Redirect N4.8bn to monitor WhatsApp calls to pay doctors’ salaries, SERAP tells Buhari

August 15, 2021
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Socio-Economic Rights and Accountability Project (SERAP) has urged President Muhammadu Buhari “to urgently redirect the proposed spending of N4.8bn of public money to monitor WhatsApp messages, phone calls, and text messages of Nigerians and other people, to pay some of the salaries of striking resident doctors, improve their benefits, as well as improve public healthcare facilities for the sake of poor Nigerians who rely on those facilities, and have nowhere else to turn.”

SERAP said: “We also urge you to send to the National Assembly a fresh supplementary appropriation bill, which reflects the redirected budget, for its approval.”

In the open letter dated 14 August, 2021, and signed by SERAP deputy director Kolawole Oluwadare, the organization said: “Redirecting the proposed spending of N4.8bn would be entirely consistent with your constitutional oath of office, and the letter and spirit of the Nigerian Constitution of 1999 [as amended], as it would promote efficient, honest, and legal spending of public money.”

According to SERAP, “Redirecting the proposed spending of N4.8bn would also remove the threats to fundamental human rights of Nigerians, and ensure access to quality healthcare for the socially and economically vulnerable people who rely on public hospitals, and have no opportunity for medical treatment elsewhere.”

The letter, read in part: “Any appropriation law ought to comply with the Nigerian Constitution and the country’s international human rights obligations and commitments.”

“The constitutional oath of office implicitly provides some safeguards on the appropriation and spending of public funds, and imposes a legally binding obligation on public officers to preserve the public money, and not to disburse it except conformably to the Constitution.”

“SERAP believes that any proposed 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 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.”

“The proposed spending of N4.8bn of public funds as contained in the Supplementary Appropriation Act, which you signed last month would give rise to serious violations of the human rights of Nigerians and other people, as it would grant free rein to government agencies to conduct mass surveillance of communications of people.”

“The proposed spending also fails to meet the requirements of public interests, legality, necessity, and proportionality. Additionally, the lack of any safeguards against discriminatory decision-making, and access to an effective remedy shows the grave threats it poses to constitutionally and internationally recognized human rights.”

“We would be grateful if the recommended measures are taken within seven days of the receipt and/or publication of this letter. If we have not heard from you by then, SERAP shall take all appropriate legal actions to compel your government to comply with our request in the public interest.”

“SERAP is concerned that the proposed spending to monitor WhatsApp messages, phone calls, and text messages of Nigerians and other people is inconsistent and incompatible with the Nigerian Constitution and the country’s international human rights obligations.”

“Specifically, Section 37 of the Nigerian Constitution, and Article 17 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, to which the country is a state party, 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 protect everyone’s right to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas of all kinds, regardless of frontiers and through any media.”

“SERAP wishes to stress your government’s obligations under article 9 of the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights, and article 13 of the UN Convention against Corruption both of which Nigeria has ratified.”

“Similarly, the UN General Assembly has condemned unlawful or arbitrary surveillance and interception of communications as ‘highly intrusive acts’ that interfere with fundamental human rights (see General Assembly resolutions 68/167 and 71/199).”

“SERAP is concerned 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, especially given the growing repression of civic space, suspension of Twitter, and attacks on freedom of expression and media freedom in the country.”

“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.”

“Interference with privacy through targeted surveillance is designed to repress the exercise of the right to freedom of expression.”

“Surveillance of journalists, activists, opposition figures, critics and others simply exercising their right to freedom of expression – would lead to violations of other human rights such as the rights to liberty and freedom from torture and other ill-treatment.”

“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.”

“SERAP is concerned about the failure by your government to resolve the strike by the National Association of Resident Doctors (NARD) over pay, insurance benefits and poor facilities, and its effects on poor Nigerians, especially as the country faces a third wave of coronavirus.”

“According to our information, in July, 2021, you reportedly signed the 2021 supplementary appropriation bill of N983 billion into law. Of the amount, N4.8bn (N4,870,350,000) was allocated to the National Intelligence Agency (NIA) to monitor WhatsApp messages, phone calls, and text messages of Nigerians and other people.”

“Of the figure, N1.93 billion was earmarked for ‘WhatsApp Intercept Solution’ and N2.93 billion for ‘Thuraya Interception Solution’ – a communications system used for monitoring voice calls or call-related information, SMS, data traffic, among others.”

The letter was copied to Mr Abukabar Malami, SAN, Attorney General of the Federation and Minister of Justice; and Mrs Zainab Ahmed Minister of Finance, Budget and National Planning.

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