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Meet the Nigerian Activist Defying Labels to Defend Activism

Growing up, Victoria Ibezim-Ohaeri was often bullied by other kids and even overlooked by adults because of her nickname. Annoyed by too many comments about having a second daughter, Victoria’s mom had given her a nickname that sounded like Nigerian slang for “oh, shut up.” Unfortunately for Victoria, it stuck.

One day, she began demanding that teachers, schoolmates, and friends call her Victoria instead. The taunts ended, and Victoria started receiving respect and even praise from those around her. Labels, she realized, carried real weight.

Years later, as a Harvard-trained lawyer, Victoria found herself returning to that lesson. It was the early 2010s and Nigeria was at a critical moment. Violence had skyrocketed, driven by ethnic tensions, the rise of militants, and security forces who operated with impunity. Corruption was rampant. Yet, marginalized people—and the community activists who spoke out for their rights—were the ones being labeled as criminals.

Victoria realized that in order to create real change, these labels had to go. In 2011, she founded Spaces for Change (S4C) to  change how activists are treated by authorities and perceived by the public. Today, with the Fund’s support, the group has 15 full-time staff and its work has expanded to 15 states throughout Nigeria.

Starting in 2016, Victoria and S4C noticed an uptick in proposed laws and new financial rules targeting activist groups. They began to uncover how measures intended to counter terrorism were being abused to close civic space, and how activists could protect their work and civic freedoms.

Activists Caught in a Counterterrorism Net

In response to the rise of insurgent group Boko Haram, Nigeria instituted a complex set of financial regulations intended to fight terrorist funding. In reality, these rules were being used to paint activists as money launderers. Victoria recognized the same bullying she’d encountered in her childhood. But this time, it carried frightening consequences for those who spoke truth to power.

The new financial regulations, which included all nonprofits and NGOs, were so complicated that few grassroots groups were able to even understand them, let alone comply with their strict stipulations. For example, people organizing to address poverty in their village would have to complete up to seven different registrations, each of which had different and often complex processes and requirements. Noncompliance could result in digital surveillance, being shut down, or even arrest. How, Victoria wondered, could marginalized communities without money or accounting expertise ever overcome these barriers to continue addressing inequality or corruption?

As Victoria and S4C dug deeper, they realized they couldn’t do this alone. They reached out to fellow activists to collaborate, eventually forming an advocacy coalition called the Action Group for Free Civil Space in Nigeria. And they turned to the Fund for additional support. Our Enabling Environment for Human Rights Defenders program offered them the resources to conduct research, try different approaches, and foster connections with financial experts to craft strategies.

Changing Minds, Preserving Activism

In 2017, S4C began releasing an important series of research reports, which they have continued to publish since 2021 with the Action Group, outlining the negative impact on nonprofits and activist groups and demonstrating a lack of evidence that the sector was at high-risk to have connections with terrorism.

The reports also demonstrated that consequences for communities in need had been dire. A freeze placed on all humanitarian aid organizations in the northeast where Boko Haram was attacking prevented food and other lifesaving supplies from getting to thousands of families who had fled the violence.

Their research-based analysis quickly drew the attention of government and regulation decision-makers. Victoria, S4C, and the Action Group became recognized forces for changing how activists were labeled in Nigeria. They began meeting with authorities to discuss changing the law—the first time any nonprofits had been invited to such policy discussions.

After six years of research, advocacy, and dialogue, in May 2022, Nigeria official removed nonprofits from the category of organizations required to adhere to these financial regulations. At S4C’s recommendation, independent analysis will also be conducted around how to assess the risk of NGOs potentially connected to terrorist financing and create regulations without overburdening the entire sector or endangering vulnerable communities.

Victoria and S4C’s work is hardly finished. Civic space in Nigeria remains under threat from exploitation of security measures to limit people’s freedom of expression or assembly. “The nonprofit community needs to remain vigilant and alert,” Victoria notes. “We now have the opportunity to make sure measures respect our constitutional freedom and ensure that civil society can take part in influencing outcomes of decisions.”

As Victoria is undeterred, so is the Fund’s support for her and S4C. “Huge credit goes to the Fund.  It’s not just funding we received. Sometimes we are not sure, sometimes we are afraid… but the Fund continued to believe in us. They kept pushing us to get to the end of the tunnel where bright lights begin to shine,” she says.

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