Access Bank Plc, Nigeria’s biggest lender, is accused of illegally blocking an account used to promote media coverage of protests against police brutality that recently swept Africa’s most populous country.
Gatefield Nigeria Ltd., a public affairs company, filed a case against Access Bank in a federal court in Abuja, the capital, on Oct. 28, accusing the lender of “unilaterally restricting” its account and demanding damages of 100 million naira ($262,000), according to court documents. The account was used to raise funds to support independent Nigerian journalists that covered nationwide demonstrations that lasted almost three weeks, according to the firm.
“As more people contributed to our efforts, we noticed that we could no longer conduct transactions on the dedicated account we used for this particular activity,” Adewunmi Emoruwa, the lead strategist for Abuja-based Gatefield, said Tuesday by phone.
The lawsuit will test whether blocking Gatefield’s account without a court order was unlawful. There were other allegations by individuals and organizations on social media that their accounts were restricted during the protests for apparently similar reasons.
“A successful challenge at the court could make the difference for others who were likewise targeted,” Emoruwa said.
Gatefield was told by Access Bank that it was directed by the Central Bank of Nigeria to put restrictions on the account, implemented on Oct. 15, Emoruwa said. A spokesman for Access Bank said the lender doesn’t comment on its customers to third parties. A spokesman for the central bank didn’t respond to emails and calls seeking comment.
More than 70 people, including at least 22 policeman and soldiers, died as the initially peaceful protests against the excesses of the police’s Special Anti-Robbery Squad, or SARS, degenerated into days of rioting and looting across most of the country of more than 200 million people. Security forces killed at least 10 people when they opened fire on peaceful protesters gathered in Lagos on Oct. 20, according to human rights group, Amnesty International. The Nigerian army has denied the allegation.
Thousands took to the streets from Oct. 5 in response to a video that circulated on social media purportedly showing SARS officers molesting a civilian.
Human Rights Watch, the New York-headquartered rights group has “documented several cases of organizations and individuals whose bank accounts were frozen after receiving or disbursing funds to support the #EndSARS protests,” its Nigeria researcher, Anietie Ewang, said by email.