$40m spying contract: Presidency, NASS set for showdown

Dr. Goodluck Jonathan
The Presidency and the National Assembly are set for a showdown over the controversial $40m Internet surveillance contract awarded by the Federal Government to an Israeli firm, Elbit Systems.

The Federal Government had reportedly awarded the contract to the company to install a system that would enable security agencies to monitor the activities of Nigerians on the Internet.

The House of Representatives had last month asked the Presidency to halt the contract but the Minister of Information, Labaran Maku, had at a public forum in Lagos defended the issue.

Saturday PUNCH learnt on Thursday that the lawmakers were miffed over indications that the Presidency was going ahead with the contract.

Already, the House has begun moves to stop the contract by all means.

It is expected to invite the National Security Adviser, Col. Sambo Dasuki (retd.), and other top security officials to explain the current status of the contract and why the Presidency was bent on ignoring its resolution.

The House is expected to work with the Senate to frustrate the plan by ensuring that it is not among the projects to be funded when the current contention over the 2013 budget is finally resolved.

Chairman, House of Representatives Committee on Information and Communications Technology, Mr. Ibrahim Gusau, confirmed the lawmakers’ plans to our correspondent in Abuja.

Enquiries by our correspondents at the Presidency and the Ministry of Communication Technology did not produce any result as officials claimed either that they were not involved or aware of the contract.
But Gusau, who had sponsored a motion in the House for the investigation of the contract, told our correspondent that the matter had been shrouded in secrecy. He said this informed the resolve to invite key government officials to say what they know about the surveillance contract.

He said, “We are going to invite the National Security Adviser and other key people in security to say what they know about the Internet surveillance contract.

“They cannot spend our money without appropriation. The $40m belongs to Nigerians and as representatives of the people, we need to know about it.
“The Internet surveillance contract will abridge the freedom of Nigerians and we do not agree with it. If we allow it, it means that whatever you and I do on the Internet will be viewed by them. That is against the right to privacy and personal freedom.”

Saturday PUNCH learnt that the Presidency was determined to pursue the matter despite the opposition from the National Assembly.

A security source who spoke to one of our correspondents in confidence said the Presidency was convinced that the $40m Internet monitoring contract would assist security forces to stop terrorist plots and other crimes before they are executed.

“The National Assembly is free to make all the noise, but the government has no intention of stopping the contract because its advantages far outweigh any political or financial considerations or reasons the lawmakers may advance as excuses to stop the project.

“We are talking about national security here and if the US that is regarded as the bastion of social liberty and democracy can spy on its citizens for national security, how much more a developing country like us where terrorists groups are threatening our political stability,” the top security officer stated.

Another official said the Presidency may, however, tactfully avoid a showdown by reaching out to National Assembly members on the issue, in view of its implications for national security.

It was learnt that the decision of the Presidency to keep mum on the matter was a strategic move meant to give the impression that it had yielded to the demand of the lawmakers.

Saturday PUNCH learnt that the secrecy surrounding the project was informed by fears that it might be compromised by politicians and critics who may misconstrue government’s motives.

“This was the reason why government was alarmed when the contractor announced the contract in a media statement without seeking the Presidency’s approval.

“What the government feared has happened because opposition politicians and other critics who know nothing about national security are crying wolf where there is none,” a senior official said.
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