By Olumide Babalola
In December 2022, Dr Samuel Singler – a criminology lecturer at the University of Oxford invited me to co-author a paper titled ‘Translating universal rights into local practice: Privacy, data protection and post coloniality in Nigeria’s legal regime for data governance.’ The paper among other objectives, addresses Nigeria’s technical and privacy obligations around her border control vis a vis the global north’s influence on immigration.
On the 13th day of June 2023, Samuel and I were invited to present our yet-to-be-published paper to an academic audience at the University of Oxford for further insights and multi-disciplinary perspectives on our theme and arguments.
Unbundling Nigeria from the discourse on African privacy cultural values
Since the global northern researchers and commentators have often argued that Africans do not value privacy, for me, the paper presents a rare opportunity to research pre-colonial privacy beliefs in Nigeria and then validate or debunk the myth.
Borrowing a leaf from Dipo Faloyin’s work, ‘Africa is not a country,’ the paper reminds its audience of the potentially misleading academic interrogation of the African privacy culture as a unit. A continent of 54 heterogeneous cannot be fairly analysed as a bloc along the lines of their (un)documented cultural practices.
Nigeria has her own peculiar problems. With over 250 ethnic groups, the subject of privacy has different meanings and implications for each of them. The paper sieves out one of the Nigerian ethnic groups for sampling with respect to her privacy beliefs as opposed to cultural practices. Rather than dwell on the sparring but existing theoretical literature on (arguable) African privacy practices, for empirical literature, I narrow down my interrogation to a tribe in southwestern Nigeria – the Yorubas.
Privacy belief versus privacy culture
Here, I argue that, as opposed to interrogating pre-colonial privacy culture in Nigeria which lacks verifiable literature, claims around ‘privacy beliefs’ can be substantiated by some of the adages and proverbs that date back to our ancient history.
I avoid joining issues on whether Nigeria culturally places any sufficient value on privacy, rather, I argue that Nigerians hold privacy beliefs even if they do not comparatively imbibe an identifiable privacy culture. I admit there exists evidence of Nigeria’s omission to practice what they culturally believe constitutes privacy tenets. Hence the paper is focused on pre-colonial privacy beliefs (in Yoruba land) as opposed to their verifiable privacy culture.
Pre-colonial privacy beliefs (in Yoruba land)
Here, I assert that, before the advent of colonialism, Yoruba people believed in privacy as evidenced by some of their documented proverbs and adages. (SeeOyekan Owomoyela’s A ki i. Proscriptive and Prescriptive Proverbs published by the University Press of America in 1988).
‘Bi isu eni ba ta, nseni a nfiowo bo o je’ meaning it is not advisable for one to expose unto others one’s personal fortune. This speaks to undue disclosure of personal information or data protection.
‘Ki i se gbogbo aso laa nsa loorun’ meaning it is not every piece of information that one discloses publicly. In privacy parlance, this addresses the principle of confidentiality.
The paper analyses many other Yoruba proverbs that speak to physical or information privacy in an attempt to establish the existence of privacy beliefs among the Yorubas before colonialism.
Among other issues, the paper seeks to initiate conversations that unpack conversations about African privacy culture towards fragmented analysis of individual groups to realistically interrogate pre-colonial privacy beliefs and cultural practices.