the region’s once-abundant stocks.

Captain Paul Watson, environmental activist and founder of the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society, warned that the crisis in West African waters will have dire implications for the entire planet.

‘We’re strip-mining life from the sea. Marine eco-systems are collapsing and that will lead to the inability of oceanic eco-systems to support life on this planet.’ 

What this massive die-off means for the future, he said, ‘is a rise in piracy by impoverished African fishermen just like the situation in Somalian waters. It will mean a rise in poverty and starvation in these affected countries and it will lead to social chaos and possibly violent revolution.’ 

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West Africa, with its rich marine biodiversity, is a hotspot for what is known in the industry as Illegal, Unreported and Unregulated (IUU) fishing.

Europe and Asia have been benefitting at the expense of some of the poorest nations, where enforcement tends to be weaker as governments lack the resources to police their waters.

Such illegal fishing is estimated to cost West African countries about $2.3bn each year. IUU fishing in West Africa accounts for 40 percent of all illegal fishing globally.

Senegal, which has an exclusive economic zone of around 200 nautical miles (370km) teeming with a diversity of species from sharks, tuna and swordfish, is one of the African states most targeted by foreign pirate fishing fleets from Europe and Asia. 

The Sea Shepherd Conservation Society has taken on a daring mission to end this.

The international non-profit, set up in 1977 by Paul Watson, one of the co-founders of Greenpeace, focuses on the protection of marine wildlife using aggressive yet non-violent tactics, that have shut down hundreds of illegal operations. 

In a sweeping effort to crack down on trespassing foreign vessels and illicit activities, Sea Shepherd has partnered with eight African coastal and island states to conduct joint at-sea patrols.

Recently, in less than two days, armed Sierra Leone Navy sailors stationed on board the Sea Shepherd ship Bob Barker carried out a series of at-sea raids on illegal fishing vessels in the waters of Sierra Leone, detaining five trawlers, almost all of them Chinese-flagged, for fishing without a license or in the inshore exclusion zone reserved for artisanal fisherman.

As Captain Hammarstedt explained: ‘Sea Shepherd provides a vessel that operates as a civilian offshore patrol vessel along with fuel and a ship's crew. The government partner provides the law enforcement agents with the authority to board, inspect and arrest illegal operators.

'Offenses range from fishing without a license or in a prohibited area (either a marine park or an inshore exclusion zone reserved for artisanal fishers) to fishing using prohibited gear; to the taking of endangered species such as sharks and rays; and to other convergence crimes, such as fraud, forgery and tax evasion.

'To date, 68 vessels have been arrested through these partnerships.’

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Seaspiracy star and director Ali Tabrizi joined the Sea Shepherd during one of their sea patrols off the west coast of Africa and documented the illegal fishing on an industrial scale in his vivid exposé.

‘West Africa is like a gold rush for countries, especially China, where they’ve already depleted their own local stocks, and are using more and more sophisticated technologies. It’s here that the intersection of wildlife loss, international corruption and human impact are most clearly seen.’

Lamya Essemlali, the French-Moroccan campaign coordinator and president of Sea Shepherd France, believes West Africa’s fisheries are at serious risk of collapse from the Chinese fleets. 

‘It’s the area of the world most targeted by illegal fishing. Most of the fish stolen from Africa ends up on the plates of much richer countries that otherwise applaud themselves for the crumbs of charity that they throw to African nations.

‘Countries like Senegal do not need charity, but rather the kind of justice possible only through effective law enforcement patrolling.’ 

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Some African countries are starting to assert themselves.

Senegal and Liberia’s decision to deny fishing permits to Chinese industrial trawlers last year marked a turning point in the region. But incursions by Chinese supertrawlers are getting more frequent and aggressive.

Trawlers are destroying the coral reefs that aquatic animals rely on to live and breed, and, in the process, contributing to ocean acidification, warmer seas and reduced oxygen levels in the water. 

Severe overfishing and destruction of the reefs is also ravaging coastal communities that depend on these waters for their livelihoods and survival.

‘The fishermen, who’ve lived here since time immemorial, are starving,’ said Tabrizi.

‘They’re risking their lives going further out in the ocean in small canoes, without life vests, because the illegal commercial fishing vessels are scooping up all the fish. West African canoe fisherman now have the highest mortality rate of any job on the planet.’ 

Unloading the catch at Kayar, Senegal's largest fishing harbour. Alamy (Edited).jpg

Such intensive fishing operations are not only wiping out the fish, but also destroying economies, according to the film director.

‘One of the causes of the Somalian pirates was actually illegal fishing. They were once humble fishermen working to feed their families. But when Somalia fell into civil war, foreign fishing vessels, the real pirates of the ocean, invaded their waters and began taking fish, giving Somali fisherman no choice but to move into another line of work.’ 

Interestingly, the EU likes to boast about its role in monitoring and thwarting unregulated fishing in the region, but it continues to be part of the problem.

With its multibillion-euro fish subsidies paid for by the bloc’s taxpayers, it helped create the Somali pirates.

As the Somalian civil war broke out and warlords scrambled to rule, the longest coastline in continental Africa, at over 2,000 miles (3,300 km), was unprotected, and illegal foreign trawlers moved in, stealing millions of tonnes of fish.

Even before the country collapsed in 1991, foreign vessels were routinely encroaching on their coast to fish.

The piracy started off as a protest against foreign fleets coming in and trying to take back control of their waters.

Beyond Somalia, the effect of foreign trawlers on the indigenous African fishing industry has been catastrophic, with over half the fish stocks along the coast between Nigeria and Senegal categorised as ‘overfished’.

There are also widespread reports of local fishing nets being cut by foreign trawlers, who unload their enormous catch directly onto container ships where they are transported back to Europe or Asia, bypassing inspections. 

West African governments have been urged to band together to protect millions of Africans and their fragile economies from the ceaseless onslaught.

