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Buhari vs Twitter: Nigeria ban is pettiness unlimited 


For pulling down a presidential tweet widely seen as a threat of violence against Nigeria’s Southeast…Ok…let’s put it this way. For making the Nigerian president ‘angry’, about 200 million Nigerians are to be denied the use of Twitter until and if the president changes his mind.

For a clearer picture and according to NOI Polls, more than 39 million Nigerians have Twitter accounts, with issues of public concern hotly and frequently debated on the microblogging platform.

Simply put, for deleting a retired major-general’s tweet, which Twitter found to offend its community service policy, the CIVILIAN government of Nigeria on June 4, 2021, suspended, indefinitely, the operations of the microblogging and social networking service in Nigeria. Perhaps, the most interesting part of the whole saga was using the same platform it banned to announce the diktat.

Minister of Information and Culture, Alhaji Lai Mohammed, who tweeted, claimed there had been a persistent use of the platform for anti-Nigeria activities.

The suspension came on the heels of Twitter taking down an unpresidential tweet by Buhari. In that tweet, the president, who cut his soldiering teeth in the 30-month Nigeria-Biafra war of 50-something years ago, had threatened to deal with people in the Southeast for the recurring attacks on public infrastructure in the region.

“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,” Buhari wrote, obviously referring to the fratricidal war, which claimed about three million people, mostly Igbo women, children, and the vulnerable in eastern Nigeria between 1967 and 1970.

Couple of days after, the post which Twitter said violated its policy on abusive behaviour was deleted after many Nigerians flagged it to Twitter.

Alhaji Mohammed would criticize Twitter’s action, accusing the social media giant of “double standards” and questioning its motives in Nigeria.

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In a statement signed by Segun Adeyemi, Special Assistant to the President (Media), Office of the Minister of Information and Culture, the minister said the Federal Government also directed the National Broadcasting Commission (NBC) to immediately commence the process of licensing all OTT and social media operations in Nigeria.

At a news conference on Wednesday after the tweet was deleted Alhaji Mohammed alleged: “The mission of Twitter in Nigeria is very, very suspect,” even when Twitter, in a different statement, expressed deep concern by the blocking in Nigeria.

Accordingly, Twitter notes that “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 the world.”

As expected, the development has generated a wide range of reactions, most of which have not portrayed the government in good light. Many believe it is just another means through which the Buhari administration plans to gag the media.

By this action, we can rightly say that President Buhari administration’s growing insatiable thirst for undermining freedom of expression has exposed the country to national and international ridicule. Individuals, both notable and otherwise, civil rights groups and governments across the world immediately took side with the Nigerian people in condemning the government for what they view as an attempt to stifle free speech.

Of course, the United States Mission in Nigeria is not favourably disposed to ban. It warned against any action that undermines Nigerians’ ability to exercise their freedom of expression as provided for by the Nigerian constitution. The #Twitterban, as far as the mission is concerned, undermines the ability of the people of Nigeria to exercise their fundamental freedom of expression and sends a poor message to its citizens, investors, and businesses.

“Banning social media and curbing every citizen’s ability to seek, receive, and impart information undermines fundamental freedoms. As President Joe 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,” the US Mission states.

Also conveying their disappointment over the development as well as proposing registration requirements for other social media platforms are the diplomatic missions of Canada, the European Union (Delegation to Nigeria), the Republic of Ireland, and the United Kingdom, among others.

In unison, they strongly support the fundamental human right of free expression and access to information, which they describe as a pillar of democracy in Nigeria and around the world. And since these rights apply online as well as offline, banning the systems through which the expression is made is not the answer.

Perhaps, this explains why Nobel laureate, Prof. Wole Soyinka, would advise that if Buhari has a problem with Twitter, he should sort it out with the tech giant, personally, the way Donald Trump did and not rope in the right to free expression of the Nigerian citizen as collateral damage.

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Similarly, the Nigerian Guild of Editors (NGE) urges the Nigerian government to tread with caution and immediately reconsider the suspension of Twitter and seek other legitimate means of resolving its dispute with the company.

There is just no reason (except pettiness) why Nigerians should be made to suffer the collateral damage of denial of the right to free discourse on Twitter simply because the Federal Government objects to Twitter’s action against one president.

The earlier the federal government lifts the sanction, the better for both the president and the country as the suspension, which is a grave breach of Nigeria’s international obligations under Article 9 of the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights and Article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, only goes to project the Nigerian government as a dictatorship.

With over 39 million Nigerians having active Twitter accounts, the federal government’s action has the unintended consequence of jeopardising the economic interests of many Nigerians who rely on the social media platform for vital information to make informed business decisions daily.

Considering that Twitter has become the platform for young people and, indeed, all Nigerians to exercise their fundamental right to express and publish an opinion, there is a need to go beyond emotional reactions to issues and think about how the actions such as was taken recently by the Federal Government will affect the people, international ratings socially and economically.

As Oyo State Governor Seyi Makinde rightly pointed, Twitter has not just become the platform for young people but indeed a platform for all Nigerians to exercise their fundamental right to express and publish an opinion. It is used by many to complain, argue and give feedback to the government and