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Can Nigeria afford China’s internet wall to silence online critics?

By Chinedu Asadu
Posted on Friday, 11 June 2021 15:08, updated on Tuesday, 20 July 2021 10:52

Chinese Premier Li Keqiang shakes hands with Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari at the Diaoyutai State Guesthouse in Beijing, China, September 5, 2018. Parker Song/Pool via REUTERS

The great internet firewall of China remains the most prominent example of state internet filtering used to control what happens online. President Muhammadu Buhari's administration reportedly wants to take a cue from China to build a similar infrastructure in Nigeria, raising questions as to whether it can afford one and why it wants such a digital blanket in the first place.

Long before the #EndSARS protests, which forced the Nigerian government to commit to initiating security reforms, citizens in the most populous black nation in the world had become used to seeking justice online, as it’s a more efficient avenue than turning to the police or other constituted authorities.

Many cases of extrajudicial killings – including that of a university student recently raped and murdered while she was seeking a job to eke a living – and other prominent issues, such as the #BringBackOurGirls movement which is a protest against the abduction of over 200 schoolgirls in northern Nigeria, have mostly been resolved thanks to global attention buoyed by online campaigns.

Life without Twitter — and free internet

Nigerians are getting used to life without Twitter after the Buhari administration indefinitely suspended the microblogging site and moved to regulate social media platforms operating in the country.

Meanwhile, reports have emerged that the suspension is just part of a bigger plan by the government to digitally isolate the country of over 200 million people via an online infrastructure similar to China’s internet firewall.

Local newspaper Foundation for Investigative Journalism reported that Nigerian presidency officials met with the Cyberspace Administration of China (CAC) “to discuss plans to build an internet firewall” as the government becomes “more desperate to control cyberspace”.

This, despite the country’s foreign affairs minister, Geoffrey Onyeama, recently telling the The Africa Report – during a meeting with some envoys – that he is not aware of such discussions with China. However, during an interview, Socrates Mbamalu (the journalist who reported the story) insisted that sources from the presidency told him that: “The government is serious about the move and wants to pursue it.”

Moreover, recent events have shown that many Nigerians would not be surprised if the government eventually confirms the plan. It will be just one of the “many signs of a government that is hell-bent on closing civic space,” says Adeboye Adegoke, senior program manager at Paradigm Initiative, Nigeria’s leading ICT social enterprise.

“It seems this is about the government trying to have so much control over what is happening within the system,” he tells The Africa Report.

What are the odds? Quite High

Since its inception in 2015, the Buhari administration has not hidden its penchant to control what Nigerians say and do on the internet; perhaps more than previous administrations, going by available records. The government and its officials have seized any opportunity to push for measures to control information, either through laws or other means.

In October 2020 – seven months before the Twitter ban was announced on Friday 4 June – Nigeria’s information minister – Lai Mohammed – had referenced the social media clampdown in China, arguing that the government should “dominate” Nigeria’s cyberspace.

“If you go to China, you cannot get Google, Facebook or Instagram but you can only use your email because they have made sure that it is regulated,” Mohammed told federal lawmakers during a meeting. “We also need technology and resources to dominate our social media space.”

As the biggest authoritarian power in the world, Beijing apparently is happy to help out other authoritarian governments in censoring and repressing their own people.

More than just seeking to control what Nigerians do online, the government’s justification of such a move is “a direct application of an internet governance model pioneered by China,” says Eric Olander, co-founder of the The China Africa Project (CAP).

“We also know for a fact that the Buhari administration has been studying China’s approach to internet sovereignty for several years now, so it shouldn’t come as a surprise that the State House is now drawing on the same policy architecture first designed by Beijing to implement its own restrictions on social media,” Olander tells The Africa Report.

He also says the suspension of Twitter and the move to regulate social media in Nigeria “aligns neatly with China’s own worldview… That it is up to an individual country to decide what content, services and websites are available” in its territory.

Can Nigeria afford the wall?

Securing ‘cyber sovereignty’ is one of President Xi Jinping’s avowed goals. Since 2013 when he was elected president of the one-party state, online restraints have grown tighter, especially during politically sensitive events.

With more than half its 1.4 billion people online, the number of internet users in China is four times the entire population of Nigeria. However, the Asian country has managed to keep them on the other side of the firewall, an intensely regulated cyberspace that deprives Chinese residents of the world’s most popular websites, and where a powerful mix of technology and human oversight closely monitor all online activities to ensure that they comply with the values of the Chinese government.

“Beijing institutes draconian censorship of the Chinese internet, blocking foreign websites and removing content critical of the Chinese government on Chinese websites,” Yaqiu Wang of the Human Rights Watch tells The Africa Report.

“Many people thus have little information about the human rights abuses the Chinese government has committed. Censorship plays a vital role in maintaining power for the Chinese Communist Party.”

Part of the Great Firewall is the ‘Golden Shield Project’ that the Chinese government kicked off in May 2001. Its total cost is unknown, but the state-run China Central Television (CCTV) was once quoted as saying that the investment had already reached RMB6.4bn ($770m) a year after in 2002.

However, unlike China which has a gross domestic product of $14.7trn, almost half of Nigerians citizens are living in poverty, according to the National Bureau of Statistics, 

The country is also battling its highest unemployment rate ever – at 33% – while the government has often relied on foreign aid to provide infrastructure for citizens, including the 157km Lagos-Ibadan standard gauge railway project (a $1.5bn China-assisted project) that has just been commissioned.

But the government has gone out of its way in the past to commit money to projects it considers as priority. In 2020, the University of Toronto’s Citizen Lab reported  that the Nigerian Defence Intelligence Agency acquired sophisticated equipment to use to spy on its citizens’ calls and text messages, effectively taking control of smartphones of dissidents and mining users’ personal data.

Ololade Shyllon, Facebook’s privacy policy manager for Middle East and Africa, tells The Africa Report that news of plans to build the firewall is “very concerning” and “we believe in a free and open internet and anything outside that is condemnable.”

More importantly, she says, Nigeria is a major power on the continent with obligations under international and regional treaties, “so taking such a move that will go against the freedom of expression are not in tune with these obligations.”

Bottom line

Although international pressure against Nigeria to reverse its policies on Twitter and other social media platforms keeps growing, the country does not appear to be backing down. Instead, as reports suggest, it is eager to embark on a dangerous trip chauffeured by Beijing whose “long arms are increasingly stretching afar”, as Wang put it.

“As the biggest authoritarian power in the world, Beijing apparently is happy to help out other authoritarian governments in censoring and repressing their own people,” she says.

Although the government has often claimed that its dream to “dominate” Nigeria’s cyberspace is buoyed by concerns about hate speech and misinformation, a large number of the citizens believe it is another attempt at shutting the eyes of the world from the challenges of the country of over 200 million people.

“We all know the kind of things going on in Nigeria in terms of deaths, kidnappings and other kinds of criminalities, all of which drawing global attention usually helps in solving,” Adegoke says. “The government believes that closing Nigeria to the rest of the world is a way to solve Nigeria’s problems. But we have to keep fighting.”

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