There is no gainsaying that digital rights are an essential part of human rights. It is also true that democracy is rooted in the entrenchment of fundamental human rights. However, the rising trend of digital censorship in a democratic Nigeria smacks of an authoritarian disposition. Nigeria is gradually plunging itself into a state where the leadership wants to determine for the citizens what views of the internet they must have. This amounts to gagging Nigerians from exercising their rights to freedom of expression. This, in a nutshell, connotes digital authoritarianism.
In the meantime, britannica.com defines authoritarianism as the principle of blind submission to authority, as opposed to individual freedom of thought and action. It noted that authoritarian leaders often exercise power arbitrarily and without regard to existing bodies of law. A critical examination of the present administration in Nigeria reveals a striking display of authoritarianism in similitude with that captured in britannica.com.
A case in hand is the indefinite suspension of Twitter by the Buhari government and the directive to prosecute users of the microblogging and social networking service who defied the order. This move was hinged on the assertion that Twitter was persistently used as a platform to undermine Nigeria’s corporate existence. In a show of an arbitrary exercise of power, no constitutional or legal authority could be established to support the suspension of Twitter in Nigeria.
However, every Tom, Dick and Harry knew that the decision to suspend Twitter was because it was used as an instrument to aid the unprecedented nationwide mobilization and organization of young Nigerians to protest against Police brutality in a movement popularly called #EndSARS. That protest became an indictment on the government as its corporate image before the international community was seemingly stained.
During the #EndSARS movement last year, the youths used Twitter to attract worldwide attention to their plight by tweeting and passing information that exposed gross misconduct and extrajudicial killings, targeted mostly at young people, by the now-disbanded Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS), a tactical unit under the Nigerian Police force. Humanglemedia.com disclosed that the hashtag – ‘#EndSARS’ conversation on Twitter in October 2020 reached 99 million users and had a total of 280 million impressions. To a large extent, hostilities between the Buhari government and Twitter became rife because the CEO of Twitter, Jack Dorsey, even tweeted messages in support of the protesting youths.
Later in a twist of events, the EndSARS movement was met with the same brutality and violence it was set to fight against. On 0ctober 20, 2020, the Nigerian Army shot at peaceful protesters at the Lekki Toll Gate in Lagos, killing no fewer than 12 persons. The Nigerian authorities had and have tried to cover up the killings at the toll gate. Lai Mohammed, Nigeria’s Minister of Information, Culture and Tourism had denied that no lives were lost. In his usual rhetoric, he described the event of the day as a ‘massacre without bodies’ while labelling the whole development as fake news. The heroic lady, Obianuju Catherine Udeh, popularly known as DJ Switch, who did live Instagram streaming on the day was described by the minister as a purveyor of fake news and was merely acting out a script written by other people. The Nigerian Army on their part claimed they did not fire live ammunition at unarmed protesters. The Government went as far as slamming humongous fines on news agencies that diffused videos of the Lekki shooting.
Today, EndSARS had become a development the present government is still fighting hard to come clean about. But time, they say, heals a lot of wounds and reveals a lot of things. This is because, the Lagos State judicial panel of inquiry on restitution for victims of SARS-related abuses and other matters on November 15, 2021, revealed that at least 48 protesters were either shot dead, injured with bullet wounds or assaulted by security operatives on October 20 last year.
The panel led by Justice Doris Okuwobi established that there was indeed a ‘massacre with bodies’ at the Lekki Toll Gate as the names of those who lost their lives were made public. The Report of the Lekki Incident Investigation indicted the Nigerian Army and accused the Police of cover-up. This means wounds can now begin to heal if justice for the dead and injured will be obtained through appropriate prosecution of parties found guilty. It is also anticipated that the suspension placed on Twitter will be lifted immediately so that the burden placed on many Nigerians who genuinely earn a living from it can be removed.
Another case in hand with regards to digital authoritarianism is the rejection of the ‘Digital Rights and Freedom Bill’ by the Government of President Buhari. The bill sought to protect online and internet users in Nigeria from the infringement of their fundamental rights. This bill if assented to would have placed Nigeria in a league of nations championing the cause for the protection of digital rights and online freedom.
Regrettably, in recent years, the government had had several legislations in response to perceived concerns about internet and social media use. An example is the Anti-social media Bill 2015. While the government claimed the bill was a plan to curtail fake news and protect Nigeria’s digital sovereignty, critics were however of the view that it would threaten the digital sphere and create an atmosphere of fear. This is because social media had remained a place where Nigerians could express their opinions freely.
If the bill saw the light of the day, it would undermine citizens’ right to freedom of expression. It would also affect their ability to instil transparency by calling out and holding the government accountable through social media engagements. Truly, no authoritarian government would allow such scrutiny to take place because it would want the people to obey completely and not be allowed the freedom to act as they wish.
It would also be recalled that in 1984 during his military regime, Buhari had passed the infamous ‘Protection Against False Accusations Decree,’ known as Decree 4. Many analysts had described the Decree as the most restrictive press law ever enacted in Nigeria. It was therefore not surprising to many Nigerians that upon return to leadership in a democratic dispensation, Buhari’s government had attempted to pass a few legislations typical of the notorious ‘Decree 4’ which would have granted the government unrestricted authority to gag online expression and stifle dissenting opinions.
What then is the way forward?
Authoritarianism of any form, be it digital or otherwise stands in stiff contrast to democracy. Given that Nigerian operates a democratic government, deliberate efforts must be made to ensure that policy frameworks are in sync with the principles outlined in the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights. In this regard, the right to internet freedom must be upheld. To this end, the United Nations must rise to the occasion to begin to sanction erring member nations that encourage digital authoritarianism through policies or technology transfer.
While a developing nation like Nigeria seeks technological advancement, greater care must be taken just so that such technologies won’t be used for authoritarian purposes that threaten fundamental human rights. This means that China, Nigeria’s leading trade partner must be carefully observed. This is because China is known for its state control over the internet. It is also ranking as a sophisticated and experienced champion of digital censorship. Nigeria must therefore resist the temptation to key into any financial frameworks and bilateral relationships providing for projects or infrastructure that may promote any form of digital authoritarianism.
Tech companies on their part can help foster good governance by identifying and expunging false information which the government usually exploits to seek internet and online regulation and control. These measures, no doubt, will stem the tide of the rising spate of digital authoritarianism in Nigeria.
About The Writer
Chukwuemeka Oluka writes in from Enugu, Nigeria. He is a passionate writer and a research enthusiast. He is also a graduate of Electronic and Computer Engineering from Nnamdi Azikiwe University, Awka. He tweets @mekus_oluka and can be reached via “firstname.lastname@example.org”