Private Mobile Phones And Public Offices – Muiz Banire, SAN

Last Sunday on my X (formerly Twitter) page, I opened a discourse on the animosity that public officials have developed to private citizens visiting their offices coming in with their phones. Today, I believe the topic deserves a broader treatment as I am very much concerned about the rate at which public officials now bar citizens visiting their offices from bringing in their mobile telephone devices. In a rapidly evolving digital age, mobile phones have become indispensable tools for communication, information access and even personal security. Yet, an alarming trend is emerging in some public offices: the barring of citizens from entering offices with their mobile phones.


This practice not only undermines transparency and accountability but also diminishes the very essence of public service. Public offices are, by definition, institutions meant to serve the populace. Their primary function is to facilitate the needs of the citizens they represent. By denying entry to individuals with mobile phones, these offices create an environment of opacity and mistrust. Mobile phones are not merely devices for personal use, they are also tools that enable citizens to document their interactions, ensuring that their rights are protected and that public servants are held accountable for their actions.


Barring of mobile phones can be perceived as a deliberate attempt to shield public officials from scrutiny. Eni ti ko ba se ohun itufu, ko gbodo maa kiye si ehinkule. The depth of wisdom promoted by this Yoruba saying is best rendered literally by saying that he who has not engaged in illicit practices need not be watching over his shoulders. Of what use is it when you shield your official activities from public glare while claiming to be representing the public? This practice can foster an environment where misconduct or negligence goes unchecked, as citizens are deprived of the means to gather evidence or report abuses in real time. Transparency is the cornerstone of a healthy democracy and good governance, and any measure that diminishes it should be viewed with suspicion and contempt. Mobile phones are critical for the efficiency of day-to-day activities of most citizens and this is why many of us have become reliant on our phones. Citizens visiting public offices often rely on their phones for various purposes, such as accessing important documents, receiving updates, or even making payments.

By prohibiting mobile phones, public offices are not only inconveniencing citizens but also hindering the very processes they are meant to facilitate. Consider the elderly or those with disabilities who depend on mobile technology for assistance. Forcing them to leave their phones behind exacerbates their challenges, making the simple act of accessing public services an ordeal. This practice is not only inconsiderate but also discriminatory, as it disproportionately affects those who are most vulnerable. To protect citizens’ rights, mobile phones have become sine qua non and this cannot give way to any shoddy excuse as may be sought to be advanced by corrupt officials of government. It is the realization of this need for transparency and protection of human rights that made the draughtsman of the Administration of Criminal Justice (Amendment) Law, 2021 to amend the principal law to include the rights of suspects to be recorded on video while being interrogated and volunteering confessional statement.


Rights have become recognized as rights after being made subject of consistent abuses, which have led to loss of lives and property. Only God knows how many citizens have been wantonly murdered extra-judicially in police custody as a result of police highhandedness and blood-thirstiness. Such officials that enjoy violation of rights will never support citizens having access to their offices while accompanied by their mobile phones. The Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC) has made it a standard practice over the years that no mobile phones shall be allowed in their premises and members of the public are made to deposit their phones in a receptacle at the gate to the premises. Even public offices where civil transactions are supposed to be carried out have also adopted this practice of preventing private citizens coming for meetings from accessing the offices with their mobile phones in their possession.


The efficacy of mobile phones in holding public officers to accountability can be seen in the number of police officers whose criminal activities have been exposed by private citizens who document their extortionist or murderous activities on our roads. Police authorities have been proactive in dealing with such officials and thanks to the Inspector General of Police who has consistently maintained that no police officer has the right to inspect the contents of the phones of a private citizen. On the other hand, mobile phones have also assisted in exposing highhandedness of citizens against diligent and responsible public officials. The commendably professional restraint exercised by the police officer assaulted by Seun Kuti the other day would have gone unnoticed if not for mobile phones. A number of cases of private citizens’ assault on police officers have been exposed by the prying eyes of street ‘journalists’. The public would probably have turned the case around against such victim police officers due to the general animosity that people have against police officers. Cases of police officers being used and abused as domestic servants and handbag carriers have been assisted by mobile phones of citizens who courageously document them and by which the rights of such officers are being protected and their dignity elevated.


