In the aftermath of the recent Twitter ban in Nigeria, which saw prompt compliance by Nigerian telcos, a report emerged from the Foundation for Investigative Journalism (FIJ), stating that the Federal Government and China’s Cyberspace Administration office had discussed plans of building a Nigerian internet firewall.
“The internet firewall will also give the Nigerian Government power to block VPN, which many Nigerians are using to access Twitter. The CAC is the central internet regulator, censor, oversight and control agency for China and answers to the Central Cyberspace Affairs Commission, headed by Xi Jinping, China’s President,” FIJ reported.
With the implementation of such a firewall, Nigeria basically becomes a semi-Police State, where the FG becomes Big Brother and oversees everything that happens, which is a violation of data privacy and a setback to Nigeria’s tech growth so far.
However, in an email statement to foreign press, the Presidency denied reports that it had met with China’s Cyberspace Administration to discuss plans of building a Nigerian internet firewall, denouncing the allegations as “absolutely fake” and a “figment of the reporter’s imagination.”
However, as the African proverb says, “there is no smoke without fire,” and the FG has proposed to get Over The Top ( OTT) internet services to sign up for regulation, also hinting at licensing social media.
Minister of information, Lai Mohammed said: “The Federal Government has also directed the National Broadcasting Commission (NBC) to immediately commence the process of licensing all OTT and social media operations in Nigeria.”
The policy would pretty much be the Social Media Bill through the backdoor, which could be a catalyst for a proper internet firewall just like the “Great FireWall of China,” which requires foreign tech companies operating in China to agree to domestic regulations.
China’s firewall greatly impacts freedom of speech in China and has been used to crack down on government critics. As Guardian reports, “President Xi’s government began targeting individuals with large social media followings who might challenge the authority of the Communist party. Restrictions on the most prominent Chinese web influencers, beginning in 2013, represented an important turning point in China’s internet life. Discussions began to move away from politics to personal and less sensitive issues. The impact on Sina Weibo was dramatic. According to a study of 1.6 million Weibo users, the number of Weibo posts fell by 70% between 2011 and 2013.”
Nigeria cannot afford such levels of Big Brother internet censorship in a period of high insecurity when so many young Nigerians need the internet to hold the government accountable and also get remote social media-related jobs.
Ekemesit Effiong, a Senior Research Analyst at SBM Intelligence, says Nigeria cannot afford to build a firewall; however, China could use this as an opportunity to export its state surveillance technology.
“From a strictly financial perspective, Nigeria cannot. Nonetheless, a more assertive China under Xi Junping has not been shy about exporting its authoritarian system of government and it might seek to trade bankrolling an online surveillance system for Nigeria in exchange for access to critical data on Nigerian Internet users,” he says.
He adds that such a project would serve as a means of further entrenching emerging Chinese AI technology and tech know-how in foreign climes. “In essence, Nigeria could become a use case for Chinese experts to study how a ‘Great Firewall’ paradigm can work in a non-Chinese (and most importantly, quasi-democratic) social setting.”
When asked if the policing of free speech was the right move for Nigeria now, considering the level of insecurity in the country, Ekemesit had this to say:
“One can make the argument that policing free speech has the opposite effect of fostering peace and economic stability. There is no precedent for any positive national security or economic benefits accruing from muzzling free speech rights.
If anything, it will provide room for unscrupulous individuals to go underground and take their narratives around perceived present and historic grievances ‘to the streets’ through subversive and hard-to-monitor channels, creating impassioned converts and providing the ideal conditions for the rise of extremist groups.
This is at the heart of the formative years of such groups as Boko Haram and the Indigenous People of Biafra.
The analyst added that Nigerians need more, not fewer engagements on the pressing issues of the moment in order to find and test constructive solutions to them. He also had the following to say, on how government can tackle fake news without stifling free speech:
“The only way to tackle fake news is to allow reputable media organisations the space, time and resources to report objectively without the fear of the censor’s hammer.”
He reiterated that doing this will not only allow reputable media firms to set the agenda of the national discourse but also equip Nigerians with the facts and understanding to make sense of the issues while providing critical reporting that helps consumers sift fact from fiction.
“When news consumers perceive that the credibility of news organisations is compromised and selective reporting is the order of the day, they will be left with no other option than to feed on less credible news sources, in effect perpetuating the cycle of disinformation and misinformation. As with many things, the market can and often does a great job of tackling fake news,” he said.
The plan to regulate social media through back door policies announced by the Ministry of Information is a foundation for a possible firewall, which although Nigeria cannot afford, may be subsidised by China in exchange for access to critical data on Nigerian internet users.
However, with the state of the nation, Nigeria should not begin to embark on such a programme as Nigerians have legitimate grievances in the face of failing government institutions, widespread economic hardship and deep-rooted security challenges.
China can afford to police the data of its citizens as it has largely focused on lifting millions out of poverty in 40 years. China’s GDP per capita now stands at just over $10,000, while GDP growth under the current administration has averaged just 0.31%. Stifling free speech would be counterproductive to the search for peace and economic growth.