Court Dismisses MRA’s Suit Over 2021 Internet Shutdown in Sokoto, Says Fundamental Rights Take Second Place to National Security

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Ms. Mojirayo Ogunlana-Nkanga
Abuja-based Human Rights lawyer and Member of MRA’s Network of Lawyers

The Lagos-based non-governmental organization instituted this suit by means of Originating Summons dated and filed on November 9, 2021 through the Abuja-based Human Rights lawyer Ms. Mojirayo Ogunlana-Nkanga, Esq. The Application was brought pursuant to the Fundamental Rights Enforcement Procedure (FREP) Rules to challenge the communications/internet shutdown which took place in Sokoto State with the directive of the Governor and implemented by the Nigerian Communications Commission and the Attorney General of the Federation who were named as parties to the suit.

In the suit number FHC/ABJ/CS/1378/2021, MRA specifically, MRA asked the court for the following reliefs:

  • A declaration that the shutting down, blocking and/or disruption of telecommunications services in Sokoto State, including access to internet, on directives of the Nigerian Communications Commission and at the request of the Governor of Sokoto State constitutes an interference with its right to freedom of expression, its members and/or associates resident within and outside Sokoto State as it violates their rights to receive and impart information and ideas through any medium of their choice as guaranteed and protected by section 39 of the Constitution of the Federal Republic of  Nigeria, 1999 (as amended);  Article 9 of the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights (Ratification and Enforcement) Act (Cap A9), Laws of the Federation of Nigeria, 2004;  and Article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
  • A declaration that the shutting down, blocking and/or disruption of telecommunications services in Sokoto State, including access to the Internet, on directives of the Nigerian Communications Commission and at the request of the Governor of Sokoto State constitutes an interference with its right to freedom of expression, its members and/or associates resident within and outside Sokoto State, as provided by Principle 37(1) and (2), as well as  Principle 38(1) and (2) of the Declaration of Principles on Freedom of Expression and Access to Information in Africa; and a breach of the statutory duty imposed on the Federal Government of Nigeria by the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights (Ratification and Enforcement) Act (Cap A9), Laws of the Federation of Nigeria, 2004 and Nigeria’s treaty obligation under the African Charter.
  • A declaration that the directive issued by the Nigerian Communications Commission to telecommunications service providers to shut down, block and/or disrupt telecommunications services in Sokoto State, including access to the Internet, at the request of the Governor of Sokoto State is not within the permissible restrictions stipulated in Section 45 of the 1999 Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria and, accordingly, does not satisfy the requirements of the said Section 45 of the 1999 Constitution of Nigeria (as amended).
  • An order directing the governor of Sokoto State, the Attorney General of the Federation and the Nigerian Communications Commission to forthwith restore telecommunications services, including access to the Internet, in Sokoto State.

MRA contended in the suit that by a press statement issued on September 20, 2021 the Governor of Sokoto State requested the Federal Government to shut down mobile networks and telecommunication services in some parts of Sokoto state, specifically in Gada, Goronyo, Gudu, Ilela, Isa, Kebbe, Sabon Birni, Shagari, Rabah, Tambuwal, Tangaza, Tureta, Wurno, and Dange Shuni and that on September 20, 2021, mobile networks and telecommunication services were shut down in the identified areas in the state upon the directive issued to all telecommunication service providers by the Nigerian Communications Commission.

MRA claimed that all telecommunication service providers complied with the directive of the Nigerian Communications Commission, and residents of the affected areas in Sokoto State have not been able to use telecommunication since then as a result of the action.

It explained that since the advent of internet and digital technologies such as mobile phones, laptops, computers, and other telecommunication gadgets, governments, companies, government agencies and individuals in Nigeria and all over the globe use the technologies on a daily basis to express themselves, communicate with friends and relatives, receive and impart information, and carry out their businesses.

MRA stressed that using these technologies for the above-listed activities requires the users to subscribe to the service of any telecommunications service provider. MRA argued that shutting down telecommunication services in some part of Sokoto State amounts to a violation of the rights of the residents, its members and its right to receive and impart information, and access to internet as guaranteed by the Constitution and a number of international instruments.

Parties having exchanged pleadings, responses and replies, the matter was then set down and adjourned for hearing.

On February 1, 2023, the matter came up for hearing and all parties were duly represented by their counsels. Counsel to all parties argued their case and adopted their various process filed in the suit. After hearing the submissions of counsel and their arguments, the court adjourned the matter to June 8, 2023 for judgment.

Justice Egwuatu on June 8, 2023 in his judgment stated that MRA failed to exhibit evidence compelling enough to establish its case. He further stated that even if MRA had, exhibited more evidence, the Nigerian Communications Commission acted within its powers under its enabling Act and accordingly dismissed the suit.