The Socio-Economic Rights and Accountability Project (SERAP) has filed a lawsuit against President Muhammadu Buhari, asking the court to “declare illegal and unconstitutional the plan by the Federal Government to track, intercept and monitor WhatsApp messages, phone calls, and text messages of Nigerians and other people, as it severely threatens and violates the right to the preservation of privacy.”The suit, followed the proposal in the Supplementary Appropriation Act signed in July 2021 to spend N4.87 billion to monitor private calls and messages. The amount is part of the N895.8 billion supplementary budget approved by the country’s National Assembly.
In a statement by the Non-Governmental Organisation, released on Sunday in Lagos, SERAP said that the suit, filed last Friday at the Federal High Court in Abuja, “is seeking “an order of perpetual injunction restraining President Buhari and any other authority, persons or group of persons from unlawfully monitoring the WhatsApp messages, phone calls and text messages of Nigerians and other people.”
SERAP is also seeking “a declaration that any monitoring of WhatsApp messages, phone calls and text messages is oppressive and draconian, as it threatens and violates sections 37 and 39 of Nigerian Constitution 1999 [as amended]; Article 9 of the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights; and Articles 17 and 19 of International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, to which Nigeria is a state party.
“The plan to monitor WhatsApp messages, phone calls and text messages is an arbitrary interference by the administration into respect for family and private life, the home, and correspondence. It also fails to meet the requirements of legality, necessity, and proportionality.”
According to SERAP, the Buhari administration has legal obligations to protect Nigerians and other people against arbitrary interference and violations of their human rights. Monitoring of WhatsApp messages, phone calls and text messages would grant free rein to government agencies to conduct mass surveillance of communications of people.
“Privacy and expression are intertwined in the digital age, with online privacy serving as a gateway to secure exercise of the freedom of opinion and expression. Therefore, targets of surveillance would suffer interference with their rights to privacy and freedom of opinion and expression whether the effort to monitor is successful or not,” SERAP said.
Joined in the suit as respondents are Mr. Abubakar Malami, Minister of Justice and Attorney General of the Federation; and Mrs. Zainab Ahmed, Minister of Finance, Budget and National Planning.
The suit filed on behalf of SERAP by its lawyers Kolawole Oluwadare and Kehinde Oyewumi, read in part: “The powers to conduct arbitrary, abusive or unlawful surveillance of communications may also be used to target political figures and activists, journalists and others in the discharge of their lawful activities.”
“Any spending of public funds should stay within the limits of constitutional responsibilities, and oath of office by public officers, as well as comply with Chapter 2 of the Nigerian Constitution relating to fundamental objectives and directive principles of state policy.
“The lack of any safeguards against discriminatory decision-making, and access to an effective remedy shows the grave threats the purported plan poses to constitutionally and internationally recognized human rights.
“Section 37 of the Nigerian Constitution and Article 17 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights provide for the right to freedom from arbitrary or unlawful interference with privacy and correspondence, communications and private data.
“Section 39 of the Nigerian Constitution and Article 19 of the Covenant also guarantee the right of everyone to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas of all kinds, regardless of frontiers and through any media.
“Targeted surveillance creates incentives for self-censorship and directly undermines the ability of journalists and human rights defenders to conduct investigations and build and maintain relationships with sources of information.”