I deployed creative threads in imaginary Facebook conversations to drive home my point about how Nigerians tear one another to shreds on the internet in my column, ‘Hate in the Age of Charlatans’ on 31st August 2017. Unfortunately, with such recurring madness, the Nigerian social media landscape has become renowned for unbridled toxicity. In fact, the situation has worsened following the conclusion of the 2023 general election. The current war of words centres around a (purported) conversation between Bishop David Oyedepo, founder of Living Faith Church Worldwide, and Mr Peter Obi, the presidential candidate of the Labour Party in the last election. Incidentally, I was not even aware of the brouhaha until I returned from church Sunday afternoon to receive a WhatsApp message from Valentine Obienyen titled, ‘Obi Versus Oyedepo: Too bad!’
I have known Valentine, Obi’s spokesman, for almost two decades and consider him a friend. In the short (two paragraph) message, Valentine explained what he described as the context to a conversation between his principal and Oyedepo. He also alluded to “our prodigal brother from Nnewi” as the source of the leak. As a regular recipient of messages from Valentine (he writes almost every day), I can easily guess whom he is referring to. Valentine alleged that a committee had been established (he didn’t state by who) to review all calls made by Obi in the last three years for the purpose of charging him for treason. He concluded: “Till now, they are yet to see any. The badly doctored conversation with Bishop Oyedepo released by our Nnewi prodigal brother is the much they have discovered so far. They edited out the Muslim-Muslim ticket that led to the discussion, where Obi said that in a society like ours, religious balancing was a necessary consideration and that their recklessness had made Christians to assume it was a religious war.”
By the time I went online to access the tape, I realized that a ‘civil war’ had already broken out on Twitter. It is the only social media channel where I maintain a semblance of presence, (apart from WhatsApp, the global headquarters of rumour-mongering). I also noticed statements by other actors who distance Obi from the video which they dismissed as “deep fake”. As an aside, I find it amusing that people who only knew Peter Obi yesterday and have no clue about the several battles he and Valentine had fought together were ‘sacking’ his long-time spokesman on their Twitter handle! Besides, the number of people who now issue ‘directives’ on Twitter either in the name of Obi or that of the Labour Party is beyond ridiculous.
Ordinarily, the content and context of the viral audio, even if true, touched on basic rights in a democracy. Adherents and followers of different faiths are first and foremost citizens and are therefore legitimate segments of our electorate. Nothing in the constitution or the electoral law forbids politicians from going to an Imam, Bishop, or Rabi to seek support for their aspirations. The only issue is that appeals for such endorsements must respect the separation between faith and blatant partisanship and not be divisive. That perhaps explains why the controversy around the audio conversation should not be left for spokespersons who in any case are busy contradicting one another. I believe that Obi and Oyedepo may need to address the issue directly to clear all doubts.
I am aware of the danger of mixing politics with religion. But since there are discordant tunes about the authenticity of the audio, I want to err on the side of caution until we have clarity. What I find interesting is that those who easily jump to believing negative stories about other people from the same media outfit are now up in arms because this doesn’t align with their own agenda. That should teach them a lesson in fair hearing. But there is another issue here which I have also dealt with in the past and which we cannot afford to gloss over in our own interest. The grievous violation of citizens’ private telephone conversation opens more fundamental questions about our defective democracy than the meaningless chatter over “Yes, daddy”. Section 37 of the 1999 Constitution states very clearly: “The privacy of citizens, their homes, correspondence, telephone conversations and telegraphic communications is hereby guaranteed and protected.”
When you pick up your phone to communicate with a friend, family member, or even casual acquittance, according to Pronoma Debnath, an American Cybersecurity Fellow with the Strauss Center for International Security and Law who has done extensive work on surveillance, artificial intelligence, and digital rights, you do so on the assumption that your conversation will remain confidential. “The ability to communicate securely and privately is extremely important for individuals’ peace of mind, confidence, relationships, and livelihoods,” wrote Debnath. That unfortunately is no longer the situation in Nigeria.
Breach of confidentiality is an issue we must confront because it touches on the rule of law—the cornerstone of a functional democracy. Even the ‘Lawful Interception of Communications Regulations, 2019’, prescribes stringent conditions under which citizens can be wiretapped by relevant security authorities to forestall abuse. Such action can only be in the interest of national security, for the purpose of investigating or preventing a crime or giving effect to international mutual assistance agreements to which Nigeria is a signatory. And it requires written application before a Judge supported by sworn affidavits by either the National Security Adviser (NSA) or the Director General of the State Security Service (SSS) or their designees not below the rank of an Assistant Commissioner of Police.
Let’s be clear here. In this age of technology, surveillance can be done in several ways and by actors that do not necessarily work for the state. Many of the gadgets we use can also be deployed by unscrupulous people with money to procure hacking software for their sinister agenda. To that extent, we cannot always jump to conclusions about sources of information. What we should not tolerate is an environment where phone hacking and dissemination of confidential conversations become a regular feature of our national life. That bodes ill for everyone.
The ultimate responsibility lies with media practitioners who must learn from what happened in the United Kingdom with the ‘News of the World’, a weekly newspaper published every Sunday for 168 years, from 1843 to 2011. One of the numerous publications in the stable of the legendary Rupert Murdock, ‘News of the World’ was at one time the highest-selling English-language newspaper in the world. But on 7th July 2011, it was forced to write its own obituary over allegations of phone hacking, with a ‘Thank You & Goodbye’ edition that happened to be its last. The painful lesson from the events that led to that tragic end for the newspaper, as I wrote in my column afterwards, is that journalism and journalists cannot live by a code of ethics different from those we demand of others. And the profession is not, and should never be, a licence to break the law.
