Social networking, state security, and the new world order

by Tolu Ogunlesi

Two of my friends, both Nigerians, have been in the news in the last week, for criminal offences. One of them is accused of murdering and mutilating his wife. Another was caught aboard a flight in the US, holding several boarding passes, none of which belonged to him.

Yes, both men are my ‘friends’ – Facebook friends, that is. Alas, despite our ‘friendship’ I have never met any of them, and none of their names would have sounded remotely familiar prior to the incidents they now stand accused of committing.

This, is the new face of friendship. Welcome to the age of ‘Friendships-Without-Borders’ and ‘Friends-Without-Friendships.’ I have about 60 friends in common – ‘mutual friends’ is the lingo – with the alleged murderer, and more than a hundred with the stowaway.
Social networking has clearly altered the rules of the games we play, whether as citizens or governments. In the last month, the Honourable Minister of Petroleum Resources has taken to Facebook and Twitter. Amidst the heat of allegations of scandals and sweetheart deals, she decided to reach out to the public, defending herself vigorously, correcting the spelling of her name, identifying supporters, and amplifying their voices (by carefully re-tweeting all the solidarity messages directed at her).

I am, however, doubtful that Diezani Alison-Madueke does her tweeting herself; there’s something about it that suggests a ‘consultant’ is at work.

South African president, Jacob Zuma, has also recently taken to Twitter, joining Paul Kagame of Rwanda – who seems to do his tweeting himself. Weeks ago, Kagame got into a spat with British journalist, Ian Birrell, over the human rights situation in Rwanda. Few things match the experience of ‘seeing’ an exasperated President at relatively close distance.

Nasir El-Rufai is perhaps the most active of the famous Nigerians on Twitter, in terms of direct, un-mediated participation. (His Facebook equivalent is his friend and fellow Obasanjo era insider, Femi Fani-Kayode).

The world heard of El-Rufai’s arrest by the State Security Service (SSS) moments after it happened, courtesy of the detainee himself, who tweeted it. What further evidence do you need to know that the world has changed? In the past the SSS picked people up and it fell to the victim’s lawyer(s) to announce it to the world. These days the detainee will probably get a chance to announce her own fate to the world, in that tiny window of opportunity that exists just before the ‘detainer’ confiscates the offending phone.

This makes me wonder how much tougher the job of the SSS must be these days. A decade ago, there were no phones to be seized. Back then a detainee could be arrested and detained for an entire day, and by the time the news emerged in the papers the next morning the detainee would be free. Today, we can expect a barrage of minute-by-minute information, starting from the moment of detention. I can imagine the SSS boss googling “El-Rufai + SSS” moments after the arrest, and being hit with a slew of mentions – from Twitter to Facebook to online news media.

Once upon a time, Jadum, a well-known Nigerian ‘mad-man’ raised an alarm about the people “spoiling madness” – a new wave of supposed mad-men who were devaluing traditional street insanity. Jadum was heard complaining that, for example, members of this new-breed clan couldn’t walk long distances without succumbing to fatigue.

In a similar manner (and no, I’m not equating the work of the SSS with insanity) the status and work of the SSS has suffered devaluation. Time (starring as ‘Democracy’) and technology have changed the name of the game. I feel rather sorry for the security service. Gone are the days when they, alongside the Directorate of Military Intelligence (DMI), were the most feared government agencies in the land. Today, the EFCC holds that distinction, followed closely by, I think, LASTMA.
The SSS has now sadly been reduced to a “Ministerial Screening Service” (MSS); querying potential ministers; in journalese: “So, may we know you?”

When El-Rufai broke the news of the arrest of El-Rufai by the SSS, at first I thought they wanted to screen him for a ministerial appointment. I assumed that the President had given orders to the SSS to have a reluctant nominee screened by force. (That would have been another Jonathan “first”).

But no, plans were different. The SSS had some important questions to ask, relating to matters of ‘sedition’ and national security. Somehow, figures published on the back page of a newspaper are now more dangerous than an extremist sect gradually Afghanising the land.

Well, to be fair to them they didn’t harass El-Rufai. They only asked him to be reasonable. According to him, they informed him that President Jonathan is his friend. (Not sure if they meant ‘Facebook friend’). It must have been an awkward moment for the SSS operatives; even Sani Abacha must have stirred in his grave and muttered one or two “Wallahis!”

Thankfully, the SSS is now back onto familiar turf – screening the Goodluck cabinet. I heard a certain Aunty Ngozi was their guest on Monday. I wonder what they asked her: “Madam, long time. How was your flight from America? May we see your boarding pass?”

This article was first published HERE on July 6, 2011.

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