The arrest and detention of Abubakar Sidiq Usman, a blogger and citizen journalist by the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC) over alleged “cyber stalking related offences” is an egregious attack on press freedom that blemishes impunity and advertised in spectacular fashion, abuse of office at its worst by EFCC acting chairman, Ibrahim Magu. At the risk of sounding like a town crier, it must be stated and with emphasis that Magu acted ultra vires, beyond the EFCC’s statutory mandate, and in flagrant violation of the 2015 Cybercrimes Act. This idiotic arrest threatens the ability of Nigerian journalists to do their jobs, and sets a bad precedent for public officials to abuse the instruments of state power to settle personal scores. It is indeed pathetic, that neither the Presidency nor the AGF has found Magu’s aberrant actions worthy of reprimand and sanctions.
Abuse of public trust and erosion of public confidence are factors aggravating the image and credibility crisis of the EFCC in its fight against corruption. From all indications, it is obvious Abusidiq, as the blogger is popularly known, was arrested because of a critical online report against Magu published on his blog. The report titled: “EFCC boss, Magu commences total war with core EFCC staff” accused Magu of corruption; detailing how his volcanic temperament and leadership failure was sapping staff morale. A week after the report was published; Abusidiq was arrested by EFCC operatives and charged with cyber stalking. Although he was granted bail, the arrest, and the bogus justifications proffered by the EFCC for the illegal action, make a mockery of due process and the rule of law and are unacceptable.
According to Section 58 of the Cybercrimes Act, cyber stalking is a conduct directed at a specific person. Section 24 (1) of the Act states that a person who knowingly sends email messages deemed grossly offensive, pornographic or of an indecent, obscene or menacing character or causes any such message to be so sent, knowing same to be false, for purposes of intimidation, insult, causing annoyance, danger, injury, enmity, hatred, ill will or needless anxiety to another, commits an offence and is liable on conviction to three years imprisonment and a fine of not more than N7 million or both. Under Section 24 (2); a person who intentionally transmits or causes email transmission of any communication to bully, threaten, harass and places another person in fear of death, violence or bodily harm; threat to kidnap or any demand for a ransom from any person, firm, association or corporation, commits an offence and is liable on conviction to imprisonment for a term of 10 years or a minimum fine of N25 million.
It should be clear to anyone not blinded by prejudice or ignorance, that cyber stalking as an offence can only be directed against a specific individual, not against the state; meaning for anyone to be arrested or charged with cyber stalking, there must be a victim/plaintiff to file the complaint, before the relevant law enforcement agencies can take action. Also, the victim must be a “reasonable person” who incurred damages because of cyber stalking. In Abusidiq’s case, who petitioned the EFCC and why? Even if Magu claims he is the victim/plaintiff, he cannot be investigator and prosecutor because of conflict of interest. Besides, why did EFCC usurp the power of the police? And did they obtain a court warrant before searching Abusidiq’s home as required by Sections 45 and 50 of the Cybercrimes Act?
By virtue of Section 41, the responsibility to prosecute offences under the Cybercrimes Act is subject to the powers of the Attorney General, and the relevant law enforcement agencies. The EFCC is neither vested with express or implied powers to prevent, investigate or prosecute cybercrimes. The agency’s mandate as per Sections 6 and 7 of the 2004 EFCC Act is limited to economic and financial crimes and allied offences. And come to think of it; although the Cybercrimes Act was passed last year, its operational mechanisms are yet to be functional. The Cybercrimes National Advisory Council and the National Cyber Security Fund are yet to be constituted. Besides, the AGF is yet to set the guidelines for the efficient implementation of the Act or the “procedure for the prosecution of all cybercrimes in line with national and international human rights standards” as required by Section 57 of the Act. Therefore, in point of fact and law, the EFCC has no locus standi to initiate an action, let alone establish a prima farcie case for cyber stalking against Abusidiq. There is nothing in the offence of cyber stalking that relates to economic and financial crimes and if any institution is to prosecute this offence, it should be the Police or DSS, not the EFCC. So on what basis did the EFCC arrest and detain Abusidiq?
Magu’s action further damaged Nigeria’s checkered reputation for press freedom. Magu’s abuse of power reinforces Nigeria’s image as a nation with deeply dysfunctional institutions where bizarre things can happen. He should be told in whatever language he understands that, far from being a freedom to protect journalists, press freedom is the freedom that protects all other fundamental freedoms. He should learn from other individuals who tried to emasculate the press when they were in power but who later had to depend on the same press to crusade for their freedom.
But the issue is far beyond Abusidiq. It speaks directly to the brazen criminalization of the cyberspace through the instrumentality of a controversial cybercrimes law, whose constitutionality is open to question. If the EFCC with no power over cyber stalking can invoke the law in a desperate attempt to intimidate and gaggle a blogger, what happens if the NSA, the police, DSS and other security agencies decide to go down the same route can only be best imagined, given that these agencies view bloggers and citizen journalists through the prism of national security.
People like Magu should endeavor to respect the offices and official positions they occupy by setting standards for decorous comportment. It is disappointing that Magu could not resist the temptation of turning his position into a bully pulpit for personal vindictiveness. No one is above the law. Magu must remember that the functions of the EFCC are clearly stated in the Constitution and the EFCC Act. Nowhere does the paraphernalia of fighting economic and financial crimes and its mode of engagement admit arbitrariness or whims and caprices in its engagement.
It is, therefore, no profound clairvoyance in saying that no one, not even the President as commander-in-chief of the armed forces, has the authority to use law enforcement agencies to settle personal scores. Magu will do well to leave the EFCC out of his petty ego squabbles. Nigeria needs an anti-graft agency in its pristine form. By his perfunctory arrogant abuse of power, Magu demonstrated that he is not the man for the job. He should resign or be sacked immediately.