The upsurge of Information and Communication Technologies (ICT) has seemingly unleashed upon us a world of digital impossibilities. From the excitement of employing social media handles like Facebook, Instagram, WhatsApp, LinkedIn et al to the possibilities of a digital economy, a digital era has dawned upon us.
Sadly, in Nigeria, the gains of digitalization seem in reverse gear. With digital authoritarianism as a culprit awaiting sentence in the court of public opinion, a junta in civilian toga has superintended over Twitter ban without qualms. Even the foot-soldiers of Lekki tollgate in their greenhorn and “we move” slogan cannot change the narrative.
To be sure, the digital authoritarianism in place has a sister by name, Protection Against False Accusations Decree No. 4, of March 29, 1984. Described as “the most repressive press law” in Nigeria, it saw Tunde Thompson and Nduka Irabor of The Guardian on trial. That media houses were shut down and the press suppressed was a rehearsal for the grand orchestra by the same Maestro.
With the anthem of repressing and manipulating both local and foreign populations, an erstwhile analogue dictatorship suddenly graduated into a “repentant” digital overlord who carries out the oversight function of suppressing traditional and social media amidst the traffic of digitization. No thanks to the current digital linear regime, the press is gagged as media trial of alleged looters hold sway.
Only last year, the Wall Street Journal and Associated Press broke the news that Chinese technicians from Huawei were collaborating with government forces in Uganda and Serbia to experiment with digital authoritarianism. China was mentoring the two countries “with spotty human rights’ records” on how to install advanced facial recognition cameras for purposes of surveillance.
In an unprecedented manner, and sadly too, Nigeria has joined the ranks of countries which supply repressive technology. Through ideological and Hi-Tech colonisation, Israel, France, the United Kingdom, the United States and Russia indulge in digital manipulation using hacking software, censorship filtering applications, location-tracking spyware and hi-resolution video surveillance.
Although the introduction of The “Cybercrimes (Prohibition and Prevention) Act, 2015” is commendable, its sister bill, The Anti-social Media Bill which was sponsored by Senator Mohammed Sani Musa and brought before the floor of the Senate on 5 November 2019 could not see the light of day. Nigerians saw the allegedly plagiarized bill from Singapore as an attempt to criminalize unsuspecting social media users.
Perhaps undeterred by failed attempts to sanction social media in the country, the President Muhammadu Buhari administration went ahead to suspend the operations of the micro-blogging platform, Twitter on 5 June 2021 after it deleted tweets made by the President warning people of the South East about the danger of a repeat of the 1967 Biafra Civil War due to activities of the Indigenous People of Biafra (IPOB) and Eastern Security Network (ESN).
Because of internet access, online and offline free speech policy, Twitter chose Ghana as the destination to open its African office. Like the law of cause and effect, Digital Authoritarianism has dire consequences on socio-economic development. For example, The Punch of 8 October 2021 reported that Nigeria lost N309.26bn to 124-day of Twitter ban. Expectedly, in the domain of digital authoritarianism is policy somersault.
Isn’t it worrisome that a government which has a Federal Ministry of Communications and Digital Economy, uses Treasury Single Account (TSA), employs Digital Address System (DAS) and other ancillary platforms turns around to be digitally authoritarian? Perhaps the witch will kill her child since electronic voting is still in the labour room. In a nation which makes noise about e-banking, e-commerce and digital learning, we seem to have a penchant for being way out in the woods.
That a 61-year-old man is crawling without teeth is disturbing. Amidst the miseries of “Nightfall in Soweto” comes the tale of the “Giant of Africa” groping helplessly with the words: “PHN has interrupted power supply.” Content with real darkness, the dictator snatches the torchlight of civility. With a biting economy, country men and women are still relishing the gossips of BBNaija as if “Whitemoney” will share his bounty.
Indeed, digital authoritarianism has taken us back to 1956 when the Trinidadian author, Samuel Selvon portrayed “Captain” as a metaphor for Nigeria in his enthralling novel, “The Lonely Londoners.” Captain, a Nigerian is described as a spendthrift, dishonest and crafty young man. He is always indebted and double-speaks.
65 years later, this story fits into the narrative of the political class in Nigeria. Can any Chatham House speech change the skin of the chameleon? Well, the Khaki boys, now adorned in civilian apparel are still singing an expired piece of reggae. With money-bag politics, over-borrowing and lack of political will, the nation is on author-pilot.
To survive this tsunami, the Diaspora community, civil society groups and the Nigerian press must speak up. Under dictatorship, freedom is not given, it is taken. Let’s re-echo the timeless song of nonviolent resistance by Martin Luther Jnr and Mahatma Gandhi. Since digital authoritarianism requires digital solutions, let’s “Soro Soke” with computers and smartphones. The time is now. God bless the Federal Republic of Nigeria!
Justine John Dyikuk is a Lecturer of Mass Communication, University of Jos, Editor – Caritas Newspaper and Convener, Media Team Network Initiative (MTNI), Nigeria.
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