Secretary Antony J. Blinken at a Discussion with Civil Society

SECRETARY BLINKEN:  Thank you.  Well, again, thank you.  Thank you to each and every one of you for joining us today.  And I really want to say a special thanks to Reverend Hayab for making the journey from Kaduna all the way here.  Greatly appreciate it.

I also met with civil society activists in Kenya, just a couple of days ago.  And I really wanted an opportunity to get together with all of you and to hear from you, listen to you, and I hope learn from you because to make progress on the issues that matter most, we just can’t be engaged with government, and government can’t do it alone.  Community groups, faith groups, human rights defenders, journalists, others, are a critical part of the equation and essential to the progress that we all want to see made.

So as I said, I really want to listen to each and every one of you.  Just very quickly, before we get into a conversation, a couple of things that I wanted to put before you that are front and center on my mind.

First, freedom of expression, access to information, are key to democracy.  We all know that.  And a lot takes place online and on our social media.  But across the region and around the world, in the United States, we know how these forums can also be used to spread misinformation, hate, and even incite violence.

So one of the things I’m most keen to hear from you about is how you see government and how you see the private sector, how you see citizens in our democracies getting the right balance between a vibrant, open discourse that’s so essential, but also preventing that discourse from being used to inflict harm.

The second thing that I’m thinking about – I’m thinking about is some of you were very deeply engaged with the electoral and constitutional reforms that have passed here in Nigeria, including those below the age at which Nigerians can run for office.  When it comes to keeping our democracies healthy and vibrant, we know how important it is to actually keep young people engaged and make them feel that the system is theirs to shape, and that it’s actually responsive to what they care about, to their futures, to their aspirations.

And so I’d be eager to hear from each of you whether or not that is in fact the case, and if it’s not, of what you think we can do to strengthen that connection between young people, rising generations, and our democracies.

The third thing is this:  We saw the conclusion this week of the independent Lagos State Judicial Panel of Inquiry’s work and the transmission of its final report.  And this is clearly an important step toward accountability for the killings and other abuses alleged to have been committed by security forces during the “End SARS” protests, a year ago.  So we’re very much looking forward to the federal government and the Lagos state government and other state governments taking measures to address the alleged abuses, as well as the grievances of victims and their families.  Reports are critical, but what counts as much and even more is whether there’s action that follows those reports.  I’d be very interested in getting your perspectives on that.

Finally, I really just want to recognize the role that many of you played, particularly the faith leaders who are here, in defusing tensions that can result in communal violence.  This is an extraordinarily diverse country when it comes to faith and religion.  So many different views in one country.  And that’s a very wonderful and powerful thing.  But of course, it also comes with challenges and the potential for tensions and violence.  And I very much appreciate the role that you play in making sure that that’s not the case.

We’ve seen that the trust that you’ve earned from communities can make all the difference in preserving peace, and your leadership is one that we hope more will follow, not just in Nigeria but beyond.

So those are some of the things that were on my mind.  Mostly, though, eager to hear from each of you, and to have a conversation.  So with that, again, thanks for being here.  Thank you.