Last week, the Federal Ministry of Communications (FMC) warned security agencies to stop categorising young Nigerians using computing devices like laptops as criminals. This was made known in a statement by the Minister of Communications, Isa Pantami. The statement reads: “The attention of the Federal Ministry of Communications (FMC) has been drawn to reports of widespread harassment of young Nigerians with personal computers, tablets or phablets in public places. These reports indicate that young persons are generally regarded as fraudsters by officers of security agencies if found in possession of such devices and subsequently subjected to various forms of harassment and, in some cases, outright extortion. The ministry notes with dismay, this unfortunate turn of events as we celebrate the growing and bubbling technology eco-system in Nigeria that enables young persons to learn various skills ranging from software engineering to varied forms of entrepreneurship by simply accessing online tools and content on these devices.”
Patami, who noted that the ministry was aware of the fact that some persons engaged in disreputable activities using computers and similar devices, said all young Nigerians should not be tarred with the same brush. The statement added that the ministry was committed to working closely with parastatal agencies, including the National Information Technology Development Agencies (NITDA), Nigerian Communications Commission (NCC), relevant security agencies, hubs and all groups promoting digital capacity building in the country to ensure that such incidents were completely eliminated. It said that all hands should be on deck to promote the growth of a healthy eco-system supportive of young Nigerians and creating opportunities to harness their energies.
It is indeed only a nation intent on self-destruction that would habitually target its youth population for harassment and subjugation in the guise of law enforcement. It is a fact that 20 years since the return to civil rule in 1999, security agencies, particularly the police, still carry on like lords of the manor, making life unbearable for the already traumatised populace. This is why a laptop, ordinarily a tool of modernity that all students are required to possess, has become a signpost for fraud. Routinely, policemen accost students carrying backpacks, ask them to open up their laptops, and then fish for evidence in the bid to nail them as fraudsters. The situation is in fact so bad that a popular stand-up comedian even joked that the police could arrest a Nigerian youth carrying an empty bag, then tell the befuddled youth: “We are arresting you because you intend to hide a stolen laptop in this bag!”
As we noted in previous editorials, phones nowadays increasingly only invite police trouble, and can get their owners in jail very easily. We noted that almost on a daily basis, policemen flag down vehicles, ask the passengers to get down from the vehicle and then begin searching their phones. The victims are asked for their phone passwords and if they refuse to give or delay in giving that piece of information, they are beaten to a pulp and whisked away in police vans. Such actions, we noted, are completely at variance with the provisions of the country’s constitution which recognises the rights of citizens to move about freely and without hindrance anywhere in the country, and to be treated with dignity and respect.
As with phones, so with laptops, and is telling that the situation has reached such a serious stage that the Federal Government has to address it. Admittedly, though, the security agencies’ poor attitude to the country’s youths has not been helped by President Muhammadu Buhari’s own attitude to the youths, whom he once famously described as lazy and in love with freebies. But with the government’s latest pronouncement, it can only be hoped that the country’s youths will now be treated with all the dignity and courtesy that they deserve as citizens. In order for the government’s obviously noble intention to be realised, the security agents harassing the youths in the name of law enforcement should be punished. They should not continue to assume that being security agents gives them the right to harass the youths. We commend the Ministry of Communications for this timely warning and hope that it will have the desired effect.