According to Tabrizi, the key lies in ending harmful subsidies, which he said is ‘propping up one of, if not the most, destructive industries on earth – to the tune of $35bn a year. It’s unacceptable, especially as, according to the United Nations, $30bn would solve world hunger.’ 

A committed vegan, Tabrizi believes the single most effective thing individuals can do to protect the reefs from trawlers is to stop eating fish and seafood.

It’s a view echoed by the Sea Shepherd’s Paul Watson, who added: ‘There’s no such thing as sustainable fishing. The amount of fish being taken out of the ocean is absolutely stunning, five million fish a minute.’

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Shipping rules hinder Nigerian growth

Foreign liners may continue to enjoy exclusive rights over Nigeria’s crude oil exports. But, as Francis Ezem reports, Nigerians may soon be able to get in on the act.

Nigeria is the world’s sixth largest producer of crude oil, extracting an estimated 2.7 million barrels a day before the pandemic cut demand and prices alike. But more than 60 years after the launch of commercial oil production, the country is yet to benefit from the equally lucrative business of actually shipping the crude oil it generates.

Oil accounts for the majority of Nigeria’s exports and foreign exchange earnings, but the shipping of oil has, inexplicably, remained an exclusive honey pot only available to foreign tanker owners.

The reason is Nigeria’s adoption of a so-called Free on Board (FOB) trade policy, under which a seller – such as the Nigeria National Petroleum Corporation – has an obligation to deliver goods on board a vessel designated by the buyer.

Under FOB rules, the seller is only responsible for any loss or damage up to the time of shipment, with the shipping company assuming liability in case of a spill or sinking during export.

Such deferred risk may have served the fledging country well when it was still finding its feet in the 1960s and 1970s.

But experts say Nigeria’s shipping industry would grow much faster, creating a lot more jobs and boosting much-desired foreign exchange inflows, if it switched to the riskier yet more lucrative Cost, Insurance and Freight (CIF) model, which is currently used on non-oil imports, such as agricultural products.

Under FOB trade terms, Nigeria has no reasonable control over the delivery of its crude oil in terms of carriage, insurance and other ancillary services.

Under the CIF arrangement, however, the country will maintain ample control over the distribution of crude oil, which can be leveraged to enhance the competitive advantage of indigenous shipping operators.

Yet successive governments have not shown sufficient political will to reverse these trade policies, through which the country has lost huge sums of revenue needed to develop its fledging economy.

Statistics show that in 2019, Nigeria retained only five per cent of the $5 billion annual freight earnings that accrued to the country through shipment of oil and gas and other marine-related activities, while 95 per cent went to foreign shipping companies.

Records also show that more than 5,307 vessels call at Nigeria’s eight seaports annually and none are indigenously owned, due to the FOB and CIF policies.

It was in a bid to curtail these staggering economic losses that the Nigerian Maritime Administration and Safety Agency (NIMASA) initiated talks with the NPPC to reverse the policy. Bashir Jamoh, Director General of NIMASA, said that the CIF model would help develop indigenous shipping capacity as well as boost foreign exchange inflows, which the country needs to stem the worsening rate of capital flight and depleting foreign reserves.

‘Since 2018, NIMASA has championed moves for a review in the terms of trade with regards to shipment of Nigeria’s crude oil, from FOB to CIF, to ensure greater benefits for the country from its oil resources,’ revealed Jamoh.

‘A technical committee involving NIMASA, NNPC and other stakeholders would be set up to develop a template for the desired change, with workable timelines.’

Captain Emmanuel Iheanacho, who is chairman of the petroleum marketing firm Integrated Oil and Gas, as well as the managing director of Genesis Worldwide Shipping, said that by using FOB policy for Nigeria’s oil export and CIF for all imports, the country loses in all the three components of the trade, thereby creating wealth and job opportunities for foreign countries.

According to him, Nigeria loses in terms of the freight components of the trade, through which lots of wealth and job opportunities would have been created for the country by engaging indigenous ship owners.

‘Nigeria also loses because it does not have the refining capacity, which would have also been a huge source of wealth creation for the economy.

‘Another area of loss to the country in the crude oil trade business is in the importation of the refined petroleum products, which foreigners also determine and control the shipment to the detriment of indigenous shipping companies.’

Umar Aminu, President of Nigeria Shipowners’ Association (NISA), believes that successive governments in the country have not shown sufficient political will to review the policy imposed by foreign ship owners.

He said that Nigeria remains the only member of OPEC that does not participate in the lifting of the crude and until this is reversed, the vast economic benefits in terms of job creation and foreign exchange inflows would continue to be elusive.

It was in a bid to curtail these confounding economic losses that the Nigerian Maritime Administration and Safety Agency (NIMASA), which had made unsuccessful efforts in the past, commenced fresh moves to reverse the policy.

Dr. Bashir Jamoh, Director General of the agency, who made the disclosure, insists that shipment of Nigeria’s crude oil exports based on CIF as against the current FOB, is more beneficial to the country, as it would help develop indigenous shipping capacity as well as boost foreign exchange inflows, which the country needs to stem the worsening rate of capital flight and depleting foreign reserves.

Under the current moves, the Director-General has initiated talks with Mele Kyari, the Group Managing Director of the Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation NNPC, and Billy Okoye, the Group General Manager, Crude Oil Marketing Division of the corporation.

Jamoh notes that Nigeria has for too long implemented the FOB policy for shipment of crude oil exports, which weighs against its economy.

‘Since 2018, NIMASA has championed moves for a review in the terms of trade with regards to shipment of Nigeria’s crude oil, from FOB to CIF to ensure greater benefits for the country from its oil resources. A technical committee involving NIMASA, NNPC, and other stakeholders would be set up to develop a template for the desired change, with workable timelines,’ Jamoh stated.

He also said that Nigeria would not derive maximum benefit in terms of creating wealth and job opportunities until it adopts the CIF trade term for the carriage of its crude exports.

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Refilling Lake Chad key to regional peace

Chad’s decision to withdraw its request for Unesco protection for the lake has raised questions among its neighbours, reports Zachary Ochieng.

