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Nigerian Government to Ramp Up Internet Surveillance?

Graphic by owni.eu. (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 fr)

Graphic by owni.eu. (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 fr)

This post was co-authored by Nwachukwu Egbunike and Dominic Burbidge.

In April, Nigerian news site Premium Times revealed government plans to purchase equipment that would allow it to conduct online surveillance on an unprecedented scale. The government reportedly had contracted with Israeli company Elbit Systems Ltd to advance the Internet and computer-based gathering of Nigerian citizens’ personal data.

While the blogosphere reacted in outrage, the government neither confirmed nor denied the allegation.

In May, warning bells exposing the government’s interest in digital surveillance rang once more. Nigeria was among the 11 countries discovered by Citizen Lab, a University of Toronto research center, to have FinFisher surveillance software in its possession. Gamma International, the UK-based manufacturer of FinFisher, describes its products as offering “governmental IT intrusion and remote monitoring solutions.” FinFisher products can obtain passwords from your computer, monitor Skype calls, and even turn on your computer’s camera and sound recording so as to watch you at work.

As sourcing in the Premium Times’ initial report was thin, many wondered if the coverage had been exaggerated. But when Minister of Information Labaran Maku gave an interview to Channels Television, the seriousness of the issue became quite clear.

In the interview, the Minister admitted the Nigerian government was indeed planning to spy on her netizens. According to Mr. Maku:

… let me say that most countries in the world… monitor internet. There is no country in the world where communication is not monitored. There are issues of security involved, particularly in a country like Nigeria where we are having challenges of terror… Where terror uses technology to destroy lives…That does not mean assault on the rights of citizens…

The government’s position was not swallowed by Internet users. In this op-ed column in YNaija, an online Nigerian newspaper, Gbenga Sesan asserted:

While the act of surveillance, for the purpose of ensuring national security, might appear noble, it is important to explain how lazy governance is at play again, in what could take Nigeria many years back into the military era when surveillance became a tool of oppression by the State. How does a nation that has no Data Privacy laws or legal provision for interception seek to monitor communication?

Mr. Sesan went on to explain why the implications of these government plans are reprehensible:

Internet surveillance is not something that should be freely given to security agencies that still show signs of military-­era tactics. Indeed, many Nigerians are unlearning various things from that military era. Security agencies need to work, but lazy governance does not produce sustainable solutions. Nigeria must put appropriate laws, checks and balances in place first. That is the least any government owes the citizens whose rights it swore to protect.

The lower house of Nigeria’s parliament has since ordered the immediate suspension of the $40m contract, indicating that its secrecy may stand in violation of the Fiscal Responsibility Act of 2007. But whether the executive will heed their directive is a separate issue entirely.

An editorial for The Guardian (Nigeria) has called for a halt to the plan, citing the dangers it presents for citizens’ rights to privacy. The Nigerian government has offered the public no specific information on local, computer-based threats that might justify such a large investment.

Domestic security in Nigeria is regularly threatened by the operations of Boko Haram, a terrorist Islamist group operating in the north of the country and willing to use violence to further its aims. Boko Haram has claimed the lives of about 10,000 people since 2001, rendering the organisation Nigeria’s “number one merchants of destruction.” Given the physical presence of this threat, the need to instead pour money into high-technology tools for Internet and computer surveillance is mystifying for many Nigerians.

Parallels with the current United States debate on the NSA and Edward Snowden’s leaks are only too clear. If in the West the reach of government through technology is being called into question, is this really the best time for Nigeria to invest?

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