President Muhammadu Buhari
Buhari

By OBINNA EZUGWU

An unpopular move by an increasingly unpopular government, the decision of the President Muhammadu Buhari led Federal Government to ban social media platform, Twitter, has triggered a storm in Africa’s most populous country, as its mostly youthful population, many of whom have built careers around social media, have gone up in arms over what they see as an attempt to take away their basic freedom.

A country of youth, governed by the elderly. Only few of Nigeria’s ubiquitous, tech-savvy, millennial and Gen. Z populations, a vast majority of the country’s overall population, were born in 1984, when then military head of state, Major General Muhammadu Buhari passed Decree Number 4, the Protection Against False Accusations Decree, which basically sought to gag the media. Among other things, it provided, in Section 1, that “Any person who publishes in any form, whether written or otherwise, any message, rumour, report or statement which is false in any material particular or which brings or is calculated to bring the Federal Military Government or the Government of a state or public officer to ridicule or disrepute, shall be guilty of an offense under this Decree.”

For Nigeria’s older generation, the Twitter ban, by same Buhari, will perhaps trigger a déjà vu feeling; perhaps an attempt to drag the country back to the dark days. But the new generation, who have grown up to know only a world characterised by social media empowered free speech, there is no relating and the government may be starting a fight it can’t win. The reactions have been thunderous and overwhelming, even as the government appears resolute in its quest to take the freedom they have always known, with the Attorney General of the federation, Abubakar Malami, vowing to prosecute citizens who violate the ban.

In a statement announcing the ban, issued by the Minister of Information and Culture, Alhaji Lai Mohammed, through his spokesperson, Segun Adeyemi on Friday, the Minister cited “persistent use of the platform for activities that are capable of undermining Nigeria’s corporate existence.”

He said, “The Federal Government has suspended, indefinitely, the operations of the microblogging and social networking service, Twitter, in Nigeria,” the statement read.

It went further to outline further moves to regulate other social media platforms, a move that the government had tried to make severally in the past, but which was always greeted with backlash.

“The Minister said the Federal Government has also directed the National Broadcasting Commission (NBC) to immediately commence the process of licensing all OTT and social media operations in Nigeria,” the statement noted.

The government’s move, apparently in response to the decision of the social media platform, to block a tweet by Buhari on May 31 – in which he evoked the ghost of Biafra War; a war in which an estimated three million people died, mostly civilians, including women and children starved to death, in Nigeria’s Southeast, while threatening to deal with criminal elements suspected to be sympathetic to the resurgent Biafra quest, destroying public infrastructure, notably offices of the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC), police stations and courts in the region, is fairly understandable.

Nigeria is tittering on the brink. Agitations for separation have gathered momentum, not only in the Southeast, but also in the Southwest, amid unrelenting violence perpetrated by suspected Fulani herders, seen to be pampered by the president, who is himself Fulani. Social media, especially, Twitter, had provided a platform where many take to, to pour out their anger; to agree and disagree. But the language is becoming more incendiary.

In an outrageous memo dated June 3 to the Emir of Kano, Alhaji Aminu Ado Bayero, a group known as Coalition of Northern Groups (CNG) blamed Igbo people for virtually all the problems bedevilling the North, from Boko Haram to drug addiction, and basically called for genocide against the Igbo.

The group at the weekend, organised protest against the Igbo in Nigeria’s capital, Abuja, demanding for a referendum, because according to them, the only way to avoid another civil war in the country is to allow the Igbo have their own country.

Meanwhile, rights groups have accused the country’s security agencies of arresting and killing innocent civilians in the Southeast.

A special report by the International Society for Civil Liberties and Rule of Law, signed by Emeka Umeagbalasi, Chinwe Umeche and Chidimma Udegbunam said the rights group was in possession of graphic details of how soldiers, police and other Nigerian security operatives presently deployed in the East abducted innocent citizens and allegedly killed them.

According to the report, “these have led to not less than 170 open killings, secret abduction and permanent disappearance or feared unlawful execution in custody of no fewer than 550 and general arrest/abduction of not less than 2100.

“The arrested/abducted are presently held in different open and secret dungeons located within and outside the East and among those outside the East are Makurdi Prisons in Benue State where over 300 were recently found to have been transferred and kept. Others are conventional and unconventional military, police and SSS detention facilities in Abuja, Niger State and other undisclosed locations in the North.”

