By Samuel Ogundipe
Two years after PREMIUM TIMES revealed that four South-South states were running illegal surveillance programmes to intrude into privacy of their residents and target opposition, latest findings by this newspaper suggest that the states have not backed down on the controversial operation.
Akwa-Ibom, Bayelsa, Delta and Rivers States were named in the 2015 investigation that uncovered how governors in the four states, which are specifically located in the Niger Delta, procured cutting-edge spying devices to play the role of Big Brother over residents of their respective states, especially politically active opponents.
Rivers State then under Rotimi Amaechi was the first state to deploy surveillance equipment.
Former Governor Emmanuel Uduaghan also ran the programme in Delta until the end of his administration in 2015, and there are indications that he handed it over to his appointed successor, Ifeanyi Okowa.
In Akwa Ibom, former Governor Godswill Akpabio deployed the programme in Uyo, the state capital.
Governor Seriake Dickson of Bayelsa State was exposed as running perhaps the most ruthless of the spying policies at the time.
Of the four states, three have had change of leadership, while Mr. Dickson is now in his second term. Of the three governors that vacated office, only Mr. Amaechi of Rivers handed over to an opposition candidate.
PREMIUM TIMES gathered from official sources in Akwa Ibom, under Emmanuel Udom, and Rivers, under Nyesom Wike, that the two states still have their respective programmes in place, but there were no immediate signs that Mr. Okowa still spies on residents in Delta.
National Security Agency sources said none of the states received approval to deploy the surveillance equipment.
The subsisting policy of the Nigerian government requires that any public or private organisation with an intention to purchase surveillance equipment must secure End User Certificate from the NSA before doing so.
The unrestrained exploits of the politicians underscore the susceptibility of private phone conversations of Nigerians.
The revelations, our previous report said, highlight how easy it could be for individuals and organisations – with enough financial and political clout— to acquire and deploy hi-tech hacking tools and illegally collect private data from targeted Nigerians.
Section 12 of the Cybercrime Act (2015) prescribes a prison term of not more than two years, a fine of N5 million or both for anyone convicted of the illegal surveillance activities of the governors.
The police at state and federal level deny knowledge of all the intrusive operations by governors.
“We’re not aware of such,” the Nigeria Police spokesperson, Jimoh Moshood, said.
“If any citizen has genuine complaints about possible intrusion on his or her privacy, such individual should contact the nearest police station”.
“We have our technical means to stay above criminals, but we’re not tapping people’s private conversations and the police will not condone such,” he added.
Former Rivers State Governor, Rotimi Amaechi, who is now Nigeria’s transport minister, was the first Nigerian politician to demand a Circle 3G’s telephone tracking technology as far back as 2010.
In a June 30, 2010 offer letter, signed by the then Secretary to the State Government, Sovens Okari, the Amaechi administration invited V&V Limited to supply the gadgets for N2.3 billion.
But the deal failed after the relationship between Mr. Amaechi and V&V Limited became strained.
When contacted at the time, Mr. Amaechi said he was unaware of the project. He argued that there was no record of fund releases for the project.
Two years earlier, Mr. Amaechi, now Minister of Transport, had picked up a similar gadget, the C4i (Command, Control, Communications, Computers, and Intelligence) technology deployed by an Israeli military security firm, MPD Systems.
Mr. Amaechi had described the C4i as a tool to aid federal security in combating militancy and kidnappings within the state. But it was more than that. C4i was considered the perfect federal cover under which Mr. Amaechi’s political spying was carried out.
But Ibim Semenitari, Mr. Amaechi’s Commissioner for Information, told PREMIUM TIMES in the previous report that the administration did not on its own deploy the tools to spy on anyone.
She cited Mr. Amaechi’s political fallout with former President Goodluck Jonathan as a clear hindrance for the governor.
“Given the well-publicised infractions between the Rivers State Government and the GEJ (Goodluck Ebele Jonathan)-led federal Government the state would not have been able to embark on the issues raised without the security agencies clamping down on its officials,” Ms. Semenitari said.
