By ‘Gbenga Sesan and Mark Stephens
Nigeria stands on the cusp of great progress in the information and communication technology (ICT) sector, owing to diverse efforts by mostly youth-led entrepreneurs and collaborations. In recent years, policymakers and economic experts alike have come to appreciate this reality, looking beyond an annual budget built around oil barrels to better measure the country’s diverse economic potential. Startup hubs are sprouting up across the nation; huge investments are being made in capacity building; a critical mass of Nigerians now have access to telecommunications services, and the government is finally exploring the economic potential of the ICT sector. These indicators position Nigeria as a possible leader of Africa’s emerging digital economy.
Nevertheless, a major obstacle remains. Around the world, the global digital economy is built upon the foundation of strong legal and policy frameworks, often grounded in international human rights law, which protects the actors within it. Individuals and organizations only thrive and invest in the digital sector when there is a legal certainty, regulatory trust, and rule of law that ensures that the rights of users are respected and that the interests of citizens, businesses, and the government in the digital age are protected.
This is not yet the case in Nigeria. Although the country’s constitution mentions certain rights, there are many laws—nominally in place to protect against legitimate concerns over cybercrime and terrorism— that are ripe for manipulation, leading to clampdowns and digital rights violations. Experience shows that the resulting uncertainty, abuses, and lack of trust will hinder innovation and experimentation by entrepreneurs, chill the critical work of journalists and advocates who use the Internet to improve government services and foster accountability and limit investment by technology platforms. The collective pushback against the proposed “Frivolous Petitions Bill” demonstrates Nigerian citizens’ recognition of such risks
But this could change with the stroke of a pen. The Digital Rights and Freedom Bill, which was developed through deliberate, multistakeholder consultations, and has been passed by both houses of Nigeria’s Congress, provides a comprehensive legislative framework that describes and clarifies relevant obligations and responsibilities for human rights online. Making it law will boost Nigeria’s burgeoning Internet economy, improve governance, and further Nigeria’s position as a regional and global leader in information, communications, and technology issues.
The Digital Rights and Freedom Bill addresses a range of critical digital policy issues, such as data in the cloud; surveillance and a lawful interception; data privacy; and freedom of expression online. The bill also provides for the protection of citizens from errant behaviours such as hate speech and misinformation, as defined by a competent court of law. Overall, the bill addresses key challenges, provides regulatory clarity, and safeguards users rights, all while maintaining a preference for “openness”, which the OECD and many others have noted is vital for boosting trade, enabling innovation and entrepreneurship, fostering new, creative and cost-saving business models, and enriching social well-being.
The Bill presents Nigeria with the opportunity to build an effective digital economy with a robust policy framework that protects businesses and secures human rights, complementing ongoing efforts by citizens, civil society, the private sector, government and other actors. The Digital Rights and Freedom Bill will further cement Nigeria’s reputation as a pioneer in progressive, positive legislation in a world where repression, clampdowns, violations and dangerous laws are on the rise. We urge the national assembly to transmit the bill to President Muhammadu Buhari for his presidential assent. We also urge the President to give his assent to the bill immediately it reaches his desk.
‘Gbenga Sesan is the Executive Director of Paradigm Initiative, a social enterprise he founded in 2007 to improve livelihoods of underserved youth through provision of ICT-enabled support system and entrenchment of digital rights.
Mark Stephens, CBE has served as the Independent Board Chair of Global Network Initiative since 2014. A partner at UK firm Howard Kennedy, Stephens has undertaken some of the most important freedom of expression and privacy cases in the United Kingdom and around the world.