Digital Rights in Nigeria 2017: The Darkening Clouds

By Babatunde Okunoye

Nigeria, within the context of Africa, is very conspicuous and large. With the largest population and economy within the continent, no serious discussion about Africa is complete without the Nigerian situation considered.

Within the context of digital rights, however, in the past 3 years, Nigeria has achieved a relatively low profile status as a country where Internet freedom is largely respected. Although there has been worrying developments such as increased government procurement of surveillance equipment, the progress of the anti-social media bill and the use of the Cybercrime Act of 2015 as the basis of isolated incidents of arrests of citizens for comments made online, within the context of Internet shutdowns and the overwhelming repressive environments within the continent, the status of Internet freedom in Nigeria has nonetheless been deemed respectable.

Until this year, that is. The year 2017 has been a very active year for digital rights in Nigeria, in a more negative way than positive. At least 10 individuals were arrested this year for exercising their right to freedom of expression online. Many of them were journalists. Among those arrested were Mr Jerry Edoho, a Journalist with Ibom Nation newspaper in Uyo; Audu Maikori, a popular businessman; Mr Austin Okai, a youth leader in Kogi; Midat Joseph, Bureau Chief of the Leadership Newspapers and Kemi Olunloyo, a popular blogger. The Abuja offices of Premium times Nigeria, a premier investigative journalism outfit was also ransacked by Nigerian security services.

More troubling, however, were the bills proposed before the legislature to gag freedom of expression online. Prior to this year, the Cybercrime Act of 2015 was the principal legislation used as the basis of arrests of citizens for comments made online, especially via social media. In 2017, under the guise of combatting terrorism, the Federal government has introduced legislation that threatens freedom of expression. The Terrorism Amendment Act has been introduced in response to the secessionist movement in south-east Nigeria and the abundance of online chatter surrounding the matter. Similarly, a draft executive bill on hate speech has been presented by the Ministry of Justice.

Adding to the increased speculation that the Federal Government is intent on stifling freedom of expression online, it has emerged that the government through the National Communications Commission (NCC) has allegedly put in place plans to block websites and blogs deemed offensive to the government. It has also emerged that in the Federal Capital Territory, security agencies have put millions of mobile phones under surveillance. These moves are set against the planned launch of spy satellites with capabilities the public knows little about.

Nigeria has reached a tipping point. The blocking of websites and blogs, for instance, are actions that were once only associated with globally acknowledged repressive states like Egypt and Ethiopia. However, right before our eyes, the tide is turning against digital rights in Nigeria.

The warning signs of 2017 are a stark warning sign for civil society as we head into 2018, one year ahead of the election year of 2019. This is a huge opportunity for civil society and Nigerian citizens to coalesce our efforts to stem this rising tide against digital rights in Nigeria.

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