She admitted that the state government was running the programme, but said it secured the authorisation of the NSA under former President Umar Yar’Adua.
She also said the program was being run by a joint-team of police and the State Security Service in the state.
Recent findings by PREMIUM TIMES during a recent visit to Port-Harcourt suggest that Mr. Wike continued running the surveillance programme when he came to office in May 2015.
A source close to the administration said the program was still running as at April 2017, but said it was on a lower scale.
“Governor Amaechi started the surveillance policy and the Wike government inherited it when he came to the office,” the source said. “But I think it has now been scaled down significantly.”
The source said the programme had helped combat criminal activities in the state, adding that it was the reason behind its procurement.
But Commissioner for Information, Austin Tam-George, said the state does not intercept residents’ phone conversations.
“As a matter of ideology, this state does carry out illegal surveillance against residents.” Mr. Tam-George said. “It would be unfair to conclude otherwise.”
(Mr. Tam-George was interviewed in his capacity as commissioner. The interview was conducted before he resigned last week.)
Similarly, Rivers police spokesperson, Omoni Nnamdi, denied knowledge of any surveillance program.
“We only have joint patrol that includes the Nigerian Army and others,” Mr. Nnamdi said. “But I’m not sure I know of any spy programme or that I could confirm it.”
David Iyofor, media aide to Mr. Amaechi, said his principal left the equipment for Mr. Wike.
“It was a state property, not Amaechi’s own,” Mr. Iyofor said. “So, all security agencies that were involved can confirm that the state still has it.”
Mr. Dickson’s hacking activities were exposed by PREMIUM TIMES after the company that supplied Bayelsa State government’s hacking tools was hacked.
Hacking Team, notorious for equipping governments with tools to hack computers and phones, was hacked in July 2015 and 415 gigabytes of internal data leaked to the public.
Documents seen by PREMIUM TIMES show that the Dickson administration paid Hacking Team N98 million to carry out Internet attacks, in what appears to be the most ambitious hacking project by a Nigerian state government, the earlier report said.
The contract was signed in late 2013, leaked Hacking Team’s internal documents showed.
Mr. Dickson’s programme was not known even to the NSA until after the publication of the leaked documents.
Only the federal government has the power to intercept communications or act to suspend rights in the face of national security.
There is no evidence anywhere that the Dickson administration disposed its hacking equipment. Officials also preferred to stick to earlier narratives that it never had one.
PREMIUM TIMES’ efforts to get updates from officials with knowledge about the Bayelsa State’s surveillance activities were unsuccessful.
In Yenagoa, some officials that initially agreed to an off-record conversation in person later backed out at the eleventh hour, citing the sensitive nature of our investigation.
Boma Spero-Jack, Mr. Dickson’s special adviser on security, however, restated the administration’s earlier claim, despite overwhelming evidence, that it never had any intrusive surveillance equipment in place.
“We’re not interested in such materials,” Mr. Spero-Jack said of hacking tools. “We’re not in such business.”
He said “eavesdropping or illegally obtaining people’s conversation is illegal.”
He said, like most states in the country, Bayelsa has a joint-security committee in place, which he said Bayelsa had been using to deal with crimes across the state.
“We have a joint-security group of police, Army and SSS.
“We have equipment for tracking of vehicles and we have equipment for distress calls,” Mr. Spero-Jack said.
He said his office oversees running of the equipment.
As governor, Mr. Uduaghan, doled out N1.5 billion state funds to sign up for Circles 3G tools in February 2012. He also paid a yearly service fee of N31.9 million, our earlier investigation showed.
Upon expiration of his two-term tenure in May 2015, he handed over the tools to his successor, Ifeanyi Okowa, who immediately signed a two-year contract to extend the maintenance of the service.
Although the police in Abuja own a Circles 3G communication interception service which they pay N63 million annually to maintain, Delta State government argued its gadgets were bought for the police, at the time.
