Nigeria’s Twitter blackout: What’s really behind Buhari’s social media ban?

By Chinedu Asadu

Posted on Monday, 7 June 2021 14:05, updated on Tuesday, 20 July 2021 10:52
A man looks at newspapers at a newsstand in Abuja, Nigeria June 5, 2021. REUTERS/Afolabi Sotunde

After Nigeria’s President Muhammadu Buhari got angry with Twitter for deleting a tweet of his, he retaliated by blocking the country of more than 200 million to accessing the social media site.

In 2015, after he was elected to lead the most populous black nation in the world, President Muhammadu Buhari dropped his military title of ‘General’ after claiming to have become a “true democrat”. But after failed attempts at camouflaging, as well as unsuccessful efforts, to regulate social media and clamp down on free speech, he finally took a step against internet freedom – for the strangest of reasons.

On Wednesday June 2, Twitter deleted the president’s tweet that had threatened to deal with those causing trouble in the country in “the language they understand”. In the tweet, he spoke about the experience with the civil war where millions of Nigerians were killed.

The president’s outrage in numerous tweets was directed at the south-east region, and so, his comments provoked many Nigerians who accused him of threatening a replay of the extrajudicial killings experienced during the war.

Less than 24 hours after, Twitter deleted the post for violating its rules, prompting government criticism. The Information Minister Lai Mohammed said the social media platform was “suspect” and had a hidden agenda in Nigeria. He returned a day after to announce that the federal government is indefinitely suspending Twitter’s operations in the country, citing “the persistent use of the platform for activities that are capable of undermining Nigeria’s corporate existence” as a reason for the action.

But many Nigerians saw it coming after the president’s tweet was deleted.

Dr Leena Koni Hoffmann, an associate fellow of Africa Programme at Chatham House, said the government’s grouse with Twitter is also about the “democratising role of social media in mobilising and amplifying the voices of young Nigerians”.

‘Dictatorial tendencies’

True to the government’s threat, Nigerians woke up on Saturday 5 June to realise that indeed, they had no access to the platform. The Association of Licensed Telecommunication Operators of Nigeria confirmed in a statement that its members were instructed to restrict access to Twitter, but reluctantly added that “the rights held by people offline must also be protected online.”

Zainab Usman, director of the Africa Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, tells The Africa Report that the suspension will “severely test the relationship between the federal government and a section of young Nigerians.”

“This deterioration in state-society relations does not only come after the EndSars protests in October last year but also the widespread insecurity that seems to be engulfing the country,” she said.

A number of other prominent persons and groups have also criticised the government’s action:

  • Nobel Laureate Prof. Wole Soyinka described it as “dictatorial spasm” and an action “unbecoming of a democratically elected president.”
  • Former Senate President Bukola Saraki said the suspension should not be in place for “a nation with a vibrant youthful population for whom Twitter is a source of their income and livelihood.”
  • Civic-tech non-profit organisation BudgIT said the action is “not just an attack on democracy but also an attempt to shut down citizens’ voices.
  • Senior Lawyer Femi Falana said it was part of the Buhari government’s plan to gag the media.

And many would indeed agree with Falana. The suspension was only the latest in a series of government actions that clamp down on press freedom and the right to free speech.

The government is notorious for sanctioning media houses over their coverage on certain issues. The country’s broadcasting law was amended without due process while the Nigerian secret police known as the Department of State Service has arrested and detained a number of journalists for reports that either the federal or state governments see as unfavourable.

There are also concerns that the government exposes Nigeria to international ridicule and de-markets the country further. Nigeria has often missed out on the big economic opportunities despite being Africa’s biggest economy, mostly as a result of government actions that have punctured investor confidence.

The suspension of Twitter was swiftly implemented whereas the same speed has not been evident in using digital tools to, say, track kidnappers, capture terrorists and confront other criminals on a murderous rampage across the country.

The country currently was ranked 14th in Africa in the latest World Bank Ease of Doing Business report, but the government’s growing intolerance, coupled with a worsening economy could rewind much of the progress that has been recorded over the years.

“The country and her rulers need to sit tight and face governance instead of chasing shadows and disgracing us in the comity of nations,” says Idayat Hassan, director of the Centre for Democracy and Development, an Abuja-based policy advocacy and research organisation.

“Tomorrow, when Nigeria is ranked as partially free or not free by any global institution, the activists get blamed. But it’s this government that is tramping on rights and prefers authoritarianism to democracy,” Hassan tells The Africa Report.