It’s a country observers warn is fast descending into anarchy. But there is a flip side to the argument. Many have blamed the Buhari government itself for stoking ethnic tension by its perceived unabashed nepotism, and penchant for double standard.

Indeed, Twitter’s decision to take down the president’s statement, which was later followed up by Facebook, had come after it sparked angry reactions from many Nigerians, who reasoned that it threatened genocide against Igbo people. The president had after describing the devastation of the war, vowed to treat “them in the language they understand.” Many reported the tweet. Several commentators reminded the president that he had not made similar threat against bandits wreaking havoc in the country’s Northwest and Boko Haram in the Northeast. Amid the outrage, Twitter blocked the statement.

However, Mr. Mohammed, in response, accused the platform of double standard, arguing that the social media giant conveniently ignored “inciting” tweets by Nnamdi Kanu, the leader of the Indigenous People of Biafra (IPOB) and his cohorts, who according to him have been making inciting statements on its platform.

He followed up by slamming the ban on the platform on Friday, subsequently directing Telecom providers, through the Nigerian Communications Commission (NCC), to block Nigerians from accessing the platform; a direction that was implemented late Friday night, when many discovered that they could no longer access Twitter through their mobile networks.

The decision is already taking a toll on the country’s economy. According to NetBlocks, a watchdog organisation that monitors cyber-security and governance of the Internet, each hour the ban lasts costs Nigeria about $250,000 (N102.5 million), bringing the daily loss to N2.5 billion.

The ban has created a market access gap for millions of small and medium scale enterprises (SMSEs) that use the platform to reach their customers, even as many young Nigerians who earn a living doing gigs on the platform for local and foreign firms are already counting their losses. The government don’t seem to care, and has since continued to double down. Earlier in the week, it ordered broadcast stations to deactivate their accounts.

But the argument by many, however, is that the government is looking for solution in the wrong places. Banning or restricting social media, they say, will not end agitations. And in fact, may cause people to seek other ways of expressing their anger, which may pose more danger.

“How do you ban Twitter which is a means of peaceful engagement? wondered activist and politician, Omoyele Sowore. “Let me say this, in the 1990s, most of the African countries that experienced war had one radio station and one TV station. That prevented the citizens from having outlets where they can vent. They should learn from that, and I hope they don’t drag us into civil war.”

Ban Sparks Outrage

The move predictably, has proved to be counterproductive. It has since sparked fury, with many berating the administration for what they called an audacious attempt to stifle free speech and cripple social media, after using same to win power in 2015, even as some have suggested that the ban is an initial move towards banning social media in the country altogether.

“The real news is not the government suspension of Twitter’s operations in Nigeria, it’s that the government wants to start LICENSING SOCIAL MEDIA & OTT OPERATIONS IN NIGERIA. The regulation of social media is the real aim of all of this. It’s right there in the Ministry’s tweet,” noted a user Tola, @adetolaov.

Former Aviation Minister, Femi Fani-Kayode, on his part alleged that there is a plot to shut down social media.

“I have been reliably informed that it is the intention of the FG to eventually close down social media completely in Nigeria,” he said. “Until that time comes they intend to make it a criminal offence to use social media without NBC approval or registration.”

Many, including prominent Nigerian figures and rights groups are up in arms, even as more diplomatic missions are stepping in to condemn what they describe as an attempt to infringe on the right of Nigerians to freedom of speech.

Reacting on Friday to the ban Nobel Laureate, Professor Wole Soyinka, said the move is a “petulant gesture” that is “unbecoming of a democratically elected president.”

Soyinka, nonetheless, noted that a Twitter ban in the country is a “technical issue Nigerians should be able to work their way around,” adding that “the field of expression remains wide open, free of any dictatorial spasms.”

Human rights lawyer, Mike Ozekhome, SAN, in his own reaction, asked the Federal Government to go beyond the suspension of micro-blogging site, Twitter, and “dissolve the Nigerian people which it has become so allergic to and no longer wants to see or hear about.”

Matthew T. Page, former U.S. intelligence expert, while calling out his country’s and other Western governments for not reacting to the ban, warned that Nigeria’s elite were undermining the country’s stability.

“I simply don’t understand how Western engagement with the Nigerian government is still so *normal* and thus disconnected from the way the government behaves or how its elites—with whom diplomats readily hobnob—immiserate everyday Nigerians and undermine national stability,” Page said.

