Buhari’s Deleted Tweet and the Ghost of Nigeria’s Civil War

David Hundeyin
By David Hundeyin

Nigerian writer and journalist

Posted on Thursday, 10 June 2021 10:42, updated on Friday, 11 June 2021 14:20
A supporter of Indigenous People of Biafra (IPOB) leader Nnamdi Kanu holds a Biafra flag during a rally in support of Kanu, who is expected to appear at a magistrate court in Abuja
A supporter of Indigenous People of Biafra (IPOB) leader Nnamdi Kanu holds a Biafra flag during a rally in support of Kanu, who is expected to appear at a magistrate court in Abuja, Nigeria December 1, 2015. REUTERS/Afolabi Sotunde

The tweet written by President Buhari that Twitter deleted resuscitated the fears and ghosts of Nigeria's brutal civil war -- one that still reverberates through politics today. The spectacle of a Nigerian President - who himself took part in the genocidal events of 1967-1970 - using Nigeria's most traumatic national event to expressly and openly threaten an ethnic group on Twitter is an outrage.

“Many of those misbehaving today are too young to be aware of the destruction and loss of lives that occurred during the Nigerian civil war. Those of us in the fields for 30 months, who went through the war will treat them in the language they understand.”

On 1 June 2021, Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari tweeted the above message as part of a lengthy thread speaking on a diverse range of issues. Within 24 hours the tweet had vanished, replaced by a message stating that it was removed for violating Twitter’s rules. Thus began one of the more unlikely global firestorm of 2021, bringing in everyone from Nigeria’s Attorney-General Abubakar Malami to former US President Donald Trump.

Why did Twitter take the unprecedented action of removing a tweet posted by the verified account of a sitting head of state, and what are the ramifications of President Buhari’s tweet and subsequent actions?

Twitter rules violation – and then some

Embedded somewhere inside the Terms Of Service which most Twitter users typically never read, is a section stating that references to mass murder or violent events targeting specific groups is prohibited on the platform.

An excerpt from the section reads as follows:

References to mass murder, violent events, or specific means of violence where protected groups have been the primary targets or victims

  • We prohibit targeting individuals or groups with content that references forms of violence or violent events where a protected category was the primary target or victims, where the intent is to harass. This includes, but is not limited to media or text that refers to or depicts genocides (e.g., Holocaust); lynchings.
  • Wishing, hoping or calling for serious harm on a person or group of people.
  • We prohibit content that wishes, hopes, promotes, incites, or expresses a desire for death, serious bodily harm, or serious disease against an entire protected category and/or individuals who may be members of that category. This includes, but is not limited to:
  • Saying that a group of individuals deserve serious physical injury, e.g., “If this group of [slur] don’t shut up, they deserve to be shot.”

To a casual reader, President Buhari’s tweet might have seemed like nothing more than a strongly-worded warning to violent separatists. Nigeria’s federal government has repeatedly accused the separatist IPOB (Indigenous People of Biafra) group of attacking several state facilities including police stations in Nigeria’s southeast.

To someone without knowledge of Nigerian politics, it might have come across as a like-for-like message, albeit admittedly worded in a less-than-statesmanlike manner. Violent non-state actors attack state, so state threatens violent retaliation – sounds about right. When this tweet is analysed in context however, its true meaning leaps out, and Buhari’s comment takes on an altogether different, much uglier meaning.

First of all, the tweet did not in fact make a threat directed at the IPOB group or violent non-state actors – it rather openly threatened a specific ethnic population of Nigeria which suffered through the bloody three year Nigerian Civil War, also known as the Biafran War. Having claimed that those guilty of “misbehaving” are too young to have lived through the horrors of the war, the tweet then promised to treat a certain “them” in the “language they understand.”

In this context, those who “understand” this uniquely violent language, can only be the Igbo population of Nigeria’s southeast who unfortunately bore the brunt of the overtly genocidal 30-month conflict.

In other words, using the alleged misbehaviour of the Young Turks who did not witness the civil War as an excuse, Nigeria’s president unironically tweeted a genocide reference directed at a quarter of the population he presides over.

The calculated cruelty of Nigerian civil war callbacks

To properly contextualise how unbelievable Buhari’s tweet was, one must note that the use of the term “Nigerian Civil War” is aspirational at best. It was only a “war” in the broadest sense of the term, with more than three million southeastern deaths and a poorly-armed Biafran military that fielded just over 50,000 hurriedly-trained conscripts at its peak.

As documented by several international researchers, journalists and observers, what happened between 1967 and 1970 was not so much a “war” as a series of furious, brutal massacres and ethnic pogroms.

An excerpt from a 1987 New York Times feature article reads as follows:

A Nigerian colonel named Benjamin Adekunle…was forever telling reporters that aid for Biafra was ”humanitarian rubbish.” ”If children must die first, then that is too bad, just too bad,” the colonel once said. We shoot at everything that moves and when our troops march into the center of Ibo territory, we shoot at everything even at things that do not move.”

Jean Mayer, the American nutritionist, wrote in 1969 after a trip to Biafra: ”Every major hospital has been bombed and strafed, even though all had large crosses on the roof, and even though many were far from towns, crossroads or any other legitimate target. At present, red crosses are being camouflaged. . . .’

These were not fringe views by a rogue officer, but accepted, mainstream views by a Nigerian military motivated by a quest to exterminate an ethnic group. Alongside Adekunle were other openly genocidal commanding officers such as Mortlach Mohammed who supervised the infamous Asaba Massacre in October 1967. In a 1967 interview involving Adekunle and Randolf Baumann of Stern magazine, the following exchange ensued:

STERN: What are your troops doing when they march into a town around Port Harcourt, an area where most of the farmers are not Ibos?

ADEKUNLE: We aim at everything that moves.

STERN: Small children tend not to stay put for very long.

ADEKUNLE: I know. I have two myself.

STERN: What will your troops do when you get to the Ibo heartland, that is, to the place populated by Ibos only?

ADEKUNLE: There we will aim at everything even if it is not moving.

Uncertain future

Against this backdrop, the spectacle of a Nigerian President – who himself took part in the genocidal events of 1967-1970 – using Nigeria’s most traumatic national event to expressly and openly threaten an ethnic group on Twitter can be properly understood for the outrage it was.

Unsurprisingly, a mass campaign to report the tweet brought it to Twitter’s attention, and the rest is now history.

As it stands, the future of civil rights and freedom of speech in Africa’s largest democracy hangs in the balance, as Buhari’s administration engages Twitter and the diplomatic world in the most head-scratching of arm wrestling matches.

At this point, it is impossible to predict what comes next.

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