Cybersecurity levy, Nigerians, and the failure of the public sphere | TAIWO ADISA

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In the past week, the news about the proposed Cybersecurity levy, an offshoot of the Cybercrimes (Prohibition, Prevention, etc) (Amendment) Act, 2024, has taken over the public space. Offerings from the public have been interesting and surprising at the same time. Interesting because the decision by the Central Bank of Nigeria to commence the implementation of the 0.5 per cent levy on electronic transactions has woken up the Nigerian citizen from their slumber. The Nigerian Labour Congress (NLC) the Trade Union Congress(TUC), the Northern coalition, Southern elders, professional bodies, politicians, and the business community have criticised the CBN and the Federal Government for planning to impose yet another form of hardship on the people. Some called it a subtle tax, others said it would cripple businesses, while SERAP, in its characteristic manner, issued a 48-hour ultimatum to President Bola Tinubu to withdraw the proposal or risk a legal battle.

The reaction from the public has also been surprising to me because the Cybercrimes Act came into public space way back in 2015. The hue and cries that were supposed to have been unleashed in 2015 are coming to the fore, nine years after. It is surprising because it took the Nigerian public so long to realise that the system was already using bread to pack its stew.

German Sociologist, Jürgen Habermas, who propounded the theory of the Public Sphere, in his book, originally written in German and later translated into English, The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere: An Inquiry into a Category of Bourgeois Society, so much appreciated the Political public sphere whose opinions, which are formed either at clubs, newspaper stands as well as formal and informal meetings carry a huge weight in the making of government policy and the running of state affairs. Habermas provided useful insights into the power of the public and the essence of publicness in participatory government, which democracy represents.

It was surprising to me that Nigerians were unaware their rights had been taken away by the Cybercrimes Prohibition Act, 2015 and that the 10th National Assembly only revived the Act for fine-tuning to provide clarity to its implementation through the amendments proposed in 2023 and perfected via the amendment Act of 2024, which was signed into law by President Bola Tinubu. It is a clear lesson that the people have been so far removed from governance and that the Nigerian public is not adapting itself to the government of the people, for the people, and by the people mantra of democracy.

The 16th American President, Abraham Lincoln, gave a famous speech at the dedication of a military cemetery in Gettysburg in 1863, where he said: “That we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain-that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom- and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the face of the earth.” From that speech, democracy got its most popular definition as a government of the people, for the people, and by the people. That definition goes to insinuate that the people cannot stand akimbo, while government actors run the show. In a democracy, participation is key, even though not all citizens can be directly involved in running a government. The fact that the opinions held strongly by the public are made to count on government decisions is evidence of their participation.

The Lincoln definition further emphasises the office of the citizen as the singular most important office in the annals of democracy. But where the citizens decide to sleep on their rights, they fall into the category of the public described in the books of the two-time Pulitzer-winning journalist, Walter Lippmann; The Public Opinion (1922) and The Phantom Public (1927), where he declared that the modern world is “too complex” for the ordinary citizens,” and “Therefore public’s opinion is unreliable, incoherent and thus irrelevant to the political process. In other words, it is practically nonexistent.” Several communication scholars have discountenanced Lippmann’s submission above, but the development in Nigeria tends to reinforce his position.

Communication experts are largely in agreement with Habermas that the political public sphere is a domain of social life in which such a thing as public opinion can be formed, and that the sphere is open to all citizens. It is constituted “in every conversation in which private persons come together to form a public.” Celebrated media scholar, Denis McQuail(2010:569) further agreed that “the media are now probably the key institution of the public sphere, even though he submitted that certain tendencies in the media including concentration, commercialisation, and globalisation, could be harmful to the public sphere.

The essence of the political public sphere is such that the democratic government and its actors are not left to their whims and caprices, while the citizens revert to a ‘we’ versus ‘them’ cocoon. The people are supposed to hold opinions about issues that affect their affairs. They are to take close looks at the actions and inactions of the government and highlight possible danger signals. Going by the outcome of the Cybercrime Act and its amendment Act of 2024, the public sphere has failed in its functions in Nigeria.

While addressing the gray areas of the Cybersecurity levy, the Chairman of the Senate Committee on National Security and Intelligence, Senator Shehu Umar Buba, said that the provisions for the Cybersecurity levy have been in place since 2015.

He said: “The Cybercrimes Act of 2015 has provisions for imposing a cybersecurity levy since its enactment, but the vagueness of Section 44 led to different interpretations until the 2024 amendments. The levy is 0.5%, equivalent to half a per cent of the value of all electronic transactions by businesses specified in the Second Schedule to the Act.

“The amendments addressed crucial gaps in the Act and empowered the nation to implement the National Cybersecurity Programme effectively. They also seek to realign and empower the country to combat the inadequate funding and disruptive effects of cyber threats on national security and critical economic infrastructures.”

The questions that come to mind are numerous. But you would ask Nigerians where they were when this bill scaled the legislative huddles of the First, Second, and Third Readings in the Senate and the House of Representatives in 2015. Where were they when the public hearings were held in both houses? To actualise the amendment bill of 2024, the Senate held a public hearing on November 22, 2023. Who represented the public in those sessions, and what did they tell the National Assembly members?

The Yoruba have a saying that translated would read; when they say you have an issue to resolve and you decided to head to the farm. Whether you go to the farm or the river, the matter will be waiting for you, unresolved. And if you leave the madman to bury the dead mother the way he likes, the situation won’t be palatable for all.

That reality is that the Nigerian public must be awake to the expected roles of the public sphere in a participatory democracy. Attitudes such as nonchalance to public policies, the Kabiyesi syndrome, voter apathy, and all such ills cannot edify the office of the citizen.

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