Today, Wednesday, March 22, 2023, the Centre for Information Technology and Development (CITAD) is observing a national Media Day of Action on Digital Rights in Nigeria. The day which is being marked with a variety of activities such as radio discussion panels, lectures, twitter blast and Facebook live, among others, is meant to sensitize the public to the importance of digital rights, raise citizens awareness around it and engage government with a view to creating the necessary conductive environment for the respect for and flourishing of digital rights in the country. One of the expected outcomes is to catalyze citizens voice to demand for and activate their agency to promote and protect digital rights in Nigeria.
This is very important given the two contradictory development in around digital eco system in the country, both driven by the government. On the one hand, government is rushing for deep penetration of digitization of the society in line with its digital economy strategy and policy which has seen the hasty implementation of a cashless banking policy in the last three or so weeks that has resulted in untold hardship on the part of the ordinary citizens. On the other hand, in spite of its embrace of the digital economy, government is not comfortable with the political economy imperative of the digital economy, which must allow citizens to access and use digital platforms to not only access and use information but also to express their opinions and to, more importantly, hold government and its officials accountable. This latter development has seen government clamping on citizens, including the arrest and detention of a student who made a twitter comment about the wife of the president, the detention of several journalists for reporting corruption and unaccountable conduct of government officials, etc.
Digital rights are really not new as they are mere extension and projection of our fundamental human rights in the context of the information society. For instance, the right to freedom of expression online means the right for citizens to freely use the internet to express themselves, the right to freedom of association has found expression in a similar version online, the use of digital spaces for associational life. The right to education implies the ability of citizens to use the internet to access educational opportunities and to engage in education processes.
The notion of digital rights being imperative is the logical conclusion and implication of the online migration of governance processes. Today, many governments, including that in Nigeria, have migrated their services and processes online such that citizens can only access these services via the internet. The most visible of this in the country is that application for admission to institutions of higher learning in the country is online and all the processes involved are also necessarily online. Getting a passport, voter’s card, vehicle license, etc have also all moved online, and from last three weeks now, everybody in the country is required to carry out financial transactions and engage in commerce and associated activities digitally.
This online migration of governance and its services, means that unless citizens have access to the internet, they will be excluded from not only the governance processes but also in benefiting from the services of governments. Also, the migration of education processes online mean that accessing education requires the internet. Since education is a right, the tool with which to access education (a right), that is the internet, must also be a right. The current hardship that resulted from the implementation of the cashless banking system is due to the fact that many Nigerians are experiencing simultaneous digital and financial exclusions which are linked. If you live in an area where there is no internet, even if you have a bank account, you cannot access your money and therefore cannot carry out any financial transaction. This is why the United Nations has accorded internet the status of a right, falling into what normatively is referred to as fourth generation of rights. In line with this, it launched the Campaign of Leave No One Behind, that is digitally.
We are just coming out from a grueling election period. One of the simple requirements of the credible election system is transparency. One way the election management body could assure such transparency is the use of open but secure digital transmission of election results from the polling units up to the final collation points at which the results are announced. This can only be possible via digital systems. In this, it is important not only for citizens to access but also for government to ensure that its agencies have the necessary digital systems to with which citizens can audit their performance.
It is thus important that digital rights are available for all citizens. They cannot assert and enjoy their citizenship with accessing their digital rights. Government itself cannot guarantee these rights without ensuring that the infrastructure for citizens to access their digital rights is available.
But while government is upbeat about the economic benefits of digital technology, it does not seem to think much about ensuring that citizens should have access to and use digital technology. There are five critical factors that determine whether citizens are able to use digital technology for both personal development as well as tool for political participation.
The First is that they need to understand what digital technology can do to their life. Government has responsibility to raise about on this. Government agency with mandate to do this, notably the National Information Technology Development (NITDA) is doing some awareness building engagements, but it needs to do more.
The second is that government needs to find ways in which it should extend digital infrastructure to all parts of the country. At the moment, figures by the Universal Service Provision Fund (USPF) indicate that there are 97 clusters of communities, termed as underserved and unserved communities where access to digital signal is poor or not available at all. These clusters of digitally excluded people have a combined population of close to 30 million people. Most of these are in the rural areas where private sector players find it difficult to go because they are not profitable largely as a result of the fact that the people there are poor and or the population is too small as to guarantee them return on investment. One of the ways governments can address this infrastructural depicts is by enabling conducive environment for the emergence and flourishing of community networks. Community networks, as seen in several other countries, are community-owned, community-designed and community-managed infrastructure to address community communication need. While a few community networks exist in this country (including about seven set up by CITAD in different parts of the country), there are no policies to guide their operation and certainly no support from government to ensure their sustainability. Government set up the USPF partly to drive infrastructure to areas where market has failed to reach. However, rather than supporting communities to mobilize their own endowments to address their infrastructural needs, the USPF has opted to be subsidize the private sector which places digital centres in communities as turkey projects delivered to government on cash and carry basis, lacking elements of sustainability. We must retrace out steps and look for models that will ensure sustainability if we really want bridge the internal dimension of the digital divide in Nigeria.
The third factor for the effective use of digital technology by the citizens is that citizens must have the necessary skills to use digital technology. Digital literacy today is needed for all to live a happy, productive, and meaningful life in the digital world. While the national education curricula have made computer studies compulsory right from basic education, the challenge is that most of the schools at this stage of the education pyramid do not have the necessary facilities to provide digital skills and do not even have a clear understanding of what digital skills look like. Instead, most pupils are taught about history of computers and the different parts of computer as computer studies. We must address this serious problem. We must also develop and implement serious national digital literacy programme. While NITDA has the National Strategy which commits it to achieving 95% digital literacy in the country by the year 2023, it does not seem to have then required platform, coalition, and synergy to achieve this. For the moment within government, digital literacy is seen as the responsibility of NITDA alone and not a collective and shared one of all stakeholders, including state governments which owned most of the basic education schools in the country.
The fourth factor is to address the issues of affordable. This is an economic matter. Most poor people cannot afford digital goods and services in the country. This is even worth for women who are relatively poorer than males in the country. as most research have observed that poverty has a feminine face in Nigeria. The question of affordability is both technical and social matter in the sense that certain technologies provide cheaper services than others. For instance, government has said there is a universal coverage of the country by Elon satellites, the Starlink system but the services of starlink are not affordable to more than 60% of Nigerians. The USPF second mandate was to equalize affordability by subsidizing the poorer sections of the population, but it is hardly doing this.
Finally, government has to address the factors that inhibit the effective use of the internet. This include the preventing harmful content online that drives people away from the cyberspace, especially directed against women who are subjected to sexual harassment, weaponing the internet against them, and making them to internalize its fear and becoming reluctant in using.
But more crucially, government must see the internet as a continuum of the civic space for citizens to live and exist and to perform their role as civic subjects. It must respect the right of citizens to a free and safe internet and digital space. It must respect the privacy of digital users and refrain from unnecessary surveillance on its citizens and enact and implement a regime of digital rights as provided in the current Digital Rights Bill that will not only ensure the protection and promotion of digital rights but also enables government to protect the rights of citizens from being abused by third parties. Government must also commit to the protection and flourishing of digital rights as not only a necessary requirement for the consolidation of our democracy but also as a precondition for the success of the digital economy transformation agenda of the country. This is our message today as we mark the Media Day Action on Digital Rights.