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No more 419?

Nigeria’s politicians still haven’t got around to outlawing online crime

Omobola Johnson, Nigeria’s minister of communications, told a gathering of the country’s tech-industry leaders yesterday that a long-awaited cyber-security bill “will be ready by the end of the year.” This is good news for Nigerians. Despite an increase in online crime, law-enforcement agencies find they have no legislation with which to prosecute criminals.

Yet Nigerians will be forgiven for not getting too excited by Johnson’s declaration. The legislation, after all, is called “Cybersecurity Bill 2011.”  And similar assurances were made by Ibrahim Gusau, chairman of a parliamentary committee on information and communication technology, in March: “As of today, there is no law protecting electronic transactions in Nigeria. We are working hard on the cybersecurity bill and before the end of our tenure, the bill will scale through,” he said.

The story of Nigeria’s cybersecurity bill is a long and tortured one. Some sort of protection for online dealings was first mooted in 2004. The first attempt, in 2005, failed to make it through legislation. Another bill was presented to lawmakers in 2008 and met with the same fate. By the turn of the decade, there were so many varying versions circulating that the government decided to make a fresh, “harmonized” cybersecurity law. It is presently being hammered into shape by the Nigerian Ministry of Justice.

The new bill deals with spam, identity theft, unauthorized access, malicious code, and plenty else besides. For Nigerians, it cannot be passed and enforced soon enough. In its absence, Nigeria’s internet is something of a virtual free-for-all, with the result that Nigerians find themselves shunned by Western businesses and services suspicious of their motives.

Despite the enthusiasm among Nigeria’s tech community for the bill to finally become law, its effectiveness is up for question. One of the topics is covers is online fraud, popularly called  419 scams. Yet this is one crime that is already illegal and has been so for more over a century. Indeed, it takes its name from the article of the Nigerian criminal code dealing with fraud. That set of laws has its foundations in the 19th century. The crime is also covered by the a 1995 act. That doesn’t seem to have stopped all those Nigerian princes from sending emails offering to share their fortunes with the rest of the world.

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