Again, the government daily denounces corruption in public offices while regrettably and correspondingly encouraging the barring of access to phones while visiting public officials. This is huge contradictions in objectives and approaches. In today’s world, personal safety is closely linked to the ability to communicate. Mobile phones are lifelines in emergencies, providing quick access to help when needed. Public offices, often crowded and sometimes bureaucratic, can be daunting places for many. The reassurance that comes from having a mobile phone at hand cannot be overstated. Moreover, the policy of barring mobile phones raises questions about the security within these public offices. If the presence of mobile phones is seen as a threat, it suggests a deeper issue with the security measures in place. Rather than penalizing citizens, public offices should focus on improving their internal security protocols to ensure a safe environment for all.

The campaign for the adoption of civil approach to policing has been of international recognition and our police or public offices need not be unduly militarized for them to be effective. From a legal perspective, the barring of mobile phones can infringe on citizens’ rights. The right to information and the right to report are fundamental in a democratic society. Any attempt to curtail these rights must be critically examined and challenged. Ethically, public servants have a duty to facilitate access to services and ensure that their conduct is beyond reproach. The saying, “Caesar’s wife must be above suspicion,” is an old proverb that places premium on high standards of behaviour that are naturally associated with public offices and are expected from those in authority. This is also extended to close associates of public officers as Caesar was said to have divorced Pompeia upon mere allegation of engaging in a wrongful act. Banning mobile phones runs counter to these principles, reflecting a troubling disregard for accountability and service. Holding public officers to higher etiquette of public performance is a norm in all civilized climes and he who has nothing to hide, has nothing to fear from public scrutiny.


The best of our efforts as public officials is the one done in the privacy of our offices without the fear of public assessment. A public officer should rather hold himself to public scrutiny without the prompting of the law. He who has so much to hide, has very little right to be in public space. The attitude of public servants barring members of the public from entering their offices with mobile phones is a disservice to democracy and an affront to the principles of transparency, efficiency, and personal safety.

It reflects a troubling trend towards opacity and control, undermining the trust that citizens place in their public institutions. Except we are deceiving ourselves, the essence largely is to foster corruption but nothing else. Mr. President needs to quickly intervene as the situation is fast degenerating. We may not even need the President to make an Executive Order on this as every head of a public office or parastatal ought to promote transparency in his place of assignment and among his subordinates. Nothing stops a Minister, Directors General of government parastatals etc. from making a directive that no member of the public should be prevented from having his phones on him while accessing public offices or public service under him. Local government chairmen, cabinet members at all levels and even bureaucrats at virtually all levels now relish in this unholy practice of veiling their offices from public exposure.

The claim of national security or national interest by some officers is just a phony excuse designed to prevent them from being held accountable and transparent. Public offices must embrace the digital age and recognize the essential role that mobile phones play in modern society. Instead of barring these devices, public servants should work towards creating environments that are open, secure, and accommodating to all. Only then can they truly fulfill their mandate of serving the public and upholding the values of a democratic and civilized society. our public offices must really work for the public and this is when the occupiers can answer the name ‘public officers’ within the provisions of the Constitution which has put in place a Code of Conduct for Public Officers.

There is no way a public officer can demonstrate his openness, transparency and accountability other than to make his activities behind the closed doors of his office a ready host of public appreciation and assessment at all times. The slender margin of trust and appreciation that private citizens have in public officers can then only become robust when an officer rightly discharges his duty. It is only a public servant without a sense of personal integrity that fears his dark privacy above his legitimate public concerns and for so long as the public, both local and foreign, nurses distrust in our orientation and system, for so long it will be difficult to attract the necessary confidence eminently required to attain greater development.


If public exposure of a government document will compromise national security, a public officer should not be careless in displaying same on his table while playing host to members of the public in the discharge of his duties. The government should do everything necessary to make our public officers more accountable, responsible and transparent. One of such things to be done is to prevent them from creating a veil against public assessment of the citizens they are meant to serve and protect. No officer should be afraid of a mobile phone if he is not engaged in illicit activities.

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