Nigerian activists sue President Buhari over plans to monitor WhatsApp messages

WhatsApp, which was founded in 2009 and bought by Facebook in 2014 for $19 billion, is now the company's biggest property after its messenger service and Instagram.

Nigeria’s Socio-Economic Rights and Accountability Project (SERAP) said on Sunday that it filed a lawsuit on Friday at the Federal High Court in Abuja, the country’s capital, against President Muhammadu Buhari, asking the court to “declare illegal and unconstitutional the plan by the administration 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.”

SERAP said it 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,” as well 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.”

WhatsApp, which was founded in 2009 and bought by Facebook in 2014 for $19 billion, is now the company’s biggest property after its messenger service and Instagram.

The suit by Nigerian activists followed the proposal in the Supplementary Appropriation Act signed in July 2021 to spend N4.87bn to monitor private calls and messages. The amount is part of the N895.8bn supplementary budget approved by the National Assembly. It comes just months after a similar lawsuit against the Buhari government following the ban of another American company, Twitter.

Mark Zuckerberg 
Mark Zuckerberg

“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,” the organization wrote in a statement on Sunday.

It added, “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.

“The mere threat of mass surveillance, even when secret, coupled with the lack of remedy, can constitute an interference with human rights, including the rights to privacy, freedom of expression, peaceful assembly and association.

“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.”

Nigerian Miister of Finance Zainab Shamsuna Ahmed at the International Monetary and Financial Committee (IFMC) Plenary meeting held at IMF Headquarters during the 2019 IMF/World Bank Annual Meetings 
Nigerian Miister of Finance Zainab Shamsuna Ahmed at the International Monetary and Financial Committee (IFMC) Plenary meeting held at IMF Headquarters during the 2019 IMF/World Bank Annual Meetings

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 asserted that 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.”

Abubakar Malami Nigeria Minister of Justice 
Abubakar Malami Nigeria Minister of Justice

“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,” it added.

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Simon Ateba is Chief White House Correspondent for Today News Africa. Simon covers President Joe Biden, Vice President Kamala Harris, the U.S. government, the United Nations, the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank and other financial and international institutions in Washington D.C. and New York City.

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