With less than a week until the Nigerian election, there are mounting fears that access to the internet and social media services could soon be restricted.
The run-up to the vote, which will be held on February 16th, has been plagued by rumours that there are plans to shutdown the internet while the election takes place.
Despite this, the National Security Adviser (NSA) maintains that it has no plans to interfere with telecommunications operators in the coming weeks.
Given the uncertainty, it’s worth investigating the major events that have prompted people to fear the use of an internet kill switch in Africa’s most populous country.
The Dismissal of Justice Walter Onnoghen
On January 25th, President Muhammadu Buhari unilaterally dismissed the Chief Justice of Nigeria, Justice Walter Onnoghen, on grounds that he failed to declare personal assets before taking office.
Many of the government’s critics have argued that it was an attempt to silence the judiciary before the upcoming election and opposition parties temporarily halted their campaigns in protest.
Buhari’s spokesperson has refuted these claims, arguing that critics are making an “illogical” connection between the chief justice and the legitimacy of electoral procedures.
Regardless of the rationale, according to the 1999 Constitution only the National Judicial Council has the power to recommend the removal of justices which also requires ratification from the wider judiciary and Senate – two steps that were not taken by Mr Buhari.
The chief justice could be a vital actor in the upcoming election as it is their responsibility to preside over electoral disputes, making Onnoghen’s sudden dismissal appear to be politically motivated.
This led the main challenger to Mr Buhari, Atiku Abubakar, to call the suspension “an act of dictatorship.”
The adoption of these extra-legal powers has not gone unnoticed internationally, with the British High Commission offering a statement that said “the timing of this action, so close to national elections, gives us cause for concern” as it “risks affecting both domestic and international perceptions on the credibility of the forthcoming elections.”
As many now perceive Buhari to be willing to act outside of the law, fears of similar actions – such as shutting down access to the internet – have been heightened.
As Victor Ekwealor wrote in Techpoint Africa, “the Nigerian government in itself has not inspired much confidence in its citizens to be trusted on matters like this.”
Not only does President Buhari’s disregard for the constitution cause concern about the sanctity of digital freedoms, the increasing use of internet shutdowns throughout the continent has also led to a normalization of the practice.
The Rise of Internet Shutdowns Across Africa
According to a report by Access Now, there were 21 internet shutdowns across Africa last year and, with three instances in the first month of 2019, this number is set to rise.
In the past two months, citizens in Zimbabwe, Cameroon, Sudan, Gabon and DR Congo have all been unable to access the internet at times of unrest.
Despite their unique contexts, each regime has used similar arguments to justify their actions. Namely, that the internet should be restricted during times of instability to protect national security.
As the spokesperson for the Zimbabwean government, George Charamba, said on January 30th: “it’s standard practice” to shutdown the internet “whenever you have a very serious disturbance in any country.”
This is not just an African trend, governments from Venezuela to India are increasingly turning to digital restrictions as a means of maintaining control. In fact, Charamba also cites a supposed shutdown in Britain as proof of its ubiquitous nature, saying “we saw it recently in the UK.”
With a growing acceptance of internet shutdowns as an appropriate reaction to political and social instability, people are understandably concerned that the Nigerian election will provide the grounds for a similar reaction.
This is particularly significant given the competitive nature of the election. According to a report by the BBC, it is “too close to call and the result is likely to be close” which could increase the chances of disturbances.
However, it’s not just external factors that have left citizens feeling apprehensive about the coming election, there has also been a direct accusation made by a political figure from the opposition People’s Democratic Party.
Governor Nyesom Wike’s Accusation
On January 31st, Rivers State Governor, Nyesom Ezenwo Wike, accused the Office of the National Security Adviser (NSA) of directing the Independent National Electoral Commissions (INEC) to work with telecommunications providers to restrict access to the internet next weekend.
Speaking at the Government House Port Harcourt, he said: “The national security adviser has met with INEC to ensure that internet service providers shutdown the internet, so that foreign bodies won’t see what’s happening in the country during the elections.”
This accusation gained a significant amount of traction online and was perhaps one of the reasons that Quartz Africa’s guide to staying online was their most read story of the week, with traffic driven solely from Nigeria.
The NSA quickly responded to the accusations in an attempt to debunk what they consider “misinformation.”
Office of the National Security Adviser (ONSA): Press Statement regarding rumors of an impending internet shutdown during the 2019 Elections:
"The office wishes to advise the general public to disregard the allegation, which is a disinformation." pic.twitter.com/PxcavPCf60
— Government of Nigeria (@NigeriaGov) February 2, 2019
The press release goes on to state that the NSA “remains committed to protecting the rights of the public to access Information and Communication Technology facilities.”
Whether or not this will appease those concerned is unclear. However, with international monitoring and rising domestic political pressure, any attempts to limit internet access in the coming weeks are likely to be met with widespread condemnation.
With growing fears about the extra-legal powers of Buhari, the rising number of shutdowns across the continent, and the claims of Governor Wike, there are several good reasons why Nigerians may be fearful of having their access to the digital world restricted.
However, if the NSA acts in accordance with their press release, there are reasons to hope for an unaffected election.
Whatever happens with, the election is likely to be a contentious and tightly fought one, with most predictions suggesting that it’s going to be close.
It’s also unlikely to be entirely free from accusations of corruption and voter fraud. In fact, Buhari has already claimed that there is evidence of money laundering and vote buying. Additionally, the recent fire in an electoral commission office suggests that the election is not going to be free from controversy.
However, if the internet is restricted it could lead to even more damaging outcomes, with citizens being left in the dark over the results and a greater potential for vote tampering.
After the 2015 election placed Nigeria firmly on a democratic trajectory, it’s vital that an internet shutdown is not used to undermine the democratic processes and destabilize the country.
Contributed by Samuel Woodhams, Researcher at Top10VPN