Two years ago at an African Network Information Centre (AFRINIC) meeting, Alhassan Naru, a director of the Nigerian Communications Commission (NCC), wanted to know how the Nigerian government could shut down 21 websites.
The AFRINIC is a regional internet registry that is responsible for managing the continent’s internet resources such as IP address space. To a room full of internet industry workers, Naru explained that “in the current scenario, if the government wants to block some websites because of criminal activities, we have to send letters to more than 21 internet service providers and mobile network operators.”
Muhammed Rudman, the CEO of Internet Exchange Point Nigeria (IXPN), an infrastructure for internet service providers and network operators to exchange traffic, responded, “We don’t encourage any blocking of any traffic but if the government mandates it, yes, we can do it.”
Naru was after a more efficient way to shut down websites – and he got it. In October 2017, for the first time in Nigeria’s history, the NCC ordered the blocking of the 21 websites. To date, most have remained inaccessible when using a Nigeria-based internet service provider.
A neutral non-profit body, IXPN periodically seeks financial support for its operations, including from the NCC – and in recent times, this has raised concerns about the government’s intentions.
“The NCC seems to have an ulterior motive for supporting IXPN and might have designs on making it a government institution if they can get it to the point where it can switch off internet access in Nigeria,” says Eseohe Ojo, Programme Manager, Digital Rights, at Media Rights Agenda, an organization that advocates for freedom of expression.
The 21 websites Naru was referring to – though he did not expressly say at the time – promoted a secessionist agenda.
In 1967, Biafra, a predominantly Igbo-speaking part of South-East Nigeria, tried to break away from the rest of the country, resulting in a three-year civil war where over three million people lost their lives. Nearly half a century later, agitations for secession have not abated.
Nigerians of Northern extraction and especially their leaders have long clashed with the South-Easterners of the Biafra region, while during the civil war, Yorubas of the South-West fought alongside the North against the Igbos. The division and scars of a warring history still rankle today, and many Nigerians disagree with granting Biafra its independence, believing it would seek to suppress Nigeria.
The government cited reasons of national security in blocking what it believed to be the movement’s key websites.
These sites contained news about Biafran independence efforts and the Biafra leader Nnamdi Kanu, historical documents including pictures from the civil war, as well as tutorials on how to speak the Igbo language and general recommendations for Igbo books and culture.
One of the websites referred to Nigeria as Biafra-Nigeria, signaling its separatist agenda. Another contained angry editorials about members of Nigeria’s public service, most prominently the Minister of Information, Lai Mohammed, whom the website called a “liar”.
However, other of the websites were less overtly political. One was affiliated with a human rights group Billie Human Rights Initiative (BHRI) registered in Nigeria and in the United Nations for human rights advocacy.
In October 2017, for the first time in Nigeria’s history, the NCC ordered the blocking of the 21 websites.
Another was Legit.ng – formerly known as Naij.com – one of the country’s most visited, news platforms, run in the mold of Buzzfeed. Typically covering politics, sports, gossip and celebrity news, the site had also at the time run a number of opinion pieces with pro-secession headlines such as “4 Strong Signs Biafra is Gaining Grounds” and “6 Strong Signs Biafra May Come to Pass.” The platform has since taken these pieces down.
In a separate attempt, the government also tried to buy out the domain of Radio Biafra, an unlicensed radio station and one of the secessionist movement’s most prominent media platforms publishing live debates, news and interviews about the cause. In that attempt, the website went offline for a few days.
Some of the blocked sites have been able to restore access to their Nigerian audiences. The news site Naij.com changed its name (and website address) to Legit.ng, while Radio Biafra relocated its servers to the United Kingdom where they might be less susceptible to government takeovers.
It is unclear whether the disruption has had its desired impact on a movement the government hopes to defuse. Despite the ongoing blockade of many key sites, supporters have been able to organize and spread information through Radio Biafra, says Prince Emmanual Kanu, the brother of the movement’s leader. For instance, on May 30th, a day after Nigeria’s Democracy Day, people of the South-East were instructed by leaders of the movement to stay home to honor their fallen heroes.
The government cited national security in blocking what it believed to be the separatist movement’s key websites.
Amid the growing pan-African trend for officials to block websites, censor social media or shut down the internet, Nigeria remains relatively free, ranked “partly free” in the Freedom on the Net 2018 report, with most sites allowed to operate without government interference.
However, the Nigerian government appears to be tightening its restrictions on online content. Over the past three years, there has been an increase in arrests of bloggers and journalists for content posted online, while both the sitting government and Nigerian military have announced intentions to monitor social media.
This follows from the 2015 implementation of the Cybercrime Act, signed into law by former President Goodluck Ebele Jonathan, two weeks before current President Muhammadu Buhari took over.