My intervention was based on the April 2007 gubernatorial election tribunal case between Rauf Aregbesola, then of the defunct Action Congress of Nigeria (ACN) and Olagunsoye Oyinlola of the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP). The latter had released phone logs containing conversations allegedly held between Aregbesola’s lawyer and a judge. In the case between Segun Oni of PDP and Kayode Fayemi of ACN, also on the 2007 election fiasco, the former also presented phone logs of alleged conversation between then ACN leader (now president-elect), Asiwaju Bola Ahmed Tinubu and then Court of Appeal President, Justice Ayo Salami.
Questions I raised in my intervention included: “If we assume (and this is just an assumption) that the logs were indeed genuine, how did the petitioners come about them when in law phone companies can only release such to security agencies and only in exceptional circumstances? Could we then assume that in the two instances, the mobile lines of the affected persons were hacked into? Or did someone simply pay some corrupt staff of the affected mobile networks to get those logs? Whatever happened, if phone logs could be easily secured (or more appropriately, procured) by any unscrupulous politician, what kind of security system are we then operating in our country? I feel more worried to learn during the week that our mobile networks are so unprofessional that even governors now demand call logs, and perhaps also voice and text data, apparently of their political opponents!”
In that piece I also wrote: “Whatever the political motivation for the nonsense going on, there is a bigger issue of national security which is being obscured here: the moment we open ourselves to a situation in which phone logs and other data which should ordinarily be confidential could easily fall into wrong hands, then we are no better than a banana republic. It also means that serious potential investors will be wary of operating on our shores. The sense of outrage that we have seen in the United Kingdom in the last one week shows quite clearly how serious issues of intrusion into privacy of this nature are.
“Without prejudice to whatever investigation the National Judicial Council (NJC) may be conducting into the allegations against Justice Salami, I believe it is much more important for us to get to the root of how politicians now have access to the call logs of their opponents. In a nation where virtually all citizens, from the president to the neighbourhood vulcanizer, now depend on mobile telephone operators (mostly foreign owned), this is not an issue we can afford to take lightly. The office of the NSA should investigate not only whether some call logs are genuine but also how they were obtained. And culprits should be made to face criminal prosecution if only to serve as deterrence to others that such infraction is not an acceptable behaviour in our country.”
Overall, we know that two things can be wrong at the same time. A conversation that imputes an election to be a ‘religious war’, if confirmed, is dangerous to the health of our society. But we should also not condone hacking. Nobody can feel safe when they are being snooped upon by political/business opponents or rogue state agents who may then sell their private conversations to the media. We should not wait until we become victims of such breach before we act.
Meanwhile, it is remarkable that Christians will celebrate Easter this year at a period Muslims are undertaking the Ramadan fast. I therefore wish adherents of both faiths the compliments of this glorious season. Let us hope the enduring lessons will serve us in Nigeria.
For professionals in the army, foreign service, civil service etc., career progression is based on hierarchical order. And getting to the top depends on several factors, including vacancy. It’s even more difficult for diplomats and civil servants in Nigeria where the requirement of federal character makes it imperative that filling such vacancies be based on states of origin. That’s why I was delighted last week when I saw the name of my friend, Yakubu Adam Kofar-Mata (from Kano) among the list of six persons elevated to the position of Permanent Secretary by President Muhammadu Buhari. I congratulate Kofar-Mata and wish him success in his new assignment.
Of ‘Awalokan and Emilokan’
BY M T. Uman
Dear Segun, your column, ‘Between Ndigbo Awalokan and Yoruba Emilokan’, was quite insightful as usual. Unfortunately, there is no line within the reach of the Nigerian political elites that they have not already crossed. This has been evident since 1993 when members of the resurgent Pentecostal led the Christian Association of Nigeria (CAN) to oppose Moshood Abiola’s same-faith ticket. That was how religion became another factor in the calculations of politicians across the country.
The entry of Major General Muhammadu Buhari (rtd) into politics in 2003 gradually drew Muslim leaders into national politics, as they were hitherto more interested in consolidating Sharia in their home states. This support reached a crescendo in 2015 when he eventually won the presidential election. They were less involved in 2019 when Buhari was already in office, but they picked up the gauntlet in 2023 when CAN orchestrated a vigorous campaign against the choice of a Muslim running mate by the All Progressives Congress (APC) presidential candidate, Asiwaju Bola Ahmed Tinubu.
Personally, I haven’t seen how the religious affiliation of any Nigerian leader has helped the generality of his co-religionists and denied others. Any benefits are personal to individuals on account of their closeness to the leader. Muslims still go to Hajj as usual and Christian pilgrimage has become an established event. The dictum of Shehu Usman Dan Fodio to the effect that “a community can endure with unbelief but cannot endure with injustice” should be guide enough to leaders of whatever faith.
One thing I have noticed is that people do forget that zoning and rotation are convenient arrangements politicians brought into being to share power “on behalf of their people.” Each party has its own “zoning cycle”. I have always believed that the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP), going by its past, should zone its presidential candidate to the North after Goodluck Jonathan’s turn as president on the platform of the party. By the same logic, the ruling APC was duty bound to present a presidential candidate from the South after Buhari. Even though the party almost didn’t, but for the doggedness of Tinubu, the winner of its primaries – and the presidential election.
Meanwhile, ethnic profiling has been with us for a long time. But its current strength is a great worry, especially with propagation by social media. Leading political figures have a duty not to see profiling as a vote-winning strategy and must do all within their powers to temper the enthusiasm of their supporters in their ready recourse to it.
Usman, a former Director, National Universities Commission (NUC) wrote from Kaduna
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