‘Gbenga Sesan: Before Nigerians lose their internet freedom – Stop, Jonathan, stop

by ‘Gbenga Sesan

GbengaSesan

As shouts of “Run, Jonathan, Run” ring towards 2015, asking Nigeria’s president to seek a second term in office, I hope he also hears the wise whispers of “Stop, Jonathan, Stop.”

On Saturday, 6 April, 2013, at a leadership workshop organized for young and emerging leaders in Ekiti State, South West Nigeria, I asked Nigeria’s Minister of Finance and Coordinating Minister for the Economy, Dr. Ngozi Okonjo-­‐Iweala, a simple question: Why does the administration of President Goodluck Jonathan prefer lazy solutions? My premise, at the time, was the ill-­‐managed process of removing subsidies on Premium Motor Spirit (petrol) by the Nigerian government while it was still holding discussions with labour groups and others on the need for such. This led to series of protests, across Nigeria, that have been described as Occupy Nigeria protests.

Another lazy solution is how this government continues to throw money at complex problems, such as monetized amnesty for groups that took up arms against the State. The Nigerian government has set up a committee to discuss the possibility of extending the same form of amnesty that has seen government paying $419 monthly remuneration to about 10,000 former militants from the Niger Delta region to members of the Boko Haram terrorist group operating in northern Nigeria. I worry that the Transformation Administration has chosen another lazy path, one that holds the potential of taking Nigeria down a road we won’t recover from. Nigeria wants to start unlawful Internet surveillance!

I understand the need for Nigeria’s pursuit of solutions to our current security problems. However, there is a tension that exists between security and human rights, and lazy governance could tilt the scale against rights for Nigerians. While it is the primary responsibility of government to provide security, it also shares a responsibility with citizens to ensure rights are not abused.

Last month, a Nigerian online newspaper, Premium Times, reported that the Nigerian government had signed a $40 million contract with Israel-­‐based Elbit Systems to monitor Internet communication in Nigeria. In a series of tweets I posted on Saturday, May 4, 2013, I explained how provisions in Nigeria’s 2013 budget confirm government’s intention to commence Internet monitoring and surveillance. In the budget, Nigeria set aside $61.9 million for “Wise Intelligence Network Harvest Analyzer System, Open Source Internet Monitoring System, Personal Internet Surveillance System and Purchase Of Encrypted Communication Equipment.”

While the act of surveillance, for the purpose of ensuring national security, might appear noble, it is important to explain how lazy governance is at play again, in what could take Nigeria many years back into the military era when surveillance became a tool of oppression by the State. How does a nation that has no Data Privacy laws or legal provision for interception seek to monitor communication?

A Telecommunications Facilities (Lawful Interception of Information) Bill has been gathering dust on the floor of the National Assembly. For a country serious about

the rule of law, the lawful interception bill could outline provisions for interception in pursuit of a safer country without sacrificing the freedom of citizens or their constitutional right to communicate freely, including on the Internet. But for Nigeria’s lazy government, the rigour of primary legislation subject to citizen scrutiny, through Public Hearing sessions, appears not to be an option.

Months ago, Nigerians read reports of a Draft Lawful Interception of Communications Regulations by the country’s telecommuication regulator, Nigerian Communications Commission. The government’s attempt to use secondary legislation – law drawn up by an agency and not subject to scrutiny of the nation’s legislators – for lawful interception is a lazy governance misstep. And while both primary and secondary legislation are on the table, the 2013 budget and the $40 million contract paint the true picture of Mr. Jonathan’s intentions.

Internet surveillance is not something that should be freely given to security agencies that still show signs of military-­‐era tactics. Indeed, many Nigerians are unlearning various things from that military era. Security agencies need to work, but lazy governance does not produce sustainable solutions. Nigeria must put appropriate laws, checks and balances in place first. That is the least any government owes the citizens whose rights it swore to protect.

Considering the Nigerian context, there are many dangers on the path of Internet surveillance. Journalists, who already know the price of stories that make government uncomfortable, will be easy targets. The opposition, citizens who wish to freely express their opinion, and any perceived “enemy” of the administration, could lose their fundamental rights in the name of keeping Nigeria safe.

As shouts of “Run, Jonathan, Run” ring towards 2015, asking Nigeria’s president to seek a second term in office, I hope he also hears the wise whispers of “Stop, Jonathan, Stop.” Today’s government leaders in Nigeria could become tomorrow’s monitored citizens. If Nigeria needs any form of Internet surveillance in the pursuit of security solutions, then we must first get fair, enabling laws that guarantee the rights of innocent citizens.

As you read this, Paradigm Initiative Nigeria (PIN), the social enterprise where I am Executive Director, awaits feedback on our Freedom of Information request – on the same subject of Internet surveillance – to the Presidency. Based on the new Freedom of Information (FoI) law signed into law by President Goodluck Jonathan in May 2011, PIN’s May 6 request should get an official response within 7 days of receipt. In the next few weeks, PIN will also release a Policy Briefing on National Security, Lawful Interception and Internet Freedom. As Nigeria navigates this difficult period in her history, I hope laziness does not prevail.

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