Security vs Freedom: Update on Internet Freedom and Communication Privacy in Nigeria

Military History and Clampdowns

On January 15, 1966, Nigeria’s 6-year old post-colonial democracy was truncated by a military coup. What would be the country’s first phase of military rule lasted until October 1, 1979, when General Olusegun Obasanjo handed over to a democratically elected Shehu Shagari. On the last day of 1983, General Muhammadu Buhari resumed the second phase of military dictatorship that survived until May 29, 1999. The years of military rule saw huge oppression of citizens and massive clampdown on the media and civil society.

Civil society leaders fled to exile. Media institutions that chose to report the news as it happened faced threats, attacks and even death. Every dissenting voice was billed for squashing until various events led to the re-emergence of democracy in Nigeria. In the same year that the military handed over the leadership of Nigeria and the nation joined other nations across the world to practice democracy, a Constitution (for the Federal Republic) with provisions for citizen rights returned as a supreme instrument.

Among other provisions, Section 37 of the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria (1999) makes a very strong case for citizens’ rights to privacy: “The privacy of citizens, their homes, correspondence, telephone conversations and telegraphic communications is hereby guaranteed and protected.” Though Nigeria returned to democratic rule, this provision has not been perfectly respected. In fact, military-style provisions like “Official Secrets” and “Sedition” were popular until a Freedom of Information law was finally approved in 2011.

Threats to Privacy and Freedom

For a long time, Nigeria has seen various degrees of unrest around various regions of the country. In the South East, the Movement for the Actualization of the Sovereign State of Biafra (MASSOB) recently gave a sit-at-home order. The South West’s Odu’a People’s Congress (OPC), that has morphed into something close to a vigilante group, was once dreaded for its activities.

Militants in Nigeria’s oil-rich Niger Delta area were probably the most popular for their hold on the State until the North East started seeing terrorist acts by Jama’atu Ahlisunnah Lidda’awati Wal-Jihad, popularly known as Boko Haram. Following a bomb blast at the venue where the 50th independence anniversary of Nigeria should have held, in October 2010, and other terrorist activities, the Nigerian State began activities that were borderline illegal as far as the privacy and freedom of citizens are concerned.

A Telecom Facilities Lawful Interception of Information Bill was introduced in the National Assembly in 2010 but as with many legislative needs in Nigeria, the bill did not enjoy much traction before the 6th Session of the Assembly completed their term in May 2011. In 2013, the telecommunications regulator, Nigerian Communications Commission, introduced Draft Lawful Interception of Communications Regulations, which sought to achieve, through secondary legislation, what the Lawful Interception Bill was slow to achieve.

Considering the constitutional provision that protects the privacy of telecom users, various groups kicked against the act. Groups asked the Government to do the right thing by subjecting any such regulation to the rigour of legislative processes. At about the same time, an online newspaper, Premium Times, revealed that the federal Government had awarded a secret contract to Elbit Systems – to monitor Internet communication in Nigeria.

In May 2013, an online technology newspaper, Technology Times, revealed that DigiVox, a company that specializes in lawful interception services, listed the Nigerian State Security Service and all private telecommunications operators in Nigeria – MTN, Airtel, Etisalat, Glo – as its clients.

Paradigm Initiative Nigeria’s (Ongoing) Intervention

With support from the Citizen Lab/Munk School for Global Affair’s CyberStewards Program and Internews’ Global Internet Policy Project, Paradigm Initiative Nigeria (PIN) strengthened its focus on ICT Policy in Nigeria in the first quarter of 2013. This put the organization in a good position to fill an existing vacuum in advocacy for Internet Freedom in Nigeria.

Beginning with a Freedom of Information request that was not responded to after the mandatory seven (7) days, PIN commenced a targeted advocacy effort that has now evolved into the application for an “order of mandamus” through a Federal High Court in Abuja. The court is yet to set a date for ruling as at the time of submitting this abstract to the Connaught Summer Institute on Monitoring Internet Openness and Rights.

PIN also continues to consult widely with stakeholders including the National Assembly, Ministry of Communication Technology, Civil Society Organizations (CSOs), technology enthusiasts, Internet users and some security agencies. A Policy Brief titled Nigeria: Making A Case For Enduring Internet Freedom was published on May 29, 2013, and has been widely distributed.

The National Assembly has announced that its Information and Communication, Security and Human Rights committees will jointly investigate the secret contract awarded to Elbit Systems, and PIN has been invited to follow the proceedings, which could start before the summer institute convenes in Toronto in July 2013. PIN also worked with a group of 10 other CSOs to release a joint statement on the need for government to follow due procedure in its attempt to monitor private communication in the name of keeping citizens safe from terrorism.

PIN has enjoyed tremendous media support in the advocacy work, which has been further helped by the ongoing global discussions on the issue of citizen surveillance, and particularly PRISM in the United States of America.

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