As Nigeria thrives in a modern economy, the mode of communication and interaction is fast changing. Our digital life is revolving around our physical life. The progression of the internet has birthed the continued use of developed communication technologies and applications that sustains our transactions, communications, and social activities.
According to a report from Statista, as of 2022, Nigeria had nearly 84 million internet users. This figure is projected to grow to 117 million internet users in 2027.
Moreover, internet penetration
amounted to over 38% of the population in 2022 and is set to reach 48% in 2027. The increased and growing number of internet users in Nigeria emphasizes the conduct of various aspects of lives in the digital space.
Digital rights are rights that every person must enjoy in the digital sphere. This includes freedom of expression, data privacy, internet access and others.
The Right to privacy and Freedom of expression are basic aspects of digital rights, for the protection of one leads to the protection of another.
In 2016, Nigeria demonstrated her official recognition of the existence of digital rights by co-sponsoring a renewed reaffirmation of the 2012 United Nations resolution that provides that the civil, political, economic, and social rights that people enjoy offline must also be protected online.
- Suppression of Digital Rights by the Nigerian State
Despite the democratic system of Nigeria, the country has been found with random practices undermining the right to privacy and freedom of expression of its citizens.
There has been increased digital rights abuses including internet shutdowns, cyberbullying, unlawful arrest of
internet users, and the escalation of nefarious laws that prevent criticisms of government policies.
On 5th June 2021, the Nigerian Government placed an official ban on Twitter and restricted its citizen from using this platform.
The government provided its reason for the ban that the continued use of the platform would ensure the spread of disinformation, propagate hate speech, encourage public disorder, and undermine national security.
The unjustified decision of the Nigerian Government to ban Twitter was a serious violation of the right to freedom of expression and access to information to be enjoyed by citizens.
The ECOWAS Court of Justice supported this stance in the case of SERAP v. the Federal Republic of Nigeria, where it held that the suspension of Twitter by the Nigerian government was unlawful, and was in clear contravention of African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Right and International Covenant on Civil and Political Right that provides for the right to freedom of expression without interference.
The infringement on freedom of expression online also affected the economic rights of citizens. According to analysis from NetBlocks Cost of Shutdown Tool (COST), an estimated N2.1 billion naira was lost when Nigeria shuts down Twitter for 24 hours.
Also, other than section 36(8) of the 1999 Constitution, any other fundamental human rights as contained in the constitution has a limitation. To this effect, such rights are not open-ended. This was the view of the Court of Appeal in the case of Solomon Okedara v. Attorney General of the Federation.
On the basis of section 45 of the Constitution, the Nigerian government in fighting criminal activities has enacted the Cybercrime Act.
This interpretation and application of this law is ambiguous as the law tend to clampdown on the digital rights of citizens.
For example, Section 24 of the Act criminalizes cyberstalking. The Act however does not give a clear meaning as to what constitutes cyberstalking.
The above section has been indiscriminately used to prosecute citizens who criticize government policies, such as bloggers, journalists, and activists. The section is counter productive in a democratic state because it gives the government the privilege to suppress the digital rights of citizens on the basis of public criticisms.
- Legal and Regulatory Framework for the Enforcement of Digital Rights in Nigeria
The availability of certain existing laws tend to protect and ensure the feasibility of digital rights in Nigeria, such as;
• The 1999 Constitution
The Constitution of Nigeria is the supreme governing law and is above every law made within the jurisdiction of Nigeria. This position is maintained by section 1(1) of the 1999 Constitution itself.
As contained in the magnus opus of our laws, that is, the 1999 Constitution, citizen’s rights to privacy and freedom of expression provided for in sections 37 and 39 respectively are protected.
The right to privacy and freedom of expression is constitutionally guaranteed in a democratic state and must be protected at all costs.
•The Nigerian Data Protection Regulation 2019
This regulation was made under NITDA Act. The regulation seeks to ensure the data privacy of citizens, by preventing and protecting people’s data from unlawful breaches and manipulations.
This regulation has treated citizens’ private data as confidential providing that people’s consent must be sought before the usage of their data.
This stance received judicial backing in the case of Godfrey Nya Eneye v. MTN Nigeria Communication Ltd, where the Court of Appeal held that disclosure and dissemination by the Appellant of the Applicant/Respondent’s mobile phone number without his consent and the consequent unsolicited messages were a violation of Applicant/Respondent’s right to privacy.
The court held that there was a contravention of Section 37 of the
Other laws protecting the digital rights of citizens include the 2016 Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN) Consumer Protection Framework and the Child Rights Act, 2003 which protect the rights of privacy for both bank customers and children in Nigeria respectively.
- International Legal Framework
Nigeria belonging to different international organizations has adopted, signed, and even ratified some of the International body’s treaties. One of them is discussed below;
• United Nations Treaties
The United Nations in order to protect the rights of citizens of member states has passed many treaties that prevent human rights abuse.
Nigeria is a member of the United Nations and is a signatory to many treaties of the UN. One of them is the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights which provides that, No one shall be subjected to arbitrary interference with his privacy, family, home or correspondence, nor to attacks upon his honour and reputation.
This bestows upon all human beings the right to the protection of what is regarded as private to them. This includes their personal data information.
Likewise, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights protects the freedom of expression of citizens in member states.
- Recommendations for Better Enforcement of Digital Rights in Nigeria
1) Review of Repressive Legislations
It remains unarguable that rights contained in the legislation are better enforced in any state. However, where such laws are repressive, they must be corrected through subsequent amendments and review.
The National Assembly must review the Cybercrime Act 2015 to enable clear interpretations and further strengthen the protection of digital rights.
The National Assembly must also amend the provision of the Lawful Interception of Communication Regulations, 2019 to vest the judiciary with the power to perform oversight on government activities that are associated with the digital rights of citizens.
For instance, the annual report of all interception cases submitted by the Department of State Security and the Office of the National Security Advisor to the Attorney General must be directed to the Court. This will help strengthen the judiciary in protecting the rights of citizens.
2) Increased Public Education About Digital Rights
The dearth of knowledge of data and digital rights is affecting the capabilities of key players to better protect the digital rights of citizens in the digital ecosystem.
The proper education of key players like stakeholders, activists, judiciary and media, will ensure the protection and enforcement of digital rights in Nigeria.
This will enable them to work to create a better understanding of digital rights among less informed citizens.
3) Intense Litigation Practice and Private Rights of Action
Where the government is known to clamp down on the digital rights of citizens, the strength of the voice of the masses is dwindling. This has led to the efforts by human rights organizations to engage in litigation, to fight digital rights infringements.
However, this is not enough. The
delegation of rights to private persons to sue for the bridge of digital rights and seek damages will ensure the robust enforcement of digital rights in Nigeria.
This process will give rise to judicial precedents that enable judges and practitioners to rely on authorities to protect the digital rights of citizens.
It has been established above that there are rampant cases of the abuse of digital rights in Nigeria. These digital rights infringement is destroying our democratic system. To project light into our dark digital era, pathways for the enforcement of digital rights must be pursued. The Nigeria legislature must set the path by subsequently amending laws that may be suppressive to the digital rights of citizens.
The empowered institutions must monitor the infringements of digital rights in Nigeria and educate people on the protection of these rights against abuses caused by any person, entity and even the state.
About the Author
Egwu Francis is a 200-level law student at the University of Nigeria Nsukka. He is a researcher and editor in Tax Club, at the University of Nigeria Nsukka. He has special interest in legal writing and research and has written many articles.
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 Federal Republic of Nigeria (as amended)
 CyberCrime (Prohibition, Prevention, etc) Act 2015
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