The Act gives sweeping powers to the government to surveil web browsing, intercept communications, and search smartphones and computers without a warrant. Under a provision ostensibly designed to stem cyberstalking, the act states that “any person who … sends a message or other matter … he knows to be false, for the purpose of causing annoyance, inconvenience, danger, obstruction, insult, injury, criminal intimidation, enmity, hatred, ill will or needless anxiety” would be in breach of the law.
The Act has since been used to jail journalists who have published unflattering commentary about the government and its officials.
The Nigerian government appears to be tightening its restrictions on online content.
One example is Jones Abiri, arrested in 2016 by members of Nigeria’s state security service after penning an investigative piece for US-based site Point Blank that declared the Nigerian government was under threat of a military takeover.
In an interview with Committee to Protect Journalists, Point Blank publisher Jackson Ude revealed that he had received threats asking him to remove the piece from the website. He did not – and Abiri spent two years in detention without a trial. He was later released but in May 2019 arrested again on charges of cybercrime, amongst others.
The government’s desire to suppress online dissent ahead of its general election in February 2019 is also thought to have instigated the arrest of activist Deji Adeyanju. Adeyanju was charged with cyberstalking and a 14-year-old charge of homicide for which he had been acquitted. However, it is widely believed that he was arrested because of his criticism of the government on Twitter and his influential online presence ahead of the imminent elections.
Open internet for now
For many Nigerians, social media platforms are a critical tool for political discussion as well as communication.
Around half the people in Africa’s most populous nation are online. Of those, 75% are active on Facebook and 12% on Twitter. During its recent general elections, social media was widely used by Nigerians to show their support for presidential candidates via hashtags such as #Atikuiswinning or #Buhariiswinning.
Monitoring by the Open Observatory of Network Interference (OONI) in the runup to election day showed that while the sites related to the Biafra movement remained blocked, most tested websites and popular social media platforms WhatsApp and Facebook Messenger displayed no signs of network interference. Circumvention tools such as the TOR browser and the VPN Hotshield also tested normally.
So vocal is the country’s online citizenry that a government-proposed anti-social media bill has repeatedly failed to pass. Officially titled “An act to prohibit frivolous petitions; and other matters connected therewith”, the bill proposed a two year jail term or N2m fine ($6,500) for anyone guilty of making “false or abusive statements.” Its language was so broad and vague, internet activists and citizens alike believed it was a move by lawmakers to preemptively bottle dissent – and the level of public criticism blocked the bill on its introduction 2015, and again in 2016.
In contrast, many other African nations have ordered internet shutdowns and site blocks driven by upcoming elections or citizen protests against the government.
When Cameroon’s English-speaking regions launched mass protests demanding independence, the French-speaking led government shut down all internet access in the country’s northwest and southwest. In Ethiopia, planned protests against the persecution of the country’s two largest ethnic groups, Oromos and Amharas, led the government to pull the plug on the internet, which protestors relied on to coordinate demonstrations. Algeria, Congo Brazzaville, Uganda, Togo, Zimbabwe, Sudan, Chad, and Gabon have all shut down the web, most often during election periods.
To monitor the web
Though site blocking has been relatively rare, the Nigerian government is significantly stepping up its surveillance efforts.
According to African digital rights organization Paradigm Initiative, the 2018 budget proposal for its security services revealed an allocation for IMSI devices, mobile eavesdropping equipment that can be used to track the location of mobile phone users or intercept mobile phone traffic. Previously, the spending on surveillance equipment had spiked from N29 billion in 2016 to over N45 billion in 2017, the same year that some 70 percent of mobile phones in the capital city of Abuja were reportedly bugged by government security units.
Adeboye Adegoke, Program Manager, Digital Rights at Paradigm Initiative for Anglophone West Africa, confirmed the government is keeping its ears open for murmurs of large-scale dissent.
This may in part be due to Nigeria’s recent history of online discontent snowballing into offline protests.In 2012, for instance, with a hike in fuel prices looming, the #OccupyNigeria movement that originated on Twitter led to nationwide and international protests. Thousands of people demonstrated across major state capitals shutting down petrol stations and forming barriers on highways across the country. To quell the demonstrations, the government dispatched soldiers and armored tanks to disperse protesters.
“We have been monitoring the government since 2012. It has been budgeting massively for surveillance capabilities to [be used by] the Office of the National Security Adviser, the Department of State Services [DSS], the military,” says Adegoke. “In 2016, the DSS leaked a conversation between two governors, indicating the DSS has capabilities to monitor and record conversations.”
Campaigning for digital rights
Civil society groups are wading into the battle for the digital rights of Nigeria’s 111 million internet users. Over the past few years, groups led by Paradigm Initiative Nigeria have been lobbying for a Digital Rights and Freedom Bill that would protect personal data and freedom of expression online, as well as encourage an open internet. The bill would require greater oversight and stricter conditions government agencies must satisfy before intercepting online communication or censoring content. For example, for a person to be the subject of surveillance, they must be a subject of a criminal investigation – and under current Nigerian law, criticizing the government is not a crime.
