The CoronaVirus pandemic reminds us that Digital Rights are Human Rights

On January 9, 2020, at the Nigerian Communications Commission (NCC) Annex building in Abuja, the Presidential Broadband Committee held another session to set an agenda for the provision of affordable and reliable broadband access for the over 190 million Nigerians. Together with input from the private sector, civil society and other professionals, their goal was to ensure that the gains of Nigeria’s Broadband Plan 2013 – 2018 were expanded upon in the new plan. Nigeria’s new Broadband Plan 2020 – 2025 was published in March and set the agenda for the development of broadband infrastructure in Nigeria for the next five years.

Among the select organizations presenting evidence at the Broadband Committee’s session in January was Paradigm Initiative. A facet of our contribution focused on the need for accurate measurement of broadband access metrics in Nigeria. This is to ensure that reliable statistics on how many Nigerians really have access to broadband, and the quality of broadband quality of service, is captured. Our reasoning was that in Africa it is often the case that dodgy statistics are on display which paints far rosier pictures than the reality. Thankfully that was not the case with Nigeria.

Advocacy for affordable and quality broadband access is one of the major thrust of the work of Paradigm Initiative’s digital inclusion effort. Working out of digital inclusion training centres in Ajegunle Lagos, Aba, and Kano in Nigeria; and through research and policy advocacy in our Yaba Lagos and Abuja offices, we are always working to ensure that Nigerians reap the optimum benefits of connectivity to the digital. After all, that’s the mission of Paradigm Initiative, clearly stated on the organization’s website—‘’Paradigm Initiative is a social enterprise that builds an ICT-enabled support system and advocates digital rights in order to improve livelihoods for under-served youth“.

Yet many a time it is abundantly clear that even for those for whom advocacy organizations advocate for, the issues for which we tirelessly advocate for are unclear. Public interest advocacy can be a very lonely fight. For instance, during the course of Paradigm Initiative’s advocacy work, we have sometimes been termed ‘’busy-bodies“. Yet, as the world battles the COVID – 19 pandemic, the suffering and deprivation the global pandemic has foisted on the world perhaps presents in sharp relief why digital rights advocacy is so important. In fact, we need not look at the broad subject of digital rights in its entirety, we only need to examine broadband accessibility and affordability and its impact on education.

In Nigeria which already boasts over 10 million out-of-school children, the COVID – 19 pandemic has now ensured that even those who had access to schools have now been denied access to education because schools have been shut down to prevent the spread of the pandemic. And while children in the developed nations of the world might have the luxury of online connections to their classrooms because of well developed, standardized national broadband infrastructure which ensures that broadband is a commonplace utility which is readily available for low and middle-income households, in Nigeria only the financial elite can afford the data costs which guarantees that level of uninterrupted, seamless, quality access to classrooms in this pandemic. In the Nigerian context, we are not talking here of the capped data plans such as 1 Gigabyte, 2 Gigabytes or 5 Gigabytes of data. We’re probably talking about the unlimited data plans which allow unlimited streaming or at the very least the very large capped data plans (above 100Gigabytes) monthly.

I might go into details of Nigeria’s Gross National Income per Capita ($5710 at 2018), or extreme poverty rate (about 50%), here to buttress this. However, it could be enough to simply ask this question, ’’How many of you reading this article can conveniently fork out the approximately N20,000—N25,000 ($50—$62.50) per month to secure the unlimited data plans, or the higher capped data plans described above?”. In a country where many salaries hover around the N30,000 ($75) minimum wage, many will find such monthly data costs prohibitive. The reality is probably that millions of parents who have managed to put their children through school will personally homeschool them, with all the flaws and gaps that come with that. The children of the financial elite will come out of this pandemic several paces ahead.

So there it is. Digital rights advocacy, rather than being a very abstract thing, is laid very bare in our sights as it relates to the quality of educational experiences children will face during this lockdown. In the advocacy meetings, research, coalition building and other activities that organizations such as Paradigm Initiative does, this is the crux of the matter. Access, or the lack of it, to affordable and quality broadband will enhance or stunt human development and potential. We probably didn’t need a pandemic to tell us that.

The author, Babatunde Okunoye is Research Officer at Paradigm Initiative

 

 

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