On his part, Oyo State governor, Seyi Makinde, advised the Buhari government to reconsider the ban. According to him, “As leaders, we should go beyond emotional reactions to issues and think about how our actions will affect the people we lead and our international ratings socially and economically.”

Makinde noted that Twitter is platform where many young people express their, and their voices should not be stifled, even as he pointed out that many young Nigerians earn a living on the platform.

“Twitter has become the platform for young people and indeed all Nigerians to exercise their fundamental right to express and publish an opinion. They use the platform to complain, argue and give feedback to government and its agencies who in turn, use these to improve policies. This is a fundamental point that should be kept in mind as we debate the necessity of this suspension,” he said.

“We should also remember that Twitter has gone beyond a source of communication for many of our hardworking youths in Nigeria. It has become a source of livelihood for many, irrespective of their political affiliations or religious leanings. Nigerian youths and digital communications organisations earn a living from being able to use the platform to post communications on behalf of their clients.”

In the meantime, has said it’s working to restore access to Nigerians affected by the ban.

“We are deeply concerned by the blocking of Twitter in Nigeria. Access to the free and #OpenInternet is an essential human right in modern society. We will work to restore access for all those in Nigeria who rely on Twitter to communicate and connect with theworld. #KeepitOn, the platform wrote via Public Policy handle, @Policy on Saturday.

US, Canada, Sweden, AI, others condemn ban.

Condemning the ban, the United States government in a brief message circulated on Saturday evening via the official account of the US Mission in Nigeria, @USinNigeria, emphasized that Nigeria’s constitution provides for freedom of speech.

“Nigeria’s constitution provides for freedom of expression. The Government’s recent #Twitterban undermines Nigerians ability to exercise this fundamental freedom and sends a poor message to its citizens, investors and businesses,” read the statement.

“Banning social media and curbing every citizen’s ability to seek, receive, and impart information undermines fundamental freedoms.

“As President Biden has stated, our need for individual expression, open public conversation, and accountability has never been greater. The path to a more secure Nigeria lies in more, not less communication, alongside concerted efforts toward unity, peace, and prosperity.”

Similarly, in a statement via his twitter handle, Canadian ambassador to Nigeria, Nicolas Simard, @NicolasJSimard, noted that freedom of speech remained a fundamental human right, and key ingredient of democracy, which should not be stifled.

“Freedom of speech, used responsibly online and off line, and access to reliable information are fundamental human rights protected by Nigeria’s constitution and a cornerstone of democratic life around the world,” he said.

“These #HumanRights should be fully protected, while preventing inflammatory rhetoric and hate speech that could fuel tension and conflict.”

In the same breath, the Swedish government in a statement via the Twitter handle of its embassy in Nigeria, called on the Buhari government to respect the right of Nigerians to freedom of speech, as according to it, free speech remained an important part of democracy.

The embassy in a statement via its handle, @SwedeninNigeria, noted that, “Nigerians have a constitutional right to exercise their freedom of expression and a right to access of information. This must be respected. Safeguarding free, independent media and civic spaces for democratic voices is an important part of Sweden’s drive for democracy.”

Local and international bodies, including Amnesty International, Paradigm Initiative (PI), have condemned the ban.

Global human rights body, Amnesty International, called on the government to reverse the ban, describing it as an attempt to gag free speech, which according to it cannot be allowed in a democracy.

In a statement titled, “Amnesty International condemns the Nigerian government’s suspension of Twitter, Amnesty noted the microblogging site, is a social media widely used by Nigerians to exercise their human rights, including their rights to freedom of expression and access to information.

“We call on the Nigerian authorities to immediately reverse the unlawful suspension and other plans to gag the media, repress the civic space, and undermine Nigerians’ human rights,” Amnesty said.

“This action is clearly inconsistent and incompatible with Nigeria’s international obligations including under the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.”

Digital rights group, Paradigm initiative, while condemning the ban as a brazen abuse of human rights, noted that Buhari, who refuses to engage Nigerians, is looking for a way to shut them up.

“It must be noted that Nigeria’s President has notably been insulated from every form of public accountability. He is perhaps the only president since the country’s return to democracy in 1999 who never grants live interviews or holds media chats. This move is therefore aimed at making him unaccountable to the people of Nigeria who constantly take to social media platforms to share their views on the actions and policies of the government,” PI said in a statement.

