By Mercy Abang
A recently released report by the Collaboration on International ICT Policy in East and Southern Africa (CIPESA) revealed an emerging trend of user information and content removal requests by African Governments to Internet and telecommunications companies.
These companies, including Facebook, Google, Yahoo, Twitter disclosed a surge in requests for user information – Nigerian government had the highest number of requests for user information with 113 accounts, according to a study funded by the Department for International Development (DFID)
Facebook listed Nigeria as one of the nations with highest request made for 96 users’ information during the second half of 2015, signalling that the requests were made after President Muhammadu Buhari assumed office on May 29, 2015.
I spoke to experts in the area of Internet Security and Privacy, digital rights campaigners and activists in the political scene and they suggested the activities were a tad high but not yet worrisome.
“I’m not sure the Buhari administration understands the implications of monitoring without judicial oversight”, said Gbenga Sesan, a digital rights advocate who is the Executive Director of the Paradigm Initiative..
“This is why we drafted the Digital Rights and Freedom Bill so that citizen rights to seek redress can be outlined in cases of illegal monitoring.”
Section 24 of Nigeria’s 2015 Cybercrimes Act, signed into law by former President Goodluck Jonathan outlaws “cyberstalking” and stipulates: “any person who knowingly or intentionally sends a message or other matter by means of computer systems or network that is grossly offensive, pornographic or of an indecent, obscene or menacing character or causes any such message or matter to be so sent; or
“He knows to be false, for the purpose of causing annoyance, inconvenience danger, obstruction, insult, injury, criminal intimidation, enmity, hatred, ill will or needless anxiety to another or causes such a message to be sent commits an offence under this Act and shall be liable on conviction to a fine of not more than N7,000,000.00 or imprisonment for a term of not more than 3 years or to both such fine and imprisonment.”
Section 2 of the legislation further stated that any person who intentionally transmits any communication through a computer system or network to bully, threaten or harass another person, where such communication places another person in fear of death, violence or bodily harm or to another person “commits an offence under the act and shall be liable on conviction to a term of 10 years and/or a minimum fine of N25,000,000.00.”
So far, Nigerians in numbers have been detained and arrested over comments posted on social media, from Twitter to Facebook. Only recently, a Nigerian journalist was detained over a Facebook post. The journalist, Danjuma Katsina, was invited to the Katsina state Police Command over a complaint filed by a lawmaker from the state, Mansur Mashi. He was subsequently detained overnight.
Mr. Katsina had posted a comment on Facebook in which he analysed the outcome of the Mashi/Dutsi bye-election conducted in May, wondering why Mr. Mashi was allowed to contest the polls despite facing court action on alleged corruption.
But, an Internet security analyst argues that not all government requests for data information are meant to crackdown on dissents.
Azeenarh Mohammed, an Independent security researcher based in Abuja, Nigeria’s capital explains, “the thing to notice is that, in the context of Boko Haram, of course I imagine government tried to get information on certain account, I would consider them stupid if they didn’t. Requests are normal, no big deal and routine”.
Nigerian politicians do not think existing legislation is sufficient and several attempts have been made to regulate online users and their activity. Most feel this is an attempt to stifle and crackdown on free speech.
One significant effort was the widely resisted attempt to regulate social media, led by Bala Ibn Na’Allah, the senator representing Kebbi South senatorial district.
The bill introduced in 2015, christened the “anti-social media bill” was originally called the “Frivolous Petitions bill’ sought to put a rein on messages sent through social media. Section 3(4) of the bill reads: “Where any person through text message, tweets, WhatsApp or through any social media posts any abusive statement knowing same to be false with intent to set the public against any person and group of persons, an institution of government or such other bodies established by law shall be guilty of an offence and upon conviction, shall be liable to an imprisonment for two years or a fine of N2, 000,000.00 or both fine and imprisonment.”
The Nigerian Senate immediately withdrew said bill on the 17th of May 2016 shortly after nationwide public outcry.
“The days of absolute freedom is far gone, however safeguards must be in place to make sure governments do not abuse the process,” Kayode Ogundamisi, a Nigerian public commentator and social media user based in the UK says.
In Mr Ogundamisi’s argument, Facebook live is the choice platform for a number of bigoted hate speech and if prosecution must take place in court “it makes sense for governments to request social media companies to preserve evidence.”
Suspected State Security Service operatives also arrested a blogger in Akwa Ibom State, in what activists see as as the latest in a string of crackdowns against free speech online.
Emenike Iroegbu, who publishes Abia Facts Newspaper, was arrested in front of his family by men suspected to be attached to the SSS field office in Uyo, the Akwa Ibom State capital, his wife, Ekaette, told newsmen.
In Kogi state, where a civil servant was arrested for posting a drone captured photo of a home allegedly owned by the governor. Not too far from there is Kaduna state, where the governor arrested Mr Audu Maikori, despite his retrieval for “malicious intent” after he shared a photo from an unverified source. Nigerian politicians are unrestrained from going after their critics on social media.
From the Cybercrime act to the social media bill and only recently another bill seems to be in the works, the Non Governmental Organisation bill currently before lawmakers, sponsored by the Deputy Majority Leader of the House of Representatives, Umar Buba Jibril, representing Lokoja/Kogi Federal Constituency. These are disturbing attempts according to Activists, by the Nigerian government to to crackdown on dissents from all fronts.
The bill is recommending the setting up of yet another government agency, to be known as the NGO Regulatory Commission that is meant to issue licences to all NGOs, which would require renewing such licenses, every two years. In essence, if the commission’s board declines to renew a group’s licence, the NGO would cease to operate in the country.
“Nigeria is the only government in Africa to have made a user information request to Google and it was fully complied with,” the CIPESA report disclosed.
The emergency disclosure request was made by the Nigerian authorities in the second half of 2016 and it related to five user accounts.
According to the contents of the document, Twitter, in its transparency declaration, stated that Nigeria made three emergency requests, of which two were complied with.
For Deji Adeyanju, a social media user, and political activist, the present government’s actions in requesting for users’ information backs his claims that Nigerians “are in a dictatorship not a democracy.”
“It’s only a matter of time before this government starts assassinating online voices,” Adeyanju said. Adeyanju who has been arrested a few times since 2015 said the government “has demonstrated the intention to do so with the arbitrary crackdown of armless protesters”.
Are the obvious attempts at widespread government crackdown a much bigger plot for Nigerian citizens to expect?
Mercy Abang is a Freelance Journalist, focusing her work on development Journalism, under-reported or never reported stories mostly ignored by mainstream media organizations – She doubles as an International media fixer– She tweets at @abangmercy. Mercy is the 2017 United Nations Journalism Fellow and BudgIT Media fellow for 2017. This article was written as part of the 2017 BudgIT Media Fellowship but BudgIT had no editorial influence or control over the story.