Nigeria: How Musk’s plan for less regulation could set Abuja & Twitter on collision course

By Akin Irede
Posted on Tuesday, 26 April 2022 17:08

Man reads a newspaper at a newsstand in Abuja
A man reads a newspaper at a newsstand in Abuja, Nigeria June 5, 2021. REUTERS/Afolabi Sotunde

The world’s richest man, Elon Musk, who just acquired Twitter for $44bn, plans to expand free speech and reduce regulations on a platform that was banned by Nigerian authorities for seven months for allegedly failing to regulate its content effectively. Along with Twitter failing to open an office in Nigeria as directed by Abuja, the new Twitter management may soon run into problems.

The world has been abuzz with the news of billionaire, Elon Musk, acquiring arguably the world’s most radical social media platform, Twitter, with a view to expanding free speech and reducing regulations.

“Free speech is the bedrock of a functioning democracy, and Twitter is the digital town square where matters vital to the future of humanity are debated,” he tweeted just moments after purchasing the micro-blogging site.

“I hope that even my worst critics remain on Twitter because that is what free speech means,” he stated earlier.

And with Musk’s free spirit set to be completely internalised by Twitter, there are reports that former United States President, Donald Trump, who was expelled from the platform for reportedly prodding his supporters to invade the Capitol in January 2021, is about to have his account reinstated in the spirit of free speech, a move which has been welcomed by his supporters.

Nigeria vs Twitter

But while Musk seeks fewer regulations, the Nigerian government wants the opposite. In June last year, Nigeria suspended Twitter after it deleted a controversial tweet put up by President Muhammadu Buhari. The suspension was condemned by the West along with several rights groups.

The government accused Twitter of being the platform of choice for dissidents and separatists as evidenced by the #EndSARS protests. The government subsequently initiated plans to regulate all social media platforms in the country by insisting that they all open offices in Nigeria and get a licence to operate.

Essentially, the Nigerian government seeks to hold social media platforms to the same standards it imposes on broadcast stations which are tightly regulated and constantly given directives by the National Broadcasting Commission. The NBC has many times been accused of arbitrarily imposing fines on broadcast stations and even shut down one of the largest TV stations, The Africa Independent Television (AIT) indefinitely in 2019 for broadcasting hate speech and propaganda. However, a court lifted the suspension of the TV station which is owned by opposition politician, Raymond Dokpesi.

According to a proposed law, the Nigerian government seeks to give powers to the NBC to be able to direct social media platforms and online content providers to delete contents that do not conform to its regulations.

News outlet, The Cable, reported that the amendment seeks to give the NBC power to not only license social media platforms but give the commission access to the backend of these platforms and online content providers for “easy facilitation of complaint resolution”.

Twitter office in Nigeria

While lifting the seven-month suspension of Twitter in January, the Nigerian government claimed Twitter had agreed to open an office in the country, register with the Corporate Affairs Commission and appoint a country representative before the end of March.

“Twitter has committed to establishing a legal entity in Nigeria during the first quarter of 2022. The legal entity will register with the Corporate Affairs Commission. The establishment of the entity is Twitter’s first step in demonstrating its long-term commitment to Nigeria.

“Twitter has agreed to appoint a designated country representative to interface with Nigerian authorities. The Global Public Policy team is also directly available through a dedicated communication channel,” the statement read in part.

However, nearly a month after the deadline, a check by The Africa Report on the CAC portal showed that the social media platform had yet to register. Also, no one has been appointed as Nigeria’s Twitter representative so far.

And with Nigeria’s agreement with Twitter not contractual, it remains to be seen if the new Twitter leadership will abide by the gentleman’s agreement or alter it.

Musk has also been known to promote the use of cryptocurrencies. Reports say he may use the Twitter platform to promote Crypto which the Nigerian government discourages and recently fined two banks nearly $2m for flouting regulations barring customers from transacting in cryptocurrencies.

Less regulation

Analyst and West Africa Tax Leader at PricewaterhouseCoopers, Taiwo Oyedele, tells The Africa Report that Musk’s acquisition could indeed translate to less regulation. Oyedele, however, argues that less regulation may also be a good thing since it was the deletion of Buhari’s tweet that put the social media platform on a collision course with the Nigerian government.

Oyedele says: “Clearly Elon Musk is disruptive and that is what society needs sometimes, someone who thinks out of the box. Now that he owns Twitter, things are likely to be different. Even if he owns Twitter 100%, he needs to operate within the rules set by the government.

“Now on regulation what I envisage with Elon Musk in charge is that there will be more liberty. So, probably, Donald Trump’s account would not have been deleted, Buhari’s tweet wouldn’t have been taken down.

“But this could also lead to the extreme when anyone is free to say anything they want and then the government will be unhappy. So, there will be friction from time to time. So, what Twitter must do is to put the public interest first.”

Oyedele also believes that Twitter will not be opening an office in Nigeria unless it aligns with the company’s interests. He adds that with elections around the corner and the Buhari administration on its way out, Twitter would have no reason to open an office in Nigeria.

“I think the issue of Twitter opening an office in Nigeria is just about the government trying to save face on this very unnecessary back and forth with Twitter. There is no law that says Twitter must open an office in Nigeria. I don’t see Twitter opening an office in Lagos or Abuja with personnel,” he says.

Seun Onigbinde co-founder of BudgIT, a social enterprise dedicated to calling for fiscal transparency in government, says he believes Musk will pay more attention to monetising the platform than any other thing.

Onigbinde describes the decision to suspend Twitter as one not based on altruism. He says he was sure that the government would not suspend the platform again, especially with elections around.

“They saw elections were approaching and they decided to lift the suspension on Twitter. I don’t foresee any suspension again. The decision to suspend it in the first place was just self-serving,” he adds.

Common ground?

Economic expert, Muda Yusuf, who is the former Director-General of the Lagos Chamber of Commerce and Industry, says there is room for common ground between both Twitter and Nigeria regardless of the new ownership.

“It should not be such a contentious issue that cannot be resolved. I think we should be able to build on whatever understanding we had with Twitter before the change of ownership,” says Yusuf.

Nigeria’s Information Minister, Lai Mohammed, did not immediately respond to comments regarding Twitter’s delay in opening an office in Nigeria and the platform’s plan to reduce regulations.

A Twitter spokesperson also did not respond to a media inquiry on Tuesday.

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