Written by Barbara Maigari
Citizen-Led Accountability: Strategies and Tools, 2016; Coady Fellowship, 2017

Practice, Adaptations, Innovations

One of the challenges in Nigeria’s democratic governance process is the lack of depth of public knowledge on reformed criminal justice laws in Nigeria. These laws include Chapter 4 of the Nigerian Constitution, 1999; Administration of Criminal Justice Laws; Violence Against Persons Prohibition (VAPP) Act, and Child Rights Laws.

If citizens are unaware of existent laws that protect their rights and improve their ability to access justice, they will not have the power to demand accountability from government, seek for enforcement of the law in their favor, and ensure democratic principles are adhered to.

This problem affects all citizens and residents of Nigeria – men, women, girls and boys of all faiths, ethnic groups and nationalities. It affects young, old, able and persons with disabilities. Poor public awareness on criminal justice and human rights laws has been longstanding.

Citizens’ participation is the bedrock of democratic governance. The social contract between the state and citizens is that of collective participation, as such one cannot engage without the other. Therefore, citizens’ participation in criminal justice is key because it ensures accountability, collective ownership of the process, and increased credibility in the system.

Before the pandemic, Partners West Africa Nigeria (PWAN)’s awareness activities – which center on human rights promotion, protection against sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV), violence against persons, drug abuse, and more – were held in open physical spaces such as town halls, market squares, community football fields, schools, or palaces of chiefs, and hosted up to 200 participants representing communities, law enforcement agencies, bar associations, members of the media, and implementing partners. PWAN’s programs also reached audiences through call-in radio programs, the PWAN website, and social media, which were used to distribute information, education, and communication materials such as fliers and posters relating to rights, arrest, bail, detention, and community service provisions. The call-in radio [1] program allowed citizens to ask questions while our team answered in real time.

However, since the first week of March 2020, Nigeria imposed a lockdown as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, and these physical awareness programs have been suspended. Due to government policies banning public gatherings and the need for physical distancing, PWAN has had to re-strategize by converting all its awareness programs to radio-based programs. Citizens are most disadvantaged at this time, because enforcement of the lockdown by security agencies creates an avenue for physical interaction and in some cases breach of citizens’ rights. Beneficiaries of PWAN protection services, such as survivors of SGBV, are equally affected because we are unable to conduct confidential interviews and represent them in courts. With the pandemic, we engage only through remote and virtual platforms. In the first week, a designated PWAN staff would be in his/her home and hooked up through a direct phone line to a radio station to sensitize the public on their rights.

While the shift to radio and TV programs may reach wider audiences, it has its limitations.

  • There is a challenge in getting the actual views and feedback from community members when awareness programs are held virtually. When you are present in a community to raise awareness and you can directly engage with people physically, that allows you to get their views, frustrations, displeasures and commendations as they feel them. On the radio or TV, you are blind to your audience, who cannot give direct feedback (except with call-in programs, which only allow some audience members to participate).
  • In most cases, the cost of paying for airtime to have your program aired on TV or radio (especially if the particular station has a wide public reach) is more expensive than the same engagement in the palace of a community leader (who would usually give the space for free since it will benefit the community).
  • As the cost of radio/TV is high, the allotted time is usually insufficient to pass the information and engage with the audience.
  • For the purpose of monitoring and evaluation, it is more difficult to measure impact since you have no control over the number of people who listen. Measuring an audience’s knowledge pre- and post-awareness activity is difficult and requires additional resources.

While virtual programs have been positive, physical ones are equally important for the reasons mentioned above. Prior to March, to commence an awareness process, PWAN would identify a suitable community and reach out to their traditional and religious leaders, market to women’s associations, youth groups, community-based organizations, law enforcement agencies, Nigerian Bar Association branches, and media organizations through advocacy visits to inform them of our intention to sensitize their populace. The outcome of the advocacy visits would be used to create the agenda for the awareness campaign and to create a stage-play script on how to “know your rights” that translates laws into an easily understandable format. At the awareness forums, we engage with law student clinicians from universities to dramatize the play, then facilitate discussions with participants, and allow law enforcement officials to engage with community members to learn from each other [2]. We also distribute our posters and flyers with infographics explaining the rights [3] in local languages.

The use of local language is one practice that we have continued with, even with the pandemic, but with a new approach – carrying out radio-programs from our homes and virtually speaking with citizens, because of COVID-19.

The awareness has been yielding measurable results [4].

  • It has increased public knowledge on criminal justice and human rights. In the words of some participants:

    “…I am more enlightened on my legal rights. I now understand that a woman can surety for someone on bail and I am aware that I can ask for search warrant from the police if the event arises.”
    – Abdul Isyaku, Gwagwalada Awareness, September, 2019

    “Based on the awareness I now understand my rights, especially… the right to ask the police at the time of arrest the reason for my arrest.” –
    Honourable Kaka, Community Woman Bwari Awareness, November, 2019“I did not know my rights before the awareness, I am more aware of them now.” – Mrs. Achembe, Market Woman Bwari Awareness, November, 2019.


  • The awareness has equally improved the relationships between citizens and law enforcement agencies. In all the awareness programs, police officers responsible for the communities made presentations and shared phone numbers of their stations.

Photos: Barbara Maigari

Reflections, Learning and Lessons

We were inspired to engage in community awareness when we realized the depth of knowledge on citizens’ rights. For us, prior advocacy visits to community leaders and law enforcement agencies helped in building relationships and ensured collaborative advocacy on the issues. This worked well for the awareness programs.

As a practitioner, I am learning that I can be more creative and adaptive if I want to. It is important to be flexible when engaging with people. As an organization, we are learning to adapt to suit the community. In some communities and based on their collective request, we included awareness on cultism and drug abuse.

This said, there is a paradigm shift along with these adaptations that we believe will affect impact, as the results from the ‘mediated’ engagement unfortunately are not the same as indicated above for the in-person awareness programs.

Effective leadership needs collaborative engagement with the people and listening to the greater demand of the populace. Success comes from thinking for and with the people.

For things to change, there is need for continuous learning and willingness of relevant agencies to respect the rights of citizens and effective interagency collaboration. 

The world is currently collaborating collectively to end the COVID-19 pandemic, and inform citizens of emotional, financial and in-kind supports across the globe. It would be good to see this sustained in all spheres of life post COVID-19.

Barbara Maigari is a program manager and consultant for Partners West Africa Nigeria (PWAN): Rule of Law and Empowerment Initiative. She holds an LLB from University of Jos, a Barrister at Law (BL) from the Nigerian Law School, an LLM from University of Jos, and an LLM Human Rights and International Justice Specialization from Central European University, Budapest. She is a graduate of Coady International Institute, and completed a Coady Institute Fellowship in 2017.



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