Plans by Federal Government to push a security related bill that would empower it to eavesdrop on telephone conversations of the general public is generating some controversy. SHUAIB SHUAIB examines the issues, citing related examples from India, Turkey and the USA to throw light on the pitfalls of the idea.
The Federal Government under the ruling People’s Democratic Party has been reported to be working on a bill that will give it powers to eavesdrop on telephone conversations of the general public all in the hope of curbing and detecting crime. As expected, the challenges of foiling terrorist attacks is the main motive for the upcoming bill; which could also come in handy in the array of arsenal available to any sitting government to keep tabs on the activities of opposition politicians, inquisitive journalists, intransigent lawmakers and even judges exhibiting too much independence.
In most countries with laws giving security agencies and even prosecutorial bodies the powers to eavesdrop, a court order must first be obtained before the telephones of any individual can be wiretapped. It has however been a trend for the law to be abused, with the phones of opposition leaders and journalists coming under the watch of security agencies for reasons other than the detection of crime. This has been most pronounced in third world countries and in a countries with weak democratic institutions like Nigeria, the consequences of this trend could be devastating for democratic development.
The opposition Action Congress of Nigeria has already spoken out against the bill, suggesting that it will be abused by government officials who will target opposition politicians and even party officials of the ruling party that have fallen out of favour and ultimately breed dictatorship. The national publicity secretary of ACN, Lai Mohammed said the National Assembly should not pass any such bill shortly after media reports that the executive was working on the bill. Mohammed suggested instead that state police should be created to tackle insecurity in the country.
He said, “Since it is said that all security is local, having state police will definitely enhance security across the country. One cannot overstate the importance of deploying security agents to areas they are very conversant with, either in terms of language or the geographical terrain in which they operate.” The ACN may have reason to be jittery. In early 2010, there were media reports that the Indian government, through an intelligence agency, the National Technical Research Organization, was illegally listening to telephone conversations of opposition politicians, top ranking military officers and even ministers in the government.
The Indian Home Minister, P Chidambaram would come out to deny the reports. “I wish to state categorically that no telephone tapping or eavesdropping on political leaders was authorized by the previous UPA Government. Nor has the present UPA Government authorized any such activity Chidambaram said,” When the allegations would not go away, the government decided to investigate while defending the right of the security and enforcement agencies to tap phone calls on suspicion of tax evasion. Questions would follow these government claims on why agencies created to uphold national security would spend there time chasing tax evaders. More recently, just over a week before parliamentary election held on June 12, 2011, the Prime Minister of Turkey, Tayyip Erdogan accused opposition parties of planning to gang up against his Justice and Development Party and deny his party a majority of seats in the southeastern part of the country. The prime minister either intentionally or by total accident said his government had tapped phone conversations to prove the allegation.
Opposition leaders instantly pounced on the prime minister and his democratic credentials suggesting he as good as admitted to using government agencies to undermine other political parties for his own benefits. The victims of the phone taps were two members of a regional party, the Peace and Democracy Party who were discussing plans for their supporters to vote for a nationalist party and stop the ruling party from winning more seats in that particular constituency. Turkey is one country that has a history of eavesdropping, not just on opposition politicians but also on judges, prosecutors, military personnel and journalists. A number of analysts are of the opinion that Nigeria is not ready for this kind of law.
The country’s rulers are yet to come terms with the constitutional limitations of their powers and do not yet appreciate the value of the rule of law. Yinka Odumakin, spokesman to Gen. Muhammdu Buhari, an opposition leader who was runner up to President Goodluck Jonathan in the last presidential election believes that this bill, if passed by the National Assembly will only be used to constrict democracy and spy on the opposition. Odumakin shares the same views with he opposition Action Congress of Nigeria that this is a bill that should not be passed by the National Assembly. He said, “It will constrict the democratic space. Those ruling will not use this law to improve security. They will use it to spy on the opposition.
A federal government that can ransack a newspaper house, arrest its editors over a letter that was sent to the president cannot be trusted with this kind of power. The national assembly should not pass this bill, they should throw it away.” Odumakin also believes that the law will not in any way enhance security in the country, saying that there is a general incompetence by those in authority. He said, “What did the federal government panel of investigation on Boko Haram say? It indicted the federal government and the security agencies.” In the United States, under the government of George W. Bush, the National Security Agency illegally and secretly eavesdropped on its own citizens. Other career diplomats and military personnel that were against the Bush war on terror became targets.
The government spied on governors of the opposition Democratic Party and top on their watchlist were also journalists and entire media houses that were against the war. There were government officials within the Bush administration that were uncomfortable with the wire taps that had no backing of a three-judge court and felt some of them would later get indicted. It was not until much later that the head of the country’s Federal Bureau of Investigation would come out and acknowledge these mistakes and also call editors in two newspapers, the New York Times and the Washington Post to apologize for the wiretaps on some of their reporters.
Jonathan Elendu, a journalist based in Abuja, does not think Nigeria should necessarily follow in the footsteps of western nations where this kind of law exist and the separation of powers between the different arms of government is respected. He said, “It is a fact that is government has shown that is is not worthy of people’s trust. This law will further erode the power of the common man and the general public. Every man, woman, boy and girl will pay a price for it. This law should not stand. The government like previous governments, is untrustworthy.
It has abused human rights and arrested people indiscriminately.It will in fact be constitutional.” Elendu also dismissed suggestions that the law is needed to fight terrorism in today’s world and the various security challenges that the country faces. He said, “The eavesdropping law in America has not stopped anything. The NIgerian government lacks the capacity to protect its people. The law will further erode the power of the people.
If it is passed, it means the terrorists have won because terrorism is also about psychological warfare.” The law, if passed could make it mandatory for telecommunication service providers to cooperate with government officials to spy on individuals.
At the time the story on the government’s plans first surfaced, one of the country’s telecommunication providers had this to say, “MTN Nigeria’s network is subject to the same standard protocol that pertains across the world and cannot be intercepted by unauthorised persons. The company goes to extraordinary lengths to protect the confidentiality of its customers and data or call information are judiciously protected in strict compliance with the relevant laws.”