6 November 2006

Nigeria: Cybercrime Bill

Lagos — DEMOCRACY demands that any bill, whether from the executive or private member's bill, sent to parliament for consideration and enactment into law, should take into consideration how such bill or law can help advance the cause of democracy and the interest of the people for whom the law is proposed or made.

Unfortunately, that has not always been the case with governance in Nigeria.

Instead, in many cases, bills which are clearly in breach of democracy and constitutional individual freedoms are vigorously pursued at the expense of ennobling bills capable of enhancing democracy and people's welfare.

Currently, unknown to many Nigerians, the Presidency has sent an Executive Bill to the National Assembly, the nation's highest legislature. Called the Computer Security and Critical Information Protection Bill 2006 (otherwise known as the CyberCrime Bill), it seeks to confer on law enforcement agencies in the country the powers to intercept telephone message or discussion as well as the power to retain or remit the content of such messages.

The bill, which is yet to make its first reading in the Senate, empowers all law enforcement agencies such as the Army, Air Force, the Police, the State Security Services (SSS), National Drug Law Enforcement Agency (NDLEA), Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC), National Agency for Food and Drug Administration and Control (NAFDAC), Independent Corrupt Practices and other Related Offences Commission (ICPC), and Custom Services to access the content of any telephone subscriber on demand. The agencies so empowered need not prove the nature of the offence they are investigating.

Portions of the Bill are revealing. Part one, section 12 (1) of the proposed law stipulates as follows: every service provider shall keep all traffic and subscriber information on its computer network for such a period of time as the President and Commander -in-Chief of the Armed Forces of Nigeria may, by order published in the Federal Gazette, specify from time to time. Also, section 12 (2) of the said Bill stipulates that such service providers such as MTN, Celtel, Glo and others are expected to release such information to the law enforcement agencies unconditionally.

Ordinarily, we would not have questioned the impropriety, or otherwise of the so-called CyberCrime Bill if it was in national interest. These days that terrorism has become commonplace and terrorists hold the world at knife edge, few countries have resorted to emergency laws to keep terrorists in check. The truth however is that the CyberCrime Bill is not everything considered, in the best interest of the Nigerian people for which the government exists.

Indeed, the Bill is nothing but a bold attempt to invade the privacy of the people. It is also a breach of confidentiality.

Beyond that, the Bill if allowed to become law, is very likely to be abused by virtually all the agencies and officers entrusted with its enforcement. The fear is that, with no safe guard to avoid abuse as is the case in other climes where such law is in operation, it may amount in the end, to George Owelle's classical novel of "Big brother is watching you". That, we urge should not be allowed to happen.

In that light, it is clear that over time, our law enforcement agencies flagrantly abuse their mandate and put the liberties of citizens at risk. That, in our view, might happen with the CyberCrime Bill, if passed into law. As a matter of fact, our beef with the Bill is hinged on many facts. First, the timing of the Bill is very ominous.

With a few months to crucial elections next year, it is not out of place that if given the force of the law, it would be used to witch-hunt perceived enemies of government.

Based on that, we are minded to think that the Executive branch of government has not done much, either in the past or present, to earn the trust of Nigerians in matters of public policy and constitutionalism.

We therefore don't see any urgency or the imperativeness of the Bill, at least not now.

Again, the Bill raises at least one vital question: who, for instance, defines what constitutes national security? It is ironical that such a Bill is being contemplated when the Freedom of Information Bill still before the National Assembly is yet to be passed. The Bill is being opposed strenuously by the Executive branch. Considered side- by side with the CyberCrime Bill, the Freedom of Information Bill is far more urgent and important than the CyberCrime Bill. Indeed, what the Freedom of Information Bill seeks to achieve, the CyberCrime Bill tends to remove. The CyberCrime Bill is suited for a totalitarian regime and runs counter to the tenets and ennobling values that are cherished in a democratic society. We urge the National Assembly to throw out the CyberCrime Bill. It violates individual's right to privacy.

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