Nigeria: Good developments for digital rights, but surveillance continues

As part of the work to promote awareness of African internet rights, this week Leila Nachawati of the Association for Progressive Communications interviewed renowned Nigerian internet rights defender Gbenga Sesan, executive director of Paradigm Initiative Nigeria (PIN), on internet rights in Nigeria, the Digital Rights and Freedom Bill and the threats and challenges to internet rights in the country and in the continent.

Where is Nigeria is in terms of internet rights, with the latest developments?

Nigeria has recorded some good developments for digital rights over the past month, including the accelerated first and second passage of the Digital Rights and Freedom Bill in the House of Representatives, and the co-sponsorship of a resolution on digital rights at the United Nations Human Rights Council. This momentum, if continued, could mean that the new government has decided to guarantee internet freedom. If the laws and policies reflect that, then it gives citizens the right to demand these rights. However, the agencies responsible for crackdown in the past haven’t demonstrated the same sense of eagerness seen in the positive instruments at the National Assembly and the UN Human Rights Council. The budgets of the National Security Adviser’s Office and Directorate of Security Services (aka “Secret Police”) continue to reflect expenses around internet surveillance plans, and this shows the need for continued vigilance.

When you talk about the crackdown against Nigerian users, what is the relationship of these agencies with the government?

They include the State Security Service (SSS), also known as the Department of State Services (SSS), and the police, mostly. They are both security agencies that are appointed by the executive arm of the government and are rightly seen by citizens as agents of the State. In fact, when the SSS acts, many assume it’s doing the bidding of the president. In recent cases, police officers used in crackdowns have acted at the prompting of their principals, including bank CEOs and governors.

What is the role of the corporate sector in Nigeria regarding preserving or threatening internet rights? And in the rest of the continent?

The corporate sector in Africa largely understands the need not to cross the government in the countries where they operate, mostly because regulatory agencies are not so independent as to ignore — and not punish — what could be considered “overstepping of corporate boundaries to meddle in political matters.” In fact, the fact that this patronage is enjoyed by some means they look the other way when government practices are anti-people. It’s not a coincidence that a lot of organisations that support advocacy against infringement of rights are corporate organisations outside the continent. Increasingly, though, certain legislations that have a huge impact on business have forced corporate organisations to speak up indirectly on citizen rights. When shutdowns happen, telecommunication companies lose money. When they ask governments for compensation, they do it for business but it also makes governments realise the cost of shutdowns, which indirectly help prevent random shutdowns. So, there are those times when corporate interest meets citizen rights.

How has the Human Rights Council helped advance internet rights in Nigeria?

As with many non-national institutions, the Human Rights Council’s resolutions and discussions don’t carry as much weight as national laws — or ratified instruments — except in cases where they are used by local actors to either demand rights from government, or where government knows it will be embarrassed (mostly through judicial advocacy) if those resolutions are not respected. However, the Nigerian government seems to have realised the importance of using the Human Rights Council
principles to improve its standing globally. As was done in the past, the current government also co-sponsored a recent resolution (a very good one) on digital rights, and this has helped with the perception of the country regarding digital rights. What Nigeria must now do is to make sure the feel-good, look-great action taken on the global stage must be replicated at home. There’s a huge opportunity for that through the Digital Rights and Freedom Bill that has now passed 2nd reading at the House of Representatives.

Is there a strong civil society understanding of what is at stake with the Digital Rights and Freedom Bill, and the threats still ahead?

There is an increasing understanding but much more work is required. Traditional human rights institutions are beginning to see the intersection of their work with online threats, and other stakeholders will become aware of the provisions to address this through the Digital Rights and Freedom Bill over the next few months, as we go towards the public hearing that could be hosted by the House committees on Communications and Human Rights for the bill.

How can the African Declaration on Internet Rights and Freedoms be used to promote that understanding, advocacy around these key issues?

The pan-African nature of the African Declaration presents an opportunity for country-level efforts to refer to regional best practices. While these efforts are independent and some even took off before the regional declaration was drafted, nothing helps better than when you know your effort isn’t a lone wolf. The provisions of the declaration, which has gained huge popularity, can guide as principles for advocacy and the promotion of understanding of the issues of digital rights in every country.

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