This article belongs to the debate » 9/11 und die Privatsphäre
21 May 2022

Enabling Digital Authoritarianism in the Name of Counterterrorism

Lessons from Nigeria

Internet Revolution and the Rise of the Digital Economy

Advancements in digital technology have made communications, detection of organized crime and data collection much easier than before, enhancing the capacities of governments to collect and store large volumes of data in the form of biometrics, centralized databases, compulsory digital identification programs, data-warehouses, algorithm mapping and so forth. Nigeria began to witness significant turnarounds in its digital landscape following the deregulation of the telecommunications industry in the 90s, which dismantled state-run monopolies and opened the markets to new competitors and suppliers of digitized goods and services. Today, the transition to a digital economy is in full swing. Every citizen or resident that is at least 18 years old likely interfaces with a minimum of ten data collection agencies to be able to exercise the basic rights to vote, bank, write national examinations, drive, call or travel.

With terrorism and violent extremism ravaging certain parts of the country, threatening to tear its sovereign fabric apart, combating the mounting insecurity has necessitated huge budgetary allocations to national security, accompanied by the massive procurement of sophisticated crime-fighting technologies and military equipment. While collecting a tremendous amount of data has significantly eased the process of identification and traceability, serious concerns have been raised regarding the misuse of collected data as well as the sophisticated digital technologies procured in the name of fighting terrorism to conduct arbitrary surveillance, intercept private communications, breach privacy and undermine human rights and civic freedoms.

Drifting Towards Digital Authoritarianism While Countering Terrorism

A new report by the Action Group on Free Civic Space shows how state actors have taken advantage of their unfettered access to these new technologies to either expand pre-existing policing powers or award themself new surveillance powers. The report unearths how the massive financial resources, equipment and technologies originally procured under the guise of counterterrorism (CT) and curbing insecurity have been diverted to monitor the movement of citizens, to track activities of activists, restrict online civic space, and limit the ability of civic actors to organize, associate and assemble freely. The popular tactics include legal restrictions, misuse of surveillance technologies, distributed denial-of-service (DDoS) attacks, Internet protocol (IP) blocking, internet shutdowns, biometrics data collection and social media bans. Others include spying on activists, opposition politicians and coordinated cyber-attacks, especially the hacking of the servers and websites of media and civil society watchdogs. Some of these technologies have been used to retrieve and decode information from devices such as phones and computers of civil rights campaigners and journalists. Phone records have been used to lure and arrest journalists on account of their journalistic undertakings.

State actors could not have recorded considerable successes in their restrictive adventures without the cooperation of telecommunication companies, internet service providers, content moderation platforms, private companies including foreign suppliers of surveillance technologies and local as well as regulators and state agencies. Israel, China and the United States are primary suppliers of invasive surveillance technologies to Nigeria. Private corporations — like the Israel-owned Circles — is notably the highest supplier to Nigeria, with clients spanning state, federal and independent security agencies. Secret contracts, classified as “intelligence”, are used to facilitate the procurement of the most invasive and ruthless intrusion softwares, such as Remote-Control Systems which can track the exact position of a user, even when abroad. China’s incursion into the Nigerian technology market is also instructive, offering soft loans to the federal government to purchase their communications and surveillance equipment. Plans to build an internet firewall similar to China’s internet filtering system, called the Great Firewall, surfaced in the media shortly after the infamous Twitter ban in Nigeria. The internet firewall is expected to create a separate network for the Nigerian Internet, giving the government greater control over social media platforms such as Twitter and Facebook, and ability to block virtual private networks used to access the blocked sites during internet shutdowns.

An analysis of the surveillance technology procurement timelines in Nigeria shows that the actual and attempted purchases predominantly happened in 2010, 2014, 2016, 2018 and now 2021. These are, on average, one or two years before the general elections, and for the most part, acquired to monitor or intercept conversations of opponents and to obstruct free flow of communications over the airwaves. These accounts corroborate the findings of another report by Citizen Lab which exposed African governments using an Israeli surveillance platform to snoop on private communications of citizens. Nigeria was listed among states where state security agencies are deploying technology supplied by the Isreali telecom surveillance company, Circles, to snoop on communications of opposition politicians, journalists and protestors.

Enablers and Drivers of Digital Repression in Nigeria

Three major factors have enabled this drift towards digital authoritarianism in Nigeria. First, an array of legal and policy provisions gives express legal backing to the government’s intrusive data-collection and surveillance activities. These national laws such as the Terrorism Prevention Act — often adapted from international CT legal regimes — provide a legal foundation for the suppression of civil rights and freedom under the pretext of CT or protecting national security. These laws are deliberately silent on what amounts to terrorism. The definitional uncertainty opens the door widely for security agents to brand any dissenting group of persons or movements as ‘terrorists’. Persons accused of terrorist activities face immediate repercussions even before being found guilty of the alleged offence, such as arrest without bail, freezing of accounts and incalculable reputational damages. According to Spaces for Change, one popular tactic used for advancing repressive agendas is the overbroad interpretation or application of existing CT and security laws. A classic example is the robust use of the Cybercrimes (Prohibition etc.) Act of 2015 to press terrorism charges and prosecute critics and commentators on Facebook and Twitter for making posts critical of state executives.

Second, global CT efforts and norms — such as the Financial Action Task Force (FATF) Standards and United Nations Security Council resolutions — empower and embolden states to conduct physical surveillance of persons.1)) FATF strongly recommend surveillance by countries as part of their customer due diligence obligations and as tools for tracing and curbing the financing of terrorism. As the launch of the FATF’s Workstream on Unintended Consequences demonstrates, several national governments have overstretched this provision in ways that offend privacy rights.

