Important role of the court in unraveling Nigeria’s surveillance regime
On December 10, 2018, a Federal High Court sitting in Abuja ruled against the Federal Ministry of Science and Technology in a Freedom of Information (FOI) suit brought before it by Pan African Digital Rights organization, Paradigm Initiative. The action was initiated because of a Freedom of Information request made by Paradigm Initiative on May 3, 2017, to the ministry on the capabilities of two new satellites to be launched by the National Space and Research Development Agency under the Ministry. The ministry had refused to provide information requested under the FOI Act to provide information regarding its purported acquisition of satellite with surveillance capabilities.
This is not the first time a government institution would refuse a FOI Act request. It is almost a default reaction that requests asking questions around the acquisition of surveillance technology/capacity are routinely parried and dismissed under the excuse of protecting national security information. In a country where technology development and understanding are nascent, government agencies especially the security agencies get away too many times with this dismissive attitude.
The FOI request was initially sent to the Ministry of Communications in February 2017 but the Ministry responded by referring that the request is addressed to the Ministry of Science and Technology, which is the supervising ministry of the government agency carrying out the project. However, the ministry refused to honour the request thereby compelling Paradigm Initiative to approach the court and requests that the court mandates the ministry to provide the required information.
Requesting information from government institutions and authorities in Nigeria can be nerve-racking. As a matter of fact, most government institutions hate scrutiny and this explains why Freedom of Information requests are often treated with absolute disregard. If ever in doubt, the recent labelling of UNICEF as Book haram allies and Amnesty International Nigeria as planning to destabilize Nigeria by the Nigerian Army will obliterate your doubts. After 2 decades of civilian rule, most Nigerian institutions remains opaque.
The assumption and illusion of thinking that throwing money at technology solves all the problems must be discarded. Without building required support systems, technically and legally, such spending will remain nothing but a waste and at best illegitimate strengthening of dictatorial and despotic tendencies of the authorities. There is no disputing that technology is desirable but the difference between technologies becoming a stumbling block to development or a stepping stone to same is how they are used. There are no guarantees, despite its potentials, technology can become a burden if allowed to be misused and its impact can be grave.
Aside from the abuse-prone nature of the indiscriminate acquisition of technology in Nigeria, there are legitimate reasons to fear that this might as well be a conduit pipe for corrupt activities. Government officials tend to designate requested information around surveillance technology as “National Security” thereby perpetuating the culture of opacity and lack of accountability. While more money is being budgeted and spent on similar activities year in, year out, there has never been an opportunity to measure the impact of such technology in strengthening the nation’s capacity in security issues neither is there a system of accountability in place that provides for checks and balances from without the system.
The continued shrinking of civic spaces in Nigeria has also not helped matters with many known vocal voices now cowed and failing to ask relevant questions for fear of arrest or and intimidation by law enforcement in Nigeria. This is why it is so important that the court is stepping up to reverse this trend, providing the required checks to executive recklessness.
Court pronouncements such as this are a morale booster for advocates demanding accountability from the government. Now that it’s clear that government is not willing to proactively be accountable in its spending around surveillance technology, the court remains the only institution to ensure that billions of taxpayers’ money do not go under the drain in the guise of acquisition of technology.
Even when technology is reasonably acquired, the court can help ensure they are not abused or used to suppress citizens’ voice. The High Court judgment of December 10, 2017, and other related judgments in favour of respecting the FOI act are strategic and affirms that the court will continue to strengthen civil society’s efforts and guard its role at holding government accountable.
Written by Boye Adegoke for Paradigm Initiative.