However, President Buhari declined to sign the bill into law. In a letter addressed to the National Assembly, Nigeria’s legislative body, he said the bill “seeks to cover too many technical subjects and fails to address any of them extensively.”
He added that “areas includ[ing] surveillance and digital protection, lawful interception of communication, digital protection and retention etc … are currently the subject of various bills pending at National Assembly.”
Nigeria’s censorship of content the government deems incompatible with its aims fit into a growing, unfortunate pan-African trend.
Adegoke of Paradigm Initiative Nigeria does not believe the President’s critique is legitimate and says the government is refusing to commit to a bill that would hinder its own powers to monitor the internet.
“It is uncommon for the President to refuse to assent to a bill because there are potential bills with similar provisions,” he says. “There is nothing illegitimate about two sets of laws complementing each other.”
Technology against censorship
With its internet usage predicted to rise to 80% of the population by 2022, Nigeria is home to a fast-growing internet population. Its citizens, over half of whom are under 25, are tech-savvy and adept with tools such as virtual private networks (VPNs), which allow users to secure communications and circumvent site blocks by choosing to route their traffic through servers based in another country.
When Quartz Africa shared a guide to staying online and using VPNs in the event of an internet shutdown during the election period, it quickly became the platform’s most read post that day with traffic coming exclusively from Nigeria.
Cybersecurity expert Eyitemi Egbejule notes that active use of VPNs has been prevalent in Nigeria for nearly two decades, long before the threat of internet restrictions began ramping up.
“In the early 2000s, when Nigerians first started using mobile internet and it was quite expensive, people were using internet proxies to bypass telecommunication restrictions and gain access to browse for free,” he says. “The existing base of VPN users means that in the event of site blocking, many people would [continue to be able to] access sites that are blocked.”
Culture of apprehension
Yet privacy advocates are concerned about the potential spread of a culture of apprehension as people grow reluctant to speak freely.
In an informal poll of 2,294 Twitter users, Paradigm Initiative found that 40% no longer felt they were able to freely express themselves online.
And when the group tried to challenge the government on its blockade of the 21 pro-secession sites, they sought the inclusion of Legit.ng – but the publishers of the site declined. According to an anonymous source within the organization, they did not want to be seen as challenging the government and sought to protect their business interests.
Under President Buhari’s government, internet censure has intensified. Recently re-elected for another four-year term, Buhari does not have an admirable freedom of expression record, which dates back to his ruling period as a military dictator in the 1980s. In 1984, he passed Decree No. 4 which stated:
“Any person who publishes in […] any message, rumour, report or statement,[….] which is false [or] is calculated to bring the Federal Military Government or the Government of a state or public officer to ridicule or disrepute, shall be guilty of an offence under this Decree.”
The language is eerily similar to the Cybercrime Act of 2015, which his government has used to enforce internet censorship. It is also similar to the anti-social media bill that thus far has failed to pass, raising fears that internet censorship will worsen over Buhari’s coming term.
Privacy advocates are concerned about the potential for a culture of apprehension online
The government has made an argument for national security in blocking the secessionist websites and in arresting citizens and journalists. However, it is difficult not to assume at worst, an increasingly authoritarian government restricting internet access under the guide of security concerns – and at best, a slippery slope for internet freedom in the country.
Indeed, digital rights advocates believe that the primary reason online censorship has not gotten any worse is because the government currently lacks the technical capacity for more widespread blockades, instead turning to oppressive legislature and police arrests to tamp down dissent.
The power of youth
Civil society groups have in recent times proven themselves adept at finding allies in government.
Earlier this year saw the launch of the Nigerian Youth Internet Governance Forum, creating a platform for young people to contribute to a healthy internet ecosystem by helping shape public policy.
Meanwhile, Paradigm Initiative Nigeria is fighting the constitutionality of Section 24 of the Cybercrime Act under which journalists have been arrested, with the matter currently being heard in Supreme Court. The organization alongside other partners have pledged to keep campaigning for the passage of the Digital Rights and Freedom Bill that would protect citizens’ online activity from government interference.
Perhaps most galvanizing of all, last year an unprecedented bill lowered the age limit for running for political office to 25, a significant movement in a country whose median age is 18, yet whose president was reelected to office at the age of 76.
Led by young Nigerians, the bill was popularized by the #NotTooYoungToRun campaign, and enabled hundreds of young legislators under 40 to be sworn into office this year, people who would have been ineligible four years ago.
The law that barred them from political influence had been thought impossible to change for nearly two decades. Young people, better attuned to digital rights, can now enter positions of power, most notably in the National Assembly where laws are made – and changed. They may have a fight ahead of them.