 

In May 2017, the Chadian government applied to Unesco asking for Lake Chad to be named a World Heritage Site.

This application stemmed from the unique features of the lake’s ecosystem, and the nomination of the lake was expected to contribute to the conservation of its wetlands and oases, and help mitigate the desertification process in north-eastern Nigeria and the Chad Basin as a whole.

It is against this background that the recent request by Chad to withdraw its application continues to draw mixed reactions.

The move has been driven by oil exploration agreements signed by the Chadian government and various companies.

Unesco has said that its rules do not provide for the suspension or withdrawal of an application but, in a blow to conservationists, the process will be cancelled nonetheless by Unesco once Chad begins oil exploration, as the lake will no longer qualify for World Heritage Site status once drilling begins.

The cancellation would mean loss of the prestigious status symbol that comes with the listing, not to mention various socio-economic benefits, including donor funding for conservation projects.

Research has shown that World Heritage status can have a major socio-economic impact.

A 2015 report by the UK National Commission for Unesco found, for instance, that projects in Scotland generated an estimated £10.8 million ($15 million) a year, thanks to their association with Unesco.

Perhaps more significantly, though, is the financial impact the failure to protect the shrinking lake will have on local communities.

The region around Lake Chad has been wracked by conflict, rapid population growth and severe vulnerability caused by the effects of climate change, environmental degradation and poverty.

While the lake itself may border four countries — Chad, Nigeria, Niger and Cameroon – the wider Lake Chad ‘Basin’ covers almost eight per cent of the continent, including parts of distant Algeria, Libya and the Central African Republic.

One of the most unstable regions in the world, the countries around the lake are among the 10 ‘least peaceful’ in Africa, according to the 2020 Global Terrorism Index Report.

Abdallah Ibrahim, Director, East Africa Centre for Research and Strategic Studies, told NewsAfrica that the dire economic situation in the countries bordering Lake Chad was a major driving force behind the instability in the region.

‘Widespread unemployment and rampant corruption within the political elite has prompted some young people in the region to join [Islamist terror group] Boko Haram,’ said Abdallah.

‘The acts of violence committed by Boko Haram in Nigeria have spread to areas of the neighbouring Sahel countries in the Lake Chad Basin, specifically Cameroon, Chad and Niger, causing devastating effects on food security and livelihoods.’

He added that Boko Haram attacks weakened the economy of the region, as its members destroy agricultural crops and infrastructure, and block roads, making it difficult for merchants to transport their goods. These measures have catastrophic effects on food security in a region that largely depends on agriculture, fishing and animal husbandry.

A study by Centre for Peace and Security Studies at the Modibbo Adama University of Technology, found that loss of livelihoods has promoted criminality, easy recruitment by terrorist groups and migration to urban centres.

Children displaced by Boko Haram violence

Meanwhile, management of the shrinking lake has caused conflicts among the states that depend on it and this has made it more difficult for them to collectively fight insecurity in the region.

The lake is central to regional stability, according to the Centre for Peace Studies, which said that countries should focus on reviving the lake rather than military activities.

Once the world’s sixth largest inland water body, with an open water area of 10,000 sq miles (25,000 km2) in the 1960s, Lake Chad began shrinking dramatically in the 1970s, and is now less than 10 per cent of its original size.

The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) warned in 2009 that the lake could dry up permanently in the near future.

This followed a similar warning by the US National Space Administration (NASA) that the continued decline of the lake water may lead to the disappearance of its area completely in the next 20 years.

A Global International Waters Assessment (GIWA) report, published in 2006 by UNEP, states that though the lake has dried out several times in the past, the trend has been severely exacerbated now by the construction of dams upstream of the catchment, without considering its impact on the people and ecosystems downstream.

Also contributing to the lake’s receding water levels is declining rainfall, rising temperatures and increased uncertainty in the timing of the rains.

While the unique geographical feature that allows the lake to split into the two smaller pools also makes it more vulnerable to water loss.

Saheed Babajide Owonikoko, a researcher at the Centre for Peace and Security Studies, said the shrinking of the lake contributes to regional instability in several ways.

One of the main consequences has been a rise in criminal activities, including cattle rustling by people struggling to survive.

‘It’s easy to move cattle over the country borders in the area to evade arrest,’ said Owonikoko, who noted how the activity can then bring the same people into the orbit of Boko Haram.

‘Contemporary rustling has been associated with Boko Haram, who resort to cattle rustling as additional means of raising funds in support of their operations.’

He said that Boko Haram has capitalised on the loss of livelihoods and economic woes in the Lake Chad region to recruit people into its ranks.

He also noted how the drying up of the lake has led to the long-distance migration of people and livestock to cities and rural communities further south.

This has led to competition for resources between the newcomers and the original inhabitants in those regions, exacerbating Nigeria’s ongoing farmer-pastoralist conflict. Between 2016 and 2019, almost 4,000 people died in Nigeria as a result of communal strife between villagers and Fulani herdsmen originally from the Lake Chad region.

‘As the lake has shrunk, the water has shifted towards Chad and Cameroon while the Nigerian and Nigerien sides have dried up,’ said Owonikoko.

‘This forces people to cross national borders to reach the shoreline. Respect for boundaries disappears. A complex web of social, economic, environmental and political issues spills into interstate conflicts.

This conflict relationship, caused by access to and management of the lake, has seriously affected the collective effort of the region’s states to fight Boko Haram.’

But all is not lost.

The Lake Chad Basin countries have stepped up efforts aimed at mitigating the crisis, including a military offensive against Boko Haram.

Efforts are also being made to end the violent conflict between herders and farmers over water and pasture.

Of importance, though, are attempts to find a lasting solution to the drying of the lake, a major cause of poverty in the region.

An ambitious plan to restore the lake to its former glory involves a multibillion-dollar project that will channel water from the Ubangi River in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, 1,500 miles (2,400km) from the lake.

