The expulsion of a University of Abuja student for protesting a hike in fees is sparking a conversation on digital rights

A luta continua; vitória é certa. That’s a famous rallying cry for Nigerian University students, who have a long and rich history of pushing back against real and perceived injustices from university authorities and the government. For years, student union leaders at universities invoked the spirit of Aluta to compel people to pay attention to burning issues. In the same spirit, Cyprian Igwe, a student union executive and Sociology major at the University of Abuja, sent a message to the Student Union’s Whatsapp group. His message: his displeasure at the University’s decision to increase tuition fees by 50% on April 29, 2023.

The price hike moved tuition fees from ₦47,300 ($58) to ₦89,000 ($109). His protest was valid, given that Nigeria’s government-owned universities have long remained affordable and within reach of many low and middle-income families. The price hike would change all that. 

What followed Cyprian’s call for Aluta on Whatsapp was a letter signed by Alkasim Umar, the University’s deputy registrar. Cyprian was accused of circulating an “inciteful press release.” Part of the suspension letter stated, “Your actions are capable of jeopardising the peaceful smooth conduct of academic activities in the university and a breach of the university matriculation oath. By the powers conferred on the Vice Chancellor as contained in the University of Abuja Act, he on behalf of the senate has directed your immediate rustication from the university. Accordingly, you are banned from all university campuses pending the determination of the case.”

Cyprian’s situation is common. Nigerian universities frequently rusticate student union leaders involved in protests. Aderemi Ojo, a former President of the University of Ibadan student Union was expelled following a 2017 protest. In 2010, four student union leaders at the University of Nigeria were also expelled after they protested a hike in tuition fees. While Aderemi Ojo is in court asking to be reinstated, Cyprian got lucky when his tweet caught the attention of journalists and activists in May 2023; the resulting media attention forced the University to reinstate Cyprian.

Journalists, lawyers and other observers say the University’s actions breached Cyrpian’s digital rights. As an extension of human rights, digital rights are closely linked to freedom of expression and privacy. How the University authorities found Cyprian’s message within a private Whatsapp group remains unclear.   

Cyprian’s case has sparked a conversation on digital rights in Africa. The past decade has seen an increase in African organizations championing digital rights—affordable and quality Internet connectivity, privacy, freedom of opinion, expression and association. Yet, African governments continue clinging down on their citizens’ digital rights and abusing personal data. In June 2021, the Nigerian government banned Twitter after the platform removed a controversial tweet by then-President Muhammadu Buhari. The ban was later lifted a year before the 2023 general elections.

“Digital rights are human rights”

Angela Uwandu, the head of Avocats Sans Frontieres, an International Human Rights group in Nigeria, told TechCabal, “With the rise in social media usage, freedom of expression online has to be protected and particularly, journalists and activists who are hounded under obnoxious laws. These rights have been guaranteed at both international and regional levels.”

Fortunately, the internet has made it easier to gain access to people with authority and draw attention to digital abuse breaches, much like Cyprian did with his tweet. According to Kehinde Adegboyega, the founder and team lead at Human Rights Journalists Network told TechCabal, “In the past, before you could speak to the public at that magnitude, you needed to write a letter to the editor and it was considered before it went into the media. But now with just your Twitter page, you have more power to hold government accountable—it is more power to the citizens.”

But this ability to hold government and institutions accountable also comes with the risk of being easily identified. Governments monitor social media usage and often unfairly arrest and prosecute critics. For Adegboyega, it is impossible to travel out of Nigeria without being subjected to background checks at the airport. 

“If you are a digital campaigner and someone highly placed is angry about what you post online, traveling through Nigeria’s Murtala Mohammed International Airport II could land you in the net of the state’s secret police, popularly known as the Department of State Security (Services),” he said.

But Nigeria is not the only place where digital rights violations occur. This year, Senegal experienced an internet shutdown following violent protests that began after an opposition leader, Ousmane Sonko, was sentenced to two years in prison after a prolonged legal dispute since 2021. 

A senior researcher with the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), Jonathan Rozen noted that the internet shutdown is a major infringement on human rights and that of the press. “Journalists are not able to work without the internet in a lot of ways. They use it for research, to use secure communication platforms to speak to their sources, they use it to publish. From top to bottom, blocking the internet and major online platforms is an attack on freedom of the press and journalists’ safety,” Rozen told TechCabal.

Rozen, who has extensive experience in dealing with issues of this kind, revealed that some of the regulations of the Nigerian Communication Commission (NCC) allow for “warrantless access to people’s call data,” and can be used by members of the police force to lure journalists, activists and non-state actors alike. He explained this on a call where he mentioned the issue of Azeezat Adedigba, who worked as an assistant editor at HumAngle, as one of those journalists who had her call data accessed in 2018.

More still needs to be done 

The current state of digital rights is disturbing and calls for action. As this article argues, stakeholders such as civil society organisations, funders, private companies and government institutions need to work together to ensure better judicial and regulatory oversight to protect free speech online and personal data.

Joseph Olaoluwa Senior Reporter, TechCabal
Ganiu Oloruntade Reporter, TechCabal

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