Third, powerful countries also wield a strong influence on CT policy development in developing countries through international trade, development assistance or aid programs. Advanced economies are often invested in protecting the commercial interests of their indigenous businesses abroad, irrespective of their ethical shortcomings. Countries like the United States and Israel with deep vested interests in the export of surveillance technologies to Nigeria will continue to exert influence on less powerful countries to protect the export market for their technologies. These trends illuminate how well-intentioned global CT measures cause harms in the national context.

The External Drivers and Influences

Beyond the pull and influence of international CT norms and powerful countries, there is no doubt that African governments like Nigeria are copying from invasive surveillance regimes enforced in other jurisdictions. Consistent with the intrusive data gathering patterns observed in countries like the United States, United Kingdom, Turkey, China, Russia, and several Middle East and North Africa countries, Nigeria has increased its surveillance operations and infrastructure, with China alone investing a staggering $16 billion in Nigeria’s telecommunication industry. The increasing investments in surveillance technologies ostensibly imitates the elaborate surveillance programmes in countries like the United States, the United Kingdom, China and Russia. Suppressing terrorism is the official justification advanced for the heightened surveillance agendas.

Inspired by repressive laws copied from Singapore, Nigeria has used national security as an excuse to initiate legislative proposals designed to curtail internet freedoms, arguing that such legislations will help to draw a line between protecting national security and the freedom of expression online. The Protection from Internet Falsehoods, Manipulations and Other Related Matters Bill, 2019 (popularly known as the Social Media Bill) was plagiarized from Singapore, a country that ranks lower than Nigeria on press freedoms.

Civil society is the most visible brunt-bearer of digital authoritarianism, enabled by the enforcement of CT measures. Non-profit organizations (NPOs) have been singled out for stringent measures, despite insufficient evidence of risk, and have been subjected to aggressive (financial) surveillance. In Nigeria, NPOs are lumped together with profit-making businesses and professions, subjecting them to the FATF requirements for so-called designated non-financial businesses and professions (DNFBPs). The terrorist financing reporting requirements for DNFBPs are onerous, time-consuming, with high compliance costs. Consequently, NPOs are required to register with the litany of ministries, agencies, and submit to annual audits. As a result, NPO have less time to devote to their primary charitable activities, as a lot of time is devoted to compliance and paperwork. This results in project delays and help not reaching those in greatest need in real time.

CT measures have also provided legal justification for governments to criminalize, suspend, or order the closure of certain humanitarian organizations operating in the north-eastern part of the country. In December 2021, the Governor of Borno State banned humanitarian and development partners from distributing food and relief materials to tens of thousands of people displaced by conflict. These bans, often accompanied with suspensions and forced closure of their offices spring from the official suspicion of affiliations between humanitarian organisations and terrorist groups. The offices of Action Against Hunger in Maiduguri and Damaturu, Yobe State were shut down by the Nigerian Army in September 2019, based on allegations of aiding Boko Haram and ISWAP by supplying them food and drugs.

Foreign Corporations are Profiteering from Digital Closures

Because limited checks and balances are in place to curtail restrictions on open democracy, internet freedoms, privacy and communication rights, surveillance capitalists and technology suppliers are exploiting the drift towards authoritarianism and the regimes’ lust for unfettered power to make profits. Suppliers take advantage of the weak regulatory and importation controls that characterize many poor countries to perpetrate lawlessness and conduct their operations in a manner that increases the vulnerability of the citizens to arbitrary surveillance and reprisal attacks. To make matters worse, these restrictions on civic freedoms and privacy rights wear the toga of ‘national security’, ‘intelligence’ and ‘secrecy’, making it easier for culprits to escape scrutiny and accountability.

From the foregoing, international CT norms intended to curb terrorist activities have expressly given governments the legal impetus to hide under the guise of compliance with international counterterrorism norms and obligations to curtail individual freedoms and impose restrictions on targeted entities. FATF’s recent workstream to gather data regarding the “unintended consequences” of its Recommendations (including cautionary provisions in its Guidance Notes on Digital Identity) is in itself an acknowledgement of the enormous potential for the misuse or misapplication of its standards within states. While the introduction of these evaluation mechanisms, including onsite visits and technical assistance, reflects efforts to embed accountability procedures in the CT security architecture at the global level, several challenges remain. The biggest challenge is that the strategic reviews of international norms at the global level often defy gravity. These upstream changes hardly trickle down because they are made when borrowed norms have crystalized into hard law passed by national parliaments characterized by complex, elongated rule-making and amendment procedures. In sum, international CT norms have played a big role in normalizing surveillance for counterterrorism purposes. The same amount of force and resources deployed to extract maximum compliance and enforcement of these measures at the national levels must be deployed to ensure the misuse of the CT architecture is brought to an end.


1 United Nations Security Council Resolution 2501 (2019) encourages the UN Monitoring Team to consult with INTERPOL to raise awareness of and learn about the practical implementation of the travel ban, including the use of advanced passenger information; to cooperate with INTERPOL and Member States to obtain photographs, physical descriptions and, in accordance with their national legislation, other biometric and biographic data of listed individuals when available for inclusion in Special Notices; and to assist other subsidiary bodies of the Council and expert panels, upon request, with enhancing their cooperation with INTERPOL. Accessed via; See also Victoria Ibezim-Ohaeri and Lotanna Nwodo; Action Group on Free Civic Space, Harms From Abroad: Impact Of Global Security Measures On Civic Space In Nigeria (2021