By Anna Suberu
September 3rd, 2021, will not be the first time the Nigerian government has tried to use a telecommunications shutdown to tackle insurgency.
The timeline of events from the 2013 telecoms shutdown in three North-Eastern states, Adamawa, Borno, and Yobe, shows that cutting off communication does not deter bandit efforts; in fact, it makes them more adamant in their pursuit of terror. Eight years later, terror and violence continue to spread across Northern Nigeria, with security deteriorating in North-East Nigeria due to the Boko Haram insurgency and North-Western Nigeria now battling banditry. This resulted in a network shutdown in Northern Nigeria in 2021, affecting over five states in the country’s northwestern part.
Communication has always played a vital role in the functionality of security efforts, evidence supports the use of communication to bolster security in the form of intel and tracking, so what could be the logic behind the network shutdown in North-Western Nigeria and why does the Nigerian military believe that a shutdown will be effective? A time where a vast majority of the population is highly reliant on ICTs and when it is well known that there are ways bandits circumvent telecommunication shutdowns with the use of satellite phones.
In rural communities of North-Western Nigeria, crime is perpetrated due to poor communication and security infrastructure. Banditry in Northern Nigeria devastatingly affects rural communities because they are already shut off from the populace living in more developed cities, regarding their access to amenities like good roads and communication infrastructure. Community policing is a method that has been saving rural communities from bandit attacks. While a military intervention became a necessity in the region, the declaration of a shutdown of network coverage appears to be a counterproductive measure because it affected community policing strategies as the free flow of information was hindered. The occurrence of a long-term telecommunication shutdown made it more difficult for communities to stay protected, further estranging these communities from help and making them more prone to attacks. The intervention methods used were questionable as several reports still show that communities and individuals faced bandit attacks even during the network shutdown.
The Nigerian government seems to lack the critical strategic know-how to address rising insecurity problems in a just, timely, and effective manner. In the first instance, an order for a shutdown must be succinctly backed by the law. There must be a clear lawful basis that supports network shutdowns because shutting off network coverage restricts people’s access to share information and communication, violating human rights. In most scenarios, governments do not follow the due process of the law before ordering telecom shutdowns because the shutdown of network coverage can never be genuinely justified as it puts a high number of the population at risk.
In the case of the 2021 shutdown of network coverage in Northern Nigeria, the government passed on the directive through the Nigerian Communications Commission (NCC) in the form of a letter. This alone is a cause for concern as such a directive should not come through an independent body established to uphold the right to communication and freedom of assembly at all times. This means that if the government cannot adequately take up the responsibility of the order to ensure that there is a true understanding of the need for the shutdown of telecom services, then there is no need for a shutdown in the first place.
The Nigerian government must know that it can end banditry without violating human rights. In many locations across Nigeria’s North-West, it was business as usual for bandits while the people of the area suffered the most. Nigeria’s use of force to cut off telecommunication hindered numerous activities ranging from business to education, as remote learning using telecommunications networks was also affected.
Military intelligence without communication support to execute operations is irrelevant, so while the Nigerian Government claimed to be fighting banditry by shutting off communications in known bandit zones, the only way to see the recent telecommunications shutdown in the North is simply as a case of history repeating itself remembering the story of North-Eastern Nigeria and the timeline of events that led to the current regionalization of insurgency in the North-East following the 2013 network shutdown.
The Nigerian government and military should consider new methods of counter-terrorism instead of using old strategies that have proven futile. More intelligent investments to the Nigerian military are crucial if the North is to have any chance in the fight against insurgency and banditry. To see that a network shutdown doesn’t have to happen again, the government must strengthen the capacity of enforcement agencies to prevent crime by providing the military with state-of-the-art equipment, intelligence infrastructure, and security resources to improve the outcome of military interventions against the bandits.
Suberu is a writing fellow at African Liberty