It’s been 10 days since the Nigerian government suspended the operation of microblogging app, Twitter indefinitely but later updated temporarily. The decision, which has been widely criticized as suppression of freedom of expression, was made after Twitter removed a tweet from President Muhammadu Buhari which violated its policy.
The tweet reads: “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.” His reference to Nigerian civil war, which claimed more than 2 million lives, mostly Igbos, and the threat to “treat them in the language they understand” provoked a global backlash. It was widely perceived as a threat to repeat the war actions against the Igbos.
Twitter deleted the tweet for violating its “abusive behavior” policy, and in retaliation, the Buhari administration announced the suspension of the social media app in Nigeria.
While the development appears to be centered on recent events, there is much more to it. The Nigeria government has been in loggerhead with social media since 2015. In November 2019, a bill known as the Protection from Internet Falsehood and Manipulation Bill 2019, sponsored by Senator Sani Musa, was being debated in the National Assembly. There was also the Prohibition of Hate Speech Bill sponsored by Senator Sabi Abdullai. Each of these bills was seeking to control free speech and how Nigerians react to issues.
Though the Bills didn’t survive the local and international opposition that greeted them, they didn’t go beyond second reading, the bad blood between social media and Buhari’s administration has remained. The Bill was seen as part of the government’s efforts to suppress free speech, given its attitude towards journalists and the Nigerian media space in general, especially the broadcasting part of the press.
The regulator, National Broadcasting Commission (NBC) had doled out a set of new broadcasting codes prohibiting TV and Radio stations from airing whatever the government considers “hate speech” or unwholesome for Nigeria’s public consumption. Media houses have been raided and some journalists had to flee the country as the attack on press, based on the new broadcasting codes, rose. The body language of the Nigerian press gradually started changing from “expressive” to “careful,” and the people were taking note of it all.
So with the perception that the Nigerian press has been compromised, and many media outlets intimidated to practice “careful” journalism, many Nigerians turned to citizen journalism, and Twitter became their platform.
In the past five years, Twitter has given voice to Nigerians, who fearlessly question the dos and don’ts of the people in power. It has also become the platform for citizen-based checks and balances that do not only challenge the status quo, but also expose the ills many state actors don’t want in the limelight.
The most significant example of Nigerian Twitter power was the End SARS protest, a campaign against police brutality that happened in October 2020. It has been described as the most successful protest in Nigeria. It kicked off on Twitter, sustained by charisma and extraordinary organization that beat every government’s attempt to quell it. Jack Dorsey, the founder and CEO of Twitter didn’t hide his support for the protest. He approved an icon for the campaign on Twitter, and the platform was used to coordinate the worldwide donations that supported the protest.
The government was outsmarted, overpowered, that it felt threatened and sought to end the protest in a very brutal way – the Lekki Massacre. Scores of protesters who had gathered at Lekki Toll Plaza were shot and killed. In his chat with journalists on AriseTV during his visit to Lagos on Thursday, Buhari said that the End SARS protest was designed by “young people that wanted to march here and remove me.” His statement confirmed how threatened he felt over a protest that began on Twitter.
Ever since the end of the End SARS protest, the Nigerian government appears not only wary, but paranoid of the activities on Twitter, and seems ready not to allow Twitter to power anything close to the protest again. So when the microblogging platform took the step to remove Buhari’s tweet, it seems to have triggered Government’s paranoia and spurred the decision to end it once and for all time. But there may be a price to pay for the Twitter suspension that the Nigerian government cannot afford for now.
Twitter is a US tech company operating in Nigeria under International Investment Law, which protects foreign investors and their investments from unfair interference by a host government through regulation or other governmental measures that are arbitrary and unfair. The decision of the Nigerian government to suspend Twitter does not only contravene the International Investment Law, it also breaches the right or freedom of expression of the Nigerian people as enshrined in the constitution.
The US government has joined other nationalities urging Nigeria to rescind the decision, which now, does not only amount to authoritarianism but also to an attack on a company of US origin.
“Unduly restricting the ability of Nigerians to report, gather, and disseminate opinions and information has no place in a democracy. Freedom of expression and access to information both online and offline are foundational to prosperous and secure democratic societies,” U.S. State Department spokesman Ned Price said in a statement.
The department called on the Nigerian government to “respect its citizens’ right to freedom of expression by reversing this suspension.”
It is one of the several times under Buhari, the United States government has called on the Nigerian government to respect its democratic values, the wish of its people and the laws of the land.
It has also added to the many cases of human rights abuse, extra judicial killings and suppression of press freedom the present Nigerian government has been accused of. President Buhari has an authoritarian textbook dating back to his days as the military head of state, which people believe he’s been acting from.
Against this backdrop, calls are growing for Western governments, led by the US, to mete out sanctions against Nigerian government. It is believed to be the only language that the Nigeria government understands apart from violence.
Prior to 1999, Nigeria was under military rule, riddled with murder, extrajudicial killings and human rights abuses. There were global calls for the African most populous nation to return to democratic rule, but the calls failed to move the military leaders to yield. In 1993, when the democratic election, which would have changed the system of government was annulled, the US announced a series of sanctions against Nigeria.
In April 1997, the UN Commission on Human Rights, comprising 53 member-nations, sternly rebuked the Nigerian government for its continued ‘violations of human rights and fundamental freedoms, as well as failure to respect due process of law’. The rebuke was followed by moves by the US and Commonwealth to impose economic sanctions, which would have further compounded Nigeria’s economic standing as a pariah state. The sanctions by the United States, and the move by other nations to augment the sanctions with further economic sanctions, is believed to be the major reason the military yielded to the call for transition to democratic government.
Soon after the Lekki Massacre, when more than 500,000 petitions compelled the UK Parliament to deliberate on Nigerian government’s actions against peaceful protestors and consider adequate punitive response, the Nigerian government was quick to write to the UK government, explaining their side of the story. The move was interpreted by many as a sign of fear of being sanctioned.
With the pressure gathering momentum once again, especially when the US has an interest (Twitter) to protect, the hammer may rise and fall again on the Nigerian government. And the impact will have a devastating effect on the fragile economy that the government has depended on foreign loans to sustain, following the massive decline in oil revenue. It is a path the Nigerian government wouldn’t want to tow as it may affect any area of benefits from the West it can’t afford to lose now.
Therefore, with Nigeria’s one thousand and one problems, which it depends mainly on external assistance to contain, the word of wisdom on the street calls on the federal government to rescind the Twitter suspension before the US talks to it in a language it understands.