Is social media ban gradually coming into effect?

Since coming into power, President Buhari has been criticised for his obsession with digital authoritarianism despite using social media as a springboard to get into office.

One of the obvious signs of his intolerance for internet freedom came in March 2019 when he declined to assent to a critical digital rights bill passed by the national assembly on the grounds that it “covers too many technical subjects and fails to address any of them extensively.”

Buhari did not mince words on his stance on internet censorship later that year . “Our attention is increasingly being focused on cyber-crimes and the abuse of technology through hate speech and other divisive material being propagated on social media. Whilst we uphold the constitutional rights of our people to freedom of expression and association, where the purported exercise of these rights infringes on the rights of other citizens or threatens to undermine our National Security, we will take firm and decisive action,” he said.

A month after his remarks, a government-backed bill that sought to regulate social media found its way to the National Assembly. Among those backing the Protection from Internet Falsehoods and Manipulations and Other Related Matters Bill 2019 were Senator Elisha Abbo, the lawmaker who received backlash on social media after he was caught on tape assaulting a lady at a sex shop.

The bill — which proposes a fine of N300,000, ($733) or three years imprisonment, or both (for an individual) for defaulting individuals — eventually suffered a setback after it was widely rejected at a public hearing.

Critics argued that this was the first step in a move to ban social media, after it became the voice of many Nigerians in the face of oppression. For instance, after the shooting of protesters at the Lagos Lekki tollgate in October 2020 drew global outrage because it was streamed live on Instagram and the #EndSARS protests against a now-disbanded police anti-robbery squad.

But the government never backed down. It announced that Twitter’s operations have been suspended in Nigeria and that all over-the-top services (that is, those rendered over the internet and that bypass traditional distribution) and social media operations in the country will henceforth need to be licensed.

Hassan tells The Africa Report that the government’s action signifies “Nigeria full descent into authoritarianism.”

“It tells how intolerant this government is to dissenting voices with this ban. We can be sure that the social media bill may soon be speedily passed into law,” she adds.

Twitter least of Nigeria’s problems

At last check, Nigeria remains the country with one of the higest rates of extreme povertyin the world with nearly half of its population thought to be living on less than $1.90 a day. It is also battling its highest unemployment rate ever and a tattered economy with inflation currently at 18.12%, and ranked the second most corrupt country in West Africa, according to the Transparency International corruption perception index – the country’s worst rating since 2015.

What’s more, insecurity has forced many schools to shut down with at least 700 school children and university students abducted since December 2020. The Boko Haram terror sect and armed groups, locally referred to as bandits are spreading to various parts of the country while insurgency has enveloped states in the south-east.

The Nigerian Bar Association (NBA) had threatened to sue the government for the ‘unconstitutional’ decision but the courts  have been shut down for two months following a strike over financial autonomy for the state judiciary.

“The government’s action reinforces perceptions that they are more preoccupied with regime survival than with tackling the serious issues of violent crime and insecurity across Nigeria,” Usman tells The Africa Report.

“The suspension of Twitter was swiftly implemented whereas the same speed has not been evident in using digital tools to, say, track kidnappers, capture terrorists and confront other criminals on a murderous rampage across the country.”

A country united in love — and fear

After the Buhari administration announced that Nigerians can no longer access Twitter, thousands began to share tips on how to bypass the suspension and remain online.

One hour after the announcement was made, VPN (Virtual Private Network) was trending with more than 30,000 tweets mostly explaining how people can take advantage of the service to remain active on the social media platform.

Amid rumours that the federal government is seeking to get Google and Apple to remove VPN applications from their store, many useful tips started to emerge.

“It is the stuff we are made of; we are that united even in the face of the fear of dictatorship,” says Temitope Oluwafemi, a data scientist who has gotten offers for work through Twitter. “We face our enemy together.”

Bottom line

Nigeria can now join the list of other  countries that have banned or temporarily suspended Twitter, including China, Iran, North Korea, Egypt and Turkey. And the events unfolding, like Usman argues, could be a tipping point for Twitter and social media platforms in general, seeing as they are caught in the middle of state-society relations.

But beyond that, Nigerian citizens are furious that the General Buhari who ruled Nigeria as a military dictator from 1983 to 1985 is back. And this, according to Hassan means he is out to “silence the voice of all — middle class, youth, elite, women, political parties.”

“In fact, if there is any effective accountability tool in Nigeria currently, it is Twitter as that is the platform citizens use to hold the government accountable,” she says. “It’s another sad day for the country.”

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