“It is evident that shutting down Twitter is illegal and illegitimate policies such as this are unacceptable!”

On its part, the Newspaper Proprietors’ Association of Nigeria (NPAN), while clarifying that the Buhari’s tweet was not a genocide threat, said the decision to ban Twitter was a needless overreaction.

“There should be a compromise: Nigeria needs friends and not enemies at this critical juncture of her existence. She should not play into the hands of the enemies who are relentless is seeking to destroy and ostracise her. Banning Twitter is regressive and should be rescinded in favour of dialogue,” a statement by NPAN president, Kabiru A. Yusuf read in part.

SERAP, NBA threaten court action

Nigerian Bar Association (NBA) and Socioeconomic Rights and Accountability Project (SERAP), have, meanwhile, vowed to drag the government to court.

The NBA in a statement by its president, Olumide Akpata, @OlumideAkpata, while condemning the ban as an infringement of free speech, warned that the impact of such arbitrary decisions on investor confidence is better imagined.

Akpata in the statement asked that the ban be reversed, failure of which the NBA would take legal action against the government.

“@NigBarAssoc has noted with great concern the extraordinary decision of the Federal Govt to suspend the operations of @Twitter in Nigeria and, by necessary implication, the right of Nigerians to freely express their constitutionally guaranteed opinions through that medium,” the statement issued by Akpata said.

“The FGN also directed the @NgComCommission to immediately commence the process of licensing all OTT and social media operations in Nigeria, which is, at best, yet another disguised attempt to regulate social media, restrict freedom of speech and shrink civic space.

“Whether one likes it or not, we are operating a constitutional democracy, the primary consequence of which is that everything must be done according to law; government must be conducted within the framework of recognised rules and principles which restrict discretionary power.

“The @NigBarAssoc finds no constitutional or legal authority to support the peremptory action of the Federal Government to suspend the operations of Twitter in Nigeria. Beyond the dent on our constitutional democracy, at a time when the Nigerian economy is unarguably struggling the impact of arbitrary decisions such as this on investor confidence is better imagined.

“Consequently, if this decision is not immediately reversed, the @NigBarAssoc will have no choice but to challenge same in the interest of the public and for the sake of our democracy.

On its part, SERAP, @SERAPNigeria, said it is commencing immediate legal action against the government over the decision, while maintaining that freedom of speech is a fundamental human right.

“Nigerians have a right to freedom of expression and access to information including online, and we plan to fight to keep it that way,” the body said. “@NigeriaGov, we’ll see you in court.”

Nigerians use VPN to bypass ban

Meanwhile, Nigerian tweeps have resorted to using Virtual Private Network (VPN) as the country’s telecommunications operators such MTN, Airtel and Glo block access to Twitter on the order of the government.

VPNs, which can be downloaded from Apple Store or Google Store, allows users to choose any country and state of their choice, and generates an IP address to bypass the blocked access in a country, though comes with own safety issues.

Indeed, on Tuesday, the Attorney General, Abubakar Malami, who had on Saturday directed immediate prosecution still using Twitter, used VPN to deactivate his account, as screenshot posted on his facebook page showed, a development that has since triggered debate over whether his is liable for prosecution.

“The problem of Nigeria is that you have analog people running a country of digital age youth,” Sowore said while appearing on Arise TV on Saturday. “The ban won’t work. I am still on Twitter. Majority of Nigerians are still on Twitter. Others are still going to learn how to bypass their restrictions.”

Reacting to Malami’s threat, lawyer, Moe @Mochievous, argued that the Attorney General doesn’t understand the law of Nigeria.

“Turns out our AG’s office is ignorant of basic Constitutional law. Which is a little weird because the office is set up to protect the Constitution,” she wrote.

“No Nigerian can be prosecuted for an offense that isn’t written in law as a crime. Tweeting is not a crime in Nigeria.”

On Saturday, SERAP, which has now taken the government to ECOWAS Court, issued another statement offering to provide legal assistance for anyone arrested for using Twitter.

“No one should ever be criminalised simply for peacefully exercising their rights,” the rights group said.

“We’ll provide free legal support to anyone targeted for exercising their rights.

“Anyone harassed, intimidated and facing criminal prosecution simply for exercising their right to freedom of expression should please feel free to call our toll-free hotline 0800-CALLSERAP (0800-2255-73727); +234-816-053-7202 for absolutely free legal advice and support.”