48 million naira is a decent sum. That was the price quoted for NigeriaAir.ng by a business-savvy Nigerian who registered it on July 18, 2018, a day after the national airline was unveiled. This followed the mistake by government handlers of Nigeria’s proposed national carrier that was expected to commence operations in December 2018, but is yet to take off. At the time, I tweeted that the registrant could face a jail term and/or pay a fine to show a legal blind spot.
Unfortunately, that blind spot remains today, and can be seen in the many reactions to regulatory bottlenecks that have reared their heads between July 2018 and now. Some laws may be unfair but laws remain the system of rules that guide behaviour, and anyone whose daily grind and intended success will be subjected to such rules must pay attention. The dust of the NigeriaAir.ng case has now settled but some real issues remain.
That it was a surprise for many people that a business-savvy individual could face such punishment based on provisions of the Nigeria’s cybercrimes law, points to a major problem. You can’t afford to be ignorant of the law in your domain of expertise, especially in a country where laws are mostly government revenue traps. Another challenge is the complete lack of interest in going beyond individual cases, such as the NigeriaAir.ng domain name debate and recent law affecting ride-hailing startups, to look at the importance of policy to startups. In this article, I share three major lessons every startup must learn about tech policy in Nigeria.
Knowledge: Ignorantia legis neminem excusat. Ignorance of law excuses no one. Startups must get familiar with the legal environment where they do business and intend to grow. If they don’t, they could force investors (who care about legal environments) to ignore them. Issues around tech and law must not be left until you are bigger and can afford a Government Relations Lead or Policy Wonk in Residence. Show interest, listen when experts discuss, seek counsel from people who can guide you, build expertise within your team and stay on top of this compliance aspect of your game. You don’t want to build the best product or service only to find out that you can’t make your launch date from behind bars. Yes, there are those of us whose job it is to work for a better environment — to make sure government either gets out of the way or works for innovation over clampdowns — but please don’t get into trouble while we are still fighting necessary battles.
Involvement: The only way to prevent bad laws is to make sure they don’t become laws. Working with others who have shown similar interest, you can make your opinion known about those potential laws while they are still under discussion. Write an opinion piece, attend a public hearing, support organisations working to stop bad bills, or just do anything within your legal rights to make sure that bad bill doesn’t get signed. For example, the notorious Anti-Social Media Bill died because people acted but our failure to stop Section 24 of Cybercrime Act 2015 from remaining vague has had repercussions including jail time, court cases or unfortunate clampdown affecting numerous journalists/bloggers. Paradigm Initiative and partners are still in court over the worrying provisions of the Cybercrime Act and though our case has been thrown out twice, we are preparing for what could be a final decision on the matter, at the Supreme Court. It should not be Paradigm Initiative or Enough is Enough Nigeria or Media Rights Agenda alone, we should all be involved.
Proactive Action: Knowledge and involvement are good but we must shape policy to avoid fire brigade responses to each incident. In fact, what I am saying is that we must all become policyshapers if we don’t want to end up with lame laws. After many years of fighting for digital rights because of vague laws and outright abuse of privilege, I drafted the Internet Freedom Declaration for Nigeria in 2013. With support from partners in civil society and a willing sponsor in the House of Representatives, that seemingly useless document morphed into the Digital Rights and Freedom Bill that was passed by the House of Representatives and Senate, and made it to the President’s table earlier this year. It wasn’t signed into law then but has now gone through first reading at the House of Representatives with the help of a new sponsor. If something worries you that much, take proactive action. Do something about that policy proposal now, before it becomes an impediment to your business growth. Or ecosystem survival.
The sexy side of things shouldn’t be the sole focus of startups. There are other issues like pipelines (capacity building) and policy that must get your attention if you are building something that will be here when many fads join others before them in historical archives. If there was ever a good time for tech startups to know more about tech policy, get involved and take proactive action, that time is now!