“My boss has no need to monitor any politician,” Ehiedu Aniagu, chief press secretary to Mr. Okowa said.
PREMIUM TIMES investigation shows that the gadgets are run by V & V Limited and employees of the governor, rather than public security agents.
LATEST IN DELTA
PREMIUM TIMES could not ascertain the status of the equipment in Delta State.
Officials of the state government said the government was not monitoring anyone’s messages or conversations while the police in the state gave a non-committal response.
The Delta police spokesperson, Aniamaka Andrew, said there is a joint-team of security agencies in the state, and he “cannot say they do not have the capabilities” to monitor phone conversations.
“But I am sure they put issues of individual rights in mind and they will not infringe on the privacy of individuals,” he said.
Mr. Andrew said what he could speak definitely on was that the state government procured closed-circuit television equipment for active monitoring of major black spots in the state.
“It is a proactive means of preventing crimes across the state,” he said.
Mr. Akpabio, now a senator from Akwa Ibom, purchased cyber warfare equipment when he was governor.
Even though the National Security Adviser, in 2012, declined to issue Mr. Akpabio an End User Certificate to buy Hacking Team’s cyber warfare tools, the former governor went ahead, anyway.
Top politicians in Akwa Ibom then accused Mr. Akpabio of procuring the equipment to target them.
“We knew that he (Godswill Akpabio) acquired a device to monitor people’s telephone calls but there was absolutely nothing we could do,” Umana Okon, an estranged ally of Mr. Akpabio who was secretary to the state government when the device was installed, said. “The device was acquired at the time kidnapping was quite high in the state. But after kidnapping abated, it was used to monitor telephone calls of private citizens and government officials.”
The period when Mr. Akpabio used the phone hacking tools in Akwa Ibom also coincided with a period that was fraught with political assassinations, kidnapping and intimidation.
Like its counterparts in other states, the Akpabio regime in Akwa Ibom then denied operating the hacking facility.
Aniekan Umana, Mr. Akpabio’s Commissioner for Information said his principal never ran any intrusive operation.
Officials of that government who spoke to PREMIUM TIMES in confidence, however, confirmed the existence of the spying facility at the time.
Like Rivers, Mr. Akpabio’s spying facility was also installed and run from the governor’s office rather than the SSS or police department.
But Mr. Umana insisted that everything security was run by the SSS and police.
Mr. Umana further stated that when the state sought the Hacking Team’s tools, it was to help the security agencies.
Politicians who felt their privacy had been breached complained to the National Security Adviser, but said nothing was done.
PREMIUM TIMES learnt during a recent trip to Uyo, the state capital, that Mr. Udom continued the controversial program when he assumed office in 2015.
A security source who spoke under strict anonymity said Mr. Udom declined to discontinue the program, citing security implications of such move.
The source said Mr. Udom praised the effectiveness of the surveillance operation, which was placed under joint-supervision of police and State Security Service, during one of the state security council meetings in 2016.
“The governor said he won’t ignore the security benefits of the operation,” the source said.
Our source further stated that the spy operation aided the police work for the time they were allowed to use it.
“The police cannot deny the significant contribution that the surveillance tools made towards their activities,” the source said.
The source said Akwa Ibom witnessed a noticeable reduction in capital crimes, such as homicide, armed robbery and kidnapping, although no scientific statistics were provided.
Crime prevention had also been robust in the state in recent years, as spying capabilities made it easier for law enforcement authorities to learn of potential crimes before they’re committed, he said.
Yet, the source said the police had been removed from the program because of incessant leaks allegedly traced to police officers.
“We noticed some leaks happened last year and it was eventually recommended that the police be removed from the operation,” the source said.
The source said SSS remained the only security outfit the state allowed to keep running the program on its behalf.
The SSS, which is clearly involved in running the hacking program in Akwa Ibom and other states, has no spokesperson and has refused to make itself accountable to the public for questions.
PREMIUM TIMES could not, however, confirm that the Udom administration targeted political opponents in recent times.
Also, the Akwa Ibom Commissioner of Police, Don Awunah, denied knowledge of any surveillance operation that had links with the state government.
“I have no knowledge of such operation,” Mr. Awunah told PREMIUM TIMES inside his office in Uyo, the state capital. “And you know I have been in this state for several months.”
Mr. Awunah was named police commissioner for Akwa Ibom in January.
He said he had relied on the surveillance platform run by the police from their headquarters in Abuja.
The police chief declined to comment on claims that the state government dropped his organisation from the security agencies that were running the program.
‘We don’t intercept people’s conversations’ — Governor Udom
Despite the strong indications that his government kept the intrusive surveillance program, Mr. Udom dug his heel in, stating categorically that no surveillance operation is underway in his state.
In a response to a series of questions about the program, Charles Udoh, the Commissioner of Information, said the Udom administration respects the privacy of all residents in the state,
“We do not intercept people’s private conversations,” Mr. Udom said. “It’s the work of security agencies to track criminals and bring them to justice.”
Mr. Udoh said previous claims from opposition figures that they were being targeted were mere “campaign ruse”.
Mr. Okon, now Managing Director, Oil and Gas Free Zone Authority, turned down all PREMIUM TIMES’ entreaties for his latest position on the surveillance program —if he still believes the operation hasn’t ceased or his calls are still being eavesdropped.
Samuel Udobong, spokesperson for the All Progressives Congress in Akwa Ibom, said he had no reason to suspect that Mr. Udom was targeting him.
Mr. Udobong said the activities of the APC as the major opposition party in the state had not been hindered in any way.
“We make our plans and challenge the governor in the open without any reason to be apprehensive,” Mr. Udobong said. “I don’t believe he’s targeting us, and, if he is, we’re not doing anything criminal.”
PRIVACY RIGHTS ACTIVISTS REACT…
But privacy rights advocates say they are not leaving anything to chance with respect to eavesdropping activities in Nigeria, which they described as “rudderless” and “proliferated”.
“We have time and again raised alarms that governments at all levels are increasingly deploying surveillance equipment that specifically target citizens’ communication,” said Adeboye Adegoke, program manager at Paradigm Initiative Nigeria, a public policy think-tank. “We know they do this with little accountability and very few citizens are alarmed.”
The apparent lack of water-tight regulatory framework in the deployment of surveillance tools has gripped privacy activists who warned of grave consequences should the status quo linger for much longer.
“We must not wait until someone as highly placed as the president is wiretapped and his secret conversations are uploaded on the Internet before something drastic will be done,” Mr. Adegoke said.
In recent years, some highly placed persons, including incumbent governors and judges, have had to endure public ridicule after their phone discussions were uploaded on the Internet.
Last December, phone conversations of Governor Ayo Fayose of Ekiti State and his Rivers State counterpart, Nyesom Wike, were leaked.
In one of such recordings, Mr. Wike appeared to be threatening an official of the Independent National Electoral Commission, INEC, over the state’s re-run elections that month.
PROPOSED DIGITAL RIGHTS AND FREEDOM LAW
As 2019 election approaches, some desperate governors in states where the tools have not yet been deployed might consider replicating the intrusive program to monitor opposition and maintain their hold on power, activists believe.
“They would sense the success of the ones deployed by their counterparts in the Niger Delta and procure their own equipment,” Mr. Adegoke said. “But that’s assuming they haven’t already done so.”
To reverse the proliferation of surveillance tools, Mr. Adegoke’s non-profit is championing a legislation it says will significantly curb privacy rights abuses and introduce sanity to the dark side of modern communication.
The Digital Rights and Freedom Bill has scaled the second reading in the parliament, where it has been proceeding at snail speed for about two years.
The bill proffers solutions to crucial surveillance questions, such as transparency, safeguards for deployment and modalities.
“We hope the bill’s passage will be expedited because it provides clear guidelines on the use of monitoring equipment,” Mr. Adegoke said. “Every Nigerian is entitled to unfeterred privacy”.