October 1: Plans To Shut Down Telephone Networks Illegal — Lawyers

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Senior Advocate of Nigeria Sebastian Hon and human rights activist Femi Falana have challenged the plan to shut down telecommunications services in Abuja on October 1 over security concerns.?
The duo, who spoke at separate interviews with LEADERSHIP, said neither the federal government nor the service providers have the right to shut down telephone services.?
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LEADERSHIP investigation revealed that, following threats by members of Boko Haram sect to carry out bomb attacks in Abuja, the government was considering shutting down phone services. ?
The group has claimed responsibility for several bomb attacks which claimed many lives and destroyed property worth billions of naira in many parts of the north, including Abuja.
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As part of measures to prevent members of the sect from sharing information and using mobile phones to detonate explosives, the government has ordered phone lines to be shut down.?
A similar directive was given to telecommunications operators during the inauguration of President Goodluck Jonathan on May 29. ?Abuja residents were barred from making or receiving calls. Neither the government nor operators informed subscribers that services would be suspended for over 12 hours on the day of the presidential inauguration.
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Just as arrangements are in top gear to ensure a hitch-free 51st independence anniversary, LEADERSHIP learnt the Nigerian Communications Commission (NCC) has been directed to ensure compliance with the shutdown order. It was also learnt that the commission has met with top management of major telecommunications firms to enlist their cooperation in tackling security challenges in the country.?
For their part, the operators have pledged their commitment towards ensuring the security of lives and property by assisting security agencies in tracking down criminals.
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But Hon argued that though national security ranks higher under constitutional jurisprudence, it would be wrong for government to order telephone services to be suspended in any part of the country.
He noted that telecommunications service providers have private contracts with subscribers, adding that these cannot be violated under the guise of national security. He further explained that subscribers have the right of action against the government and the operators if they suffer damages as a result of the suspension of telephone services. He said: “If there is any deliberate breach in deference to the so-called national security and the subscribers suffer damages, the people have right of action against the operators and the government. The reason is not farfetched. The contract the operators have with subscribers is private. The basis for apparent intervention or disruption by the government doesn’t exist. Security is not a one-off measure.?
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“When we want to tackle security concerns in Nigeria, we should start from the fundamentals before taking immediate steps that will impact negatively on the citizenry. I say this because the Boko Haram, according to newspaper reports have already given notice that they would greet the Independence Day with bombs all over the country. Therefore, the presidency and indeed security agents should immediately nip that threat in the bud rather than wait until that day and then direct the telecoms providers to disrupt the information superhighway.?
“A lot of people are likely to suffer gravely from the shutdown because emergencies will not be responded to, businesses will suffer and other personal damages will occur. To that extent, I believe that national security will be incorrectly applied to the situation here.”
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Similarly, Falana said it was illegal for the government to hide under the guise of national security to violate the rights of telephone subscribers. He said: “It is totally illegal for anybody to shut down telephone services in any part of the country. What kind of national security would say that people should not communicate? It is even against the interest of the government to shut down telephone services. Assuming there is a disaster somewhere and people want to call for help when the phones are shut down? That would in itself constitute the worst subversion of national security. For instance, if there is a robbery and the suspects are trying to flee the city or those who want to bomb the city are coming from outside and a citizen wants to tell the police at Gwagwalada to stop them, how would he do it when the phones are down?”
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He argued that no government in any part of the world would stop its citizens from communicating under the guise of ensuring national security.
Falana threatened that he would sue the government and service providers if his lines were shut down for any reason and encouraged Nigerians to do so too.?
However, NCC’s head of media and public relations, Reuben Muoka, said he was not aware of any directive to shut down telephones services during the Independence Day celebrations. But he maintained that it was right for appropriate authorities of government to take adequate steps to forestall the breach of public peace.
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According to him, it was right to shut down phones if it was found that that would help in checking the activities of criminals during the celebrations. ?
He said: “We cannot because of an emergency situation of one person jeopardize the safety of thousands of people. There are no better ways of checking the activities of a few people who are bent on causing trouble on that day.?
“I challenge you to suggest better ways of doing it because I know there are none. I’m not aware that phones will be shut down on October 1; you have just told me. What I’m saying is that any security measure that is taken in this country should be considered as being in line with what is happening. We cannot say no other country has done it.”
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“I quarrel with that expression “no other country” because our situation is peculiar and we are trying to arrest a peculiar situation here. It is not a case of trying to protect management or whether the decision was right; the situation does not call for such. Nobody knows what could have happened on May 29 if the phones were on.?
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“In fact, I commend those who took that decision because it was one of the wisest decisions that has been taken in this country. I wasn’t aware of it. Of course, you don’t need everybody to know when security decisions are being taken, otherwise the person who is bent on causing trouble will devise other means.?
“But if you see the spate of bombings and the role mobile phones can play in this, then, you will but take a similar action. I commend the action.”


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