A feasibility study was launched in 2018 to look at the proposal.

Nigeria’s President Muhammadu Buhari is leading efforts to restore the lake, supported by the eight countries that are members of the Lake Chad Basin Commission, an international regulatory body.

Speaking on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly in September 2019, Buhari raised concerns over the receding lake, telling delegates: ‘Lake Chad is shrinking while the population is exploding.

'It’s a challenging situation. With less land, less rainfall, these are very unique problems for the country.’

Following this, the UN has in the last two years co-hosted two back-to-back international donor conferences, the first in Oslo, where donors pledged $672 million in emergency assistance, followed by another one in Berlin, where donors announced $2.17 billion, including $467 million in concessional loans, to support activities in Cameroon, Chad, Niger and Nigeria.

Crucially, the discovery of oil in the region poses a major dilemma for all countries bordering the lake.

The Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation (NNPC) reportedly struck oil in November 2015, but it has been unable to capitalise on the potential windfall because of the presence of Boko Haram insurgents.

However, the Nigerian Minister of State for Petroleum Resources, Chief Timipre Sylva, said in November 2020 that exploration would soon recommence.

The announcement has alarmed conservationists and human rights’ groups alike, with the Business and Rights Resource Centre warning Nigeria has proven ‘incapable of protecting oil pipelines from theft and ensuring that oil extraction does not harm local ecologies and communities’ at its existing oil and gas fields in the south of the country.

Meanwhile, with a border dispute that led to skirmishes in the 1970s still unresolved between Chad and Nigeria, finding a solution to the Lake Chad crisis is likely to be anything but plain sailing.

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Africa's new dawn for democracy

While the West seems to have abandoned many of its basic democratic principles during the Covid-19 pandemic, in Africa governments have been voted out of office, lockdowns overthrown – and people have been taking to the streets in defence of civil rights. NewsAfrica examines whether 2020 marks a turning point for the continent – or yet another false dawn.

‘Nigeria will never be the same again, no matter how the #EndSARS protests end,’ the Nigerian journalist Cletus Ukpong told NewsAfrica.

He was referring to the ongoing mass protests that have rocked major Nigerian cities, including Lagos, Abuja, Abakiliki, Jos, Umuahia and many more.

The demonstrations were sparked in October by a viral video of a man allegedly being killed by the Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS).

The controversial SARS unit of the Nigerian Police Force has a long history of abuse. But what started as demonstrations against police brutality grew into an enormous mass protest – the result of pent-up anger in the West African state over the dehumanising policies of government, maladministration, and the growing problem of hunger, joblessness and high energy prices caused by the Covid-19 lockdown.

And while Africa’s most-populated country may have witnessed such mass demonstrations before, including the ‘Occupy Nigeria’ protest in January 2012, many observers claim that the #EndSARS protests have been different.

Some even called them the ‘protests of the decade’.

‘No previous protests have been so massive and so widely supported by all segments of society,’ said Dapo Olorunyomi, co-founder, CEO, and publisher of the Premium Times, who was one of the four global winners of this year’s International Press Freedom awards.

‘In the past, you would see that parents would tell their children: please, don’t go out. But now, parents encouraged their kids to participate, despite of the danger,’ said the Nigerian.

Even religious leaders have endorsed the protests. In a recent statement, several bishops, including the head of the Catholics Bishops’ Conference of Nigeria, urged officials to listen to the protesters and added: ‘The audacity and impunity with which the SARS officials have been operating all the while is a manifestation of the failing state of Nigeria.’

The protests have also been remarkably well organised ‘in a way that Nigeria has never seen before’, according to Olorunyomi.

Arrangements have been made, for example, for food and water.

They have medical personnel on standby, ambulances and mobile toilets for convenience.

And the costs of the protests are being funded primarily through decentralised donations from Nigerians at home and abroad.

Local tech start-ups – most of which are led by young entrepreneurs – have also become prominent actors in the campaign, with donations for the firms being used to pay off hospital bills for those injured in protests.

Like the pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong, the #EndSARS movement is unique in that it has no clear leader or hierarchy driving it.

Yet, thanks to the use of online platforms, the activists have managed to quickly raise global support, including from celebrities like Kanye West and Beyoncé, ‘Star Wars’ actor John Boyega and Twitter founder Jack Dorsey.

In Canada, England, Germany, the Netherlands and the United States, the Nigerian diaspora has also organised protests in solidarity with their counterparts at home.

‘Nigerian youth were often seen as lazy and unthoughtful, a perception largely fuelled by the government,’ mused Olorunyomi.

‘Therefore, people were positively surprised by the way that these articulated, educated youth have been organising these protests.’

Several regional politicians soon endorsed the protests.

The Chairman of the Nigeria Governors’ Forum and Ekiti State Governor Kayode Fayemi, for example, stated that ‘there is nothing wrong in what the young people are doing. I think we should encourage them to ask more questions.’

And the Kogi State Governor, Yahaya Bello, said that seeking an end to SARS’s brutality is a worthy cause that must be supported by all.

Within three days of the protests starting in October, Nigeria's Inspector-General of Police, Mohammed Adamu, announced the ‘dissolution’ of SARS under pressure from protesters and politicians.

However, with the SARS officers set to be redeployed to other police departments rather than sacked, the demos have not only continued, but grown louder, with protesters calling for a total overhaul of Nigerian society.

But such muscle-flexing hasn’t be confined to Nigeria. Protest movements have popped up across Africa during the Covid-19 pandemic, and, unlike the partisan movements that flare up from time to time, these demonstrations are somewhat unique in that they’re all led by youngsters.

In Namibia, for example, the capital Windhoek has been brought to a standstill by protestors demanding immediate political action on gender-based violence.

The #ShutItAllDown protests were sparked after the body of a young woman was found in a shallow grave outside the Namibian port town of Walvis Bay.

The protests later spread to other towns when, a week later, a 27-year-old woman was allegedly brutally murdered by her boyfriend because she wanted to end their relationship. 

In a petition addressed to the speaker of the National Assembly, the campaigners called on Namibian authorities to declare a state emergency over gender-based violence, and review sentencing laws for sex offenders and murderers, among others.

They also demanded the resignation of Doreen Sioka, minister of gender equality, poverty eradication and social welfare.

Like neighbouring South Africa, violence against women is a persistent problem in Namibia, in particular, sexual violence and ‘femicide’ – the intentional killing of women or girls because they are females.

Reports earlier this year said police were receiving at least 200 cases of domestic violence a month in the country of slightly under 2.5 million people, while more than 1,600 cases of rape were reported during the 18 months ending in June 2020.

Campaigners said that, like in other parts of the world, the lockdown introduced to slow the spread of Covid-19 had made life even harder for domestic violence survivors forced to self-isolate with their abusers.

But protests haven’t been confined to Namibia and Nigeria.

Young people also took to the streets in cities across the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) in October to campaign about historic murders and rapes committed in the east of the country.

Meanwhile, Zimbabweans have stared down Emmerson Mnangagwa’s infamous security forces as part of the #ZimbabweanLivesMatter protests kicked off by local rappers and influencers.

And it’s not just protests. Despite the pandemic, Africa has witnessed a number of national elections in the past few weeks, including in the Seychelles, Ivory Coast, Guinea, Tanzania, Ghana and Burkina Faso.

This flurry of polling stands in sharp contrast to Europe, where scheduled elections have been cancelled, with civil rights groups lamenting a deterioration of democratic values.

Experts from the American think-tank Freedom House identified what they called a troubling ‘crisis of confidence’ in the US and Europe, where governments have curtailed long-held democratic rights during the pandemic, including freedom of speech, freedom of protest and freedom of the press.

Draconian lockdown laws have also been largely introduced on the whim of ministers in many Western countries, with subsequent attempts to challenge them in parliament or the courts often blocked.

A report by the UK’s Committee on Democracy and Digital Technologies, for instance, warned that Britain under Boris Johnson’s lockdown regime is currently suffering a ‘pandemic of misinformation' that if allowed to flourish will result in the collapse of public trust and see democracy ‘decline into irrelevance’.

The former British Supreme Court judge Lord Sumption went even further, saying in late October that the laws introduced during the pandemic will undo the unity of British society and lead to long-term authoritarian government.

He accused Boris Johnson’s administration of creating 'truly breath-taking' new criminal offences without the legal right to do so, and of giving police 'unprecedented discretionary' enforcement powers, some of which were used to suppress peaceful opposition to its policies.

The grim situation in the UK, where a doctor was arrested and held for 22 hours for reading out a letter objecting to government policy, is in stark contrast to Great Britain’s former African colony Malawi, where, in a move largely ignored by the world’s press, its judges not only ruled the country’s lockdown unconstitutional but ordered the president to go to the polls for re-election, which he subsequently lost.

The Malawi High Court, sitting as a Constitutional Court, barred a lockdown in April and, in September, even ruled that the Covid-19 rules, including the attempted lockdown, were unconstitutional.

In its decision, the three judges found that the rules were unconstitutional as they were made in terms of a law that did not permit such rules to be made.

They also criticised the government for imposing a lockdown without concern for the poor of Malawi who would not be able to access food and other essentials if they could not leave their homes.

Malawi has currently registered only around 6,000 Covid-19 infections and just 185 people have officially died of the virus.

‘The levels of poverty in Malawi are such that a lockdown without relief would have been equivalent to death,’ said the Malawi political analyst Boni Dulani, who is also the Director of Research and Operations at the Institute of Public Opinion and Research (IPOR).

‘In a survey done by our institute, most Malawians said they were more scared of dying of hunger than of Covid-19.’

Dulani admits that the court order was significant – protestors in Britain have yet to have their case heard in the Supreme Court – but he reserved his most gushing praise for the ‘boldness’ of civil society organisations that went to court and challenged the lockdown order.

‘This is a new approach by civil society organisations,’ said the political analyst, who is also a senior lecturer in Political Science at the University of Malawi.

‘Previously, they have limited their approach to protests and demonstrations but increasingly, they are also very active in seeking the legal option.’

The shock decisions by the Malawian courts in April and September followed a series of landmark democratic moments in the southern African republic, which was ruled by a brutal dictatorship for the first three decades after independence.

In February, the courts nullified the 2019 presidential elections and ordered a rerun, saying: ‘Irregularities had been so widespread, systematic and grave that the results of the elections had been compromised and couldn’t be trusted as a reflection of the votes.’

Against everyone's expectations, opposition candidate Lazarus Chakwera won the re-run election in June, which made it the first time a court-overturned vote in Africa led to the defeat of an incumbent leader.

‘This constitutional court ruling was historic on several fronts,’ explained Dulani.

‘It demonstrates that we now have a new progressive generation of judges that are very willing and ready to make independent judgements that can significantly alter the political landscape.

He added: ‘While challenging election results previously was largely an academic exercise, with little likelihood of the results being reversed, the historic ruling that annulled the 2019 presidential election will certainly embolden other election petitioners in the future.’

The recent opposition victory in Malawi, according to Dulani, is also one of the marks of a ‘maturing democracy’, while he said the court’s decision to force a second vote ‘will go a long way in emboldening the judiciary on the African continent to make decisions on political matters that previously would not have been envisaged.’

The Malawian judiciary is not alone in its new-found confidence.

The African Court on Human and Peoples’ Rights (AfCHPR), which was established in 2004 by African countries, has taken a number of unusually bold decisions this year.

The continental court, which is based in the Tanzanian city of Arusha, ruled, for instance, that Ivory Coast should allow ex-rebel leader Guillaume Soro and the former president Laurent Gbagbo – who was acquitted of war crimes by the International Criminal Court last year – to participate in the countries’ presidential election.

The country’s electoral commission had disqualified both men from the October 31 poll due to their criminal convictions.

Arnaud Oulepo, a research associate at the Centre of Research for International Cooperation and Development, University Cadi Ayyadin Morocco, said the presence of the court made ‘coup d’état or violence’ less likely.

‘The positive thing is that it means that democracy and electoral matters are more and more litigated in courts.’

However, the bold decisions regarding Soro and Gbagbo also seem to have little effect as Ivory Coast simply withdrew its recognition of the court’s jurisdiction in April this year and barred the two candidates from standing anyway.

Ivory Coast’s decision to quit the court, follows in the footsteps of Benin and more authoritarian states, like Tanzania and Rwanda, which left the court after similarly robust rulings.

Tanzania withdrew its support in November 2019, despite being the host of the AfCHPR.

While Rwanda left after growing concerned that the African Court might be used as a platform to ‘change the narrative’ of the country’s 1994 genocide (a criminal offense under the Rwandan criminal code).

‘The withdrawal of these states is unfortunately a bad signal,’ said Oulepo. ‘As former US president Barack Obama said: “Africa doesn’t need strong men. It needs strong institutions.”

‘Those institutions, including the AfCHPR [court], will never come close to reaching their due potential if they are constantly under attack by leaders who seem to care more about entrenching their own power rather than protecting the rights of their citizens,’ added the Morocco-based law expert, who believes that the judiciary in Africa is starting to play a more significant role in law-making.

Of course, Africa is by no means a utopia. In many parts of the continent, human rights are sharply deteriorating, including in Mali, which is facing ethnic and tribal conflict, as well as the Northern Provinces of Cameroon where the army and rebels alike have both committed atrocities.

October’s elections in Guinea and Ivory Coast were overshadowed by the threat of violence.

While protests in Nigeria are starting to take a troubling – and all too familiar – turn for the worse.

Indeed, what started out as small peaceful protests that drew concessions from the government, quickly turned violently as gangs attacked protesters in various cities, including Lagos and the capital, Abuja.

Rioters also vandalised public buildings, burned private businesses and stormed prison facilities to help inmates escape, prompting state governors to impose curfews to curb the escalating unrest.

On October 20, meanwhile, the Lagos governor ordered a 24-hour curfew in a move straight from the old play book, and on the same day security forces opened fire on unarmed demonstrators who were waving Nigerian flags and singing the national anthem in Lekki.

The attack was live streamed on Instagram by a witness and caused widespread outrage.

Speaking after the massacre, Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari said 51 civilians had been killed and 37 injured since demonstrations began, which he blamed on ‘hooliganism’.

He also accused ‘rioters’ of killing 11 policemen and seven soldiers.

Buhari’s statement came two days after Amnesty International put the death toll at 56, with about 38 killed on October 20. Amnesty said investigations on the ground confirmed that the army and police killed at least 12 peaceful protesters in Lekki and Alausa, another area of Lagos where #EndSARS protests were being held.

With the government taking an increasingly firm hand against the protests, not everyone is convinced the #EndSars movement may end up being the watershed moment it appeared to be for Africa’s largest democracy in mid-October.

‘It's unclear what comes next for the #EndSars movement,’ said the BBC Nigeria correspondent Mayeni Jones.

‘On the surface, most of their five points demands have been met. Some of the detained protesters have been released. Panels of enquiry have been set up around the country to investigate allegations of police brutality - although how independent they really are is up for debate.’

Crucially, though, one of the protesters’ key demands – compensation and justice for victims of police brutality – has yet to be answered, and talk has already moved to how the protests could impact Nigeria’s 2023 presidential elections.

Protesters are said to be hoping to capitalise on their new-found popularity to campaign on issues relevant to this youthful nation.

‘The events of the past two weeks have transformed Nigerian youth into a force to be reckoned with in the general elections, less than three years from now,’ said Chioma Agwuegbo, of Not Too Young To Run, an advocacy group dedicated to getting young Nigerians into public office.

She told Al Jazeera that 2023 will be ‘interesting for the future of the country because there’s rage’.

Yet while the streets may be ablaze with fury and the courts may be flexing their muscles in the face of government over-reach, the jury’s still out on whether this defiant new spirit will lead to long-term societal change in Africa.

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Lockdown causes hunger epidemic in Nigeria

Nkiru James, a 45-year-old housewife and businesswoman, had managed her beauty salon for eight years when the Covid-19 outbreak happened.

For the first time in eight years, her salon was locked for more than two months because of the lockdown.

According to James, her earnings pay for the food for her family of six, while her husband’s monthly salary settles utility bills and house rent.

Unfortunately, her husband’s monthly salary has also been slashed due to the impact of the pandemic.

After one week of lockdown, her family could barely eat as the little money she saved before the lockdown didn’t last long.

The family waited, believing that there would be support on the way from the government or NGOs, but all was in vain.

She said: ‘We were hoping that before we finished the food we stored in the house, the government intervention would have reached us.’

It never came.

Fortunately for the hairstylist, a friend introduced her to a new line of business of buying and selling perishable foodstuff daily.

‘My friend took me to the market, where vegetables are sold in bulk, and gave me a small space to display the perishable food I bought, so I can make sales and refund part of her money.

‘If we were waiting for government, we would starve to death with our children,’ she said.

‘It is a stressful routine for me and there is still no real financial gain in it. The hair-making business was decent and less stressful.’

James’s experience of the lockdown period is nothing unusual, with most average families in Nigeria also being forced into hardship before, during and after the lockdown.

Patrick Dosu, 39, was already struggling to survive when the lockdown bit.

In January, Dosu, who drove tricycles for a living, suddenly found himself out of work.

The Lagos state government had just banned the use of tricycles and motorcycles in some major parts of the state, causing a sudden rise in unemployment.

About 14,000 motorcycle and 50,000 tricycle operators lost their jobs overnight, while the cost of public transport soared as companies took advantage of the sudden collapse in competition and raised prices.

Dosu, who has an Ordinary National Diploma (OND), had been struggling to find a new job when the Covid-19 outbreak further crippled his efforts.

He said: ‘I was stranded when the lockdown was announced.

There was no money to buy food for two days, let alone for a whole month.

He said the church, his friends and family members gave him money and food that stopped him and his wife and two children from starving.

But added: ‘Life is even more difficult for a common man like me after the lockdown.

‘Instead of looking for means to ease our suffering, the government has increased the electricity tariff and the fuel pump price as well.’

With a young population and high levels of poverty, the fear is that lockdown-induced poverty will kill far more people than Covid-19 ever could in Nigeria.

About 90 million people, or 46 per cent of the population, lived on less than $2 a day before the pandemic.

Unemployment was also rising before the coronavirus outbreak, and the situation has further deteriorated with the pandemic.

Nigeria’s unemployment rate came in at 27.1 per cent in the second quarter of 2020, the highest on record.

It was the first time since 2018 that Nigeria’s National Bureau of Statistics (NBS) published such figures. It compares to 23.1 per cent seen back in the third quarter of 2018.

According to World Food Programme (WFO), it has been necessary for many major governments to introduce incentives and economic relief programmes that not only provide a financial cushion for affected individuals, but also fight the broader economic disruption caused by the virus.

Such programmes are intended to help alleviate small-scale business stress and bolster economic growth.

Elizabeth Byrs, a WFP representative, said more than 3.8 million people, mainly working in the informal sector, already face losing their jobs amid rising hardship in Nigeria.

Meanwhile, analysts maintain that the support measures introduced so far have not made the desired difference in the lives of citizens.

‘The donations made by individuals, corporate organisation and developed countries are yet to be accounted for,’ said Azu Osumili, a radio journalist and political analyst.

As a means of mitigating the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic, the federal government created a Special Public Work programme of 774,000 jobs for 1,000 youths in each of the 774 local government areas in the country.

According to Festus Keyamo, Minister of State for Labour and Employment, the jobs are expected to provide modest stipends for itinerant workers to undertake drainage digging and clearance, irrigation canals clearance, rural feeder road maintenance, traffic control and street cleaning.

One of the youths who is well informed about the proposed federal government job intervention, Israel Ukpong (not his real name), said he is still waiting for the commencement of the project as announced by the government.

Ukpong, who used to work in a factory in Ogun state, said he also lost his job when the foreign nationals who ran the company he worked for left Nigeria at the start of the pandemic.

He stated: ‘Even the money and food they promised didn’t get to me. As it is now, I have no stable source of income. I go about taking menial jobs. Riding okada (motorcycles) would have been good, but then okada have been banned.’

To worsen the situation, the federal government through the Nigerian Electricity Regulatory Commission, more than doubled the cost of electricity.

Different stakeholders and some former leaders have expressed disgust and resentment at what they described as the insensitive hike in electricity tariffs and fuel pump price, saying that the increments are ill-timed and disregards the challenges currently faced by Nigerians.

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Nigeria Elections: Choice between competence and integrity

The forthcoming elections in Nigeria is a choice between the integrity of President Muhammadu Buhari and the competence of Atiku Abubakar, the leading contenders in the race. Moffat Ekoriko and Peterclaver Ebochue report

Bola Ahmed Tinubu, one of Nigeria’s most formidable politicians and the leader of the ruling All Progressives Congress set off the race to frame the issues in the country’s forthcoming elections. The country is going to the polls, in February and March, to elect the president, 32 state governors and federal and state legislators. In an allegory on the charcter of the two leading candidates, Tinubu said, “Leave a naira on the table with Buhari in the room, you will find the naira on the table when you return,” He was alluding to the famed integrity of President Muhammadu Buhai who is running for a second term in office, after his feat in defeating an incumbent Nigerian president in 2015. His main contender is Atiku Abubakar, Nigeria’s vice president for eight years (1999 – 2007) and a successful businessman who is running on the ticket of the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP). The party became Nigeria’s main opposition party after losing to Buhari’s APC at the last election.

An anonymous writer on social media latched on to Tinubu’s comment to crack a joke, albeit one which now clearly reframes the election. According to him, ‘If you leave Buhari with N1 in the room, he will pretend not to see it while his aides will steal the money. If you leave it with Tinubu, both the N1 and the table will disappear by the time you return. If you leave it with Atiku, he will multiply the money to N1,000, take 50 per cent and and leave 50 per cent on the table for you.’

In Tinubu’s eyes, Buhari’s integrity is unquestionable, much like that of a colonial banker. To the man who amplified his comment, Atiku’s integrity may be questionable but he has the competence to improve the situation. There is no point bringing Tinubu into the picture since he is not a candidate. The banter is an apt framing of the issues in the election. Nigerians are asked to chose between integrity (as in Buhari) and competence (as in Atiku). Interestingly, none of the top candidates is credited, even by their staunchest supporters, as having both attributes.

Those who have both, are campaigning on the fringes. They are Kingsley Moghalu of the Young Progressive Party (YPP), a an economist, journalist and former deputy governor of the central bank;   Oby Ezekwesili, former Vice President of World Bank, former Minister of education and Co-founder of ‘Bring Back Our Girls’, BBOG, Movement who is running on the platform of the Allied Congress Party of Nigeria (ACPN);  and Adesina Ayodele Fagbenro-Byron, a former governance adviser with the United Kingdom's Department for International Development, a lawyer and musician running on Kowa Party platform. As at the last count, the Indpendent National Electoral Commission (INEC) has registered 91 political parties though only 46 parties fielded candidates for the presidential race. Of this number, a handful of the parties are said to be serious while the rest are believed to have gone into the race just for the records or probably to test the ‘waters’. According to reports, most of the newly registered political parties do not have the grassroot support and structures across the 36 states of the country.

Part of the campaign strategy of the APC is to continue to paint PDP as the party of corruption. The party has not wasted time since it took over power in May 2015 to blame Nigeria’s woes, be it economic or security, on the corruption which it claims PDP foisted on the country. In fact, its campaigners in 2015 had asked Nigerians to vote in Buhari so that he ‘will kill corruption before corruption kills Nigeria’. More than three years on, the party is still anchoring its legitimacy in power on the anti corruption mantra.

APC is quick to reel out its achievements on the anti corruption front. The Economic and Financial Crimes Commission, the government anti corruption agency, recovered N473.06 billion ($1.3 billion) as proceeds of corruption and other economic crimes in 2017, the last year for which data are available. Many Nigerians still believe that Buhari is the man to fight corruption, despite attempts by the opposition to puncture his integrity persona. The challenge the opposition faces is that despite being a public officer since the age of 19 (bar the 30 years he was out of power), Buhari has no oil bloc or business that can be traced to his name.

The opposition has moved to demystify the president’s persona. They have pointed out and correctly too, that the president is surrounded by known corrupt persons, and officials of his government caught with their hands in the oily Nigerian pot have been let off with slaps on the wrist. Immediately  he inaugurated his presidential campaign council, the PDP quickly asked him to send the list of members to the EFCC for vetting if he means business. The most damaging counter attack appears to be that of petroleum subsidy. When the president was campaigning for office in 2015, he accused his predecessor of fraud in subsiding 30 million litres of petrol a day when the assessed consumption was 20 million litres. Bukola Saraki, the president of Nigeria’s Senate and now the director general of Atiku’s campaign council says Buhari’s government is subsiding 50 million litres a day. Worse, the funds for the subsidy was never appropriated by the National Assembly. As at May, the government was spending $7 million daily to subsidise fuel imports. The Nigerian National Petroleum Company (NNPC), the state oil company, which is the sole importer of the product calls the subsidy ‘under recoveries’, the difference between the cost of the fuel it imports and the pump price of the product. The subsidy tells part of the story. For an oil producing country, Nigeria still runs a high fuel import bill, which was $2.7 billion by the first half of 2018.

The ruling APC has latched on to the perception of corruption against Abubakar. His former boss, Olusegun Obasanjo, who later endorsed his candidature had literally written off the candidate as a man unfit to hold public office. To Atiku’s handlers, the message has shifted to his competence and the promise to turn round an economy which has depreciated on all known indices. The attempt to play up the integrity plus competence reputation of his running mate, Peter Obi, an economist and businessman, has not gained traction. Reason: Buhari’s running mate, Yemi Osibanjo, a professor of law and the current vice president, is also perceived as honest and competent: rare attributes for  a Nigerian politician.

The opposition wants President Buhari to run on the basis of his performance in office, which has been rather poor. On security, the president has not delivered as promised. Boko Haram insurgents have become bolder in recent weeks taking over towns like Baga, close to the shores of Lake Chad. His biggest security challenge has been killer herdsmen, recognised globally as the world’s fourth deadliest terrorist group. The president has not been able to reign in the herdsmen, sparking accusations that at best, he is a passive supporter of their actions. Last year, the international Society for Civil Liberties and rule of Law, an NGO, counted 1,750 people, mainly Christians, killed by the herdsmen, in the first half of 2018. The group, said the death count from the activities of herdsmen and Boko Haram, from June 2015 when the government came into to power to mid 2018 stood at 8,800.

On the socio-economic index, Nigeria has overtaken India as the country with the highest number of poor people. Given that Nigeria’s population is one seventh of India’s, it is an appaling performance. The national currency has depreciated by 50 per cent and the country’s statistican says the number of unemployed Nigerians increased by 3.3 million to 20.9 million in the third quarter of 2018.

President Buhari has hit back with his government’s achievements. Top of the list is the transformation in agriculture, which has seen the country achieving near sufficieny in food production. Godwin Emefiele, the central bank governor says the country’s monthly food import bill has fallen from $665.4 million in January 2015, four months before the new government came into power, to $160.4 million by October last year. According to him, the cumulative savings over the period came to $21 billion. The government has also invested heavily on infrastructure, putting in a record $9 billion in the last two years.

With INEC, Nigeria’s electoral umpire scheduling the presidential election for the 16th of February, 2019, there are fears about the credibility of the exercise. PDP is worried that the security agencies will not be impartial in the policing of the elections. The heads, bar two,  of all security agencies in Nigeria are from the president’s inner circle. President Buhari succeeded in ignoring the spirit of federal character in the constitution to appoint security chiefs only from his part of the country. Uche Secondus, national chairman of PDP in reviewing the performance of the party in an election in Ekiti State last year said ‘they contested against APC and the security agencies’. NewsAfrica learnt the party still harbours that fear.

Few weeks ago, Amina Zakari, President Buhari’s niece by marriage was appointed the head of the collation centre at the electoral commission. This is being seen as part of the plot to rig the election in favour of the government. The attempt to remove the country’s highest judge, Walter Onnoghen, in breach of laid down constitutional rules is perceived as another. The government filed charges against the chief judge at the Code of Conduct Tribunal on January 11 with a summons to appear in court on Monday. The government is accusing the chief judge of failing to declare his assets in line with public service rules. To the shock of many, the government also filed a motion asking the chief judge to step down from office. Under Nigerian laws, any allegation against a judicial officer has to be reported to the National Judicial commission which is vested with the power of investigation and discipline of judges. This was not done in this case. In fact the timeline from the receipt of a petition against the chief judge to filing of charges was 48 hours, an unpredecented record in Nigeria’s law enforcement history. The move against the chief judge has attracted condemnation from politicians, civil society and lawyers.

President Buhari has also refused to sign the amended electoral bill which could have institutionalized the deployment of card reader technology. Proponents of the bill says it will check malpractices like bloated votes as the capturing of accredited voters will be transmitted in real time to a central computer. On his part, the president in refusing to sign the bill into law says it will create confusion, coming so close to the actual elections. He has, however, promised to deliver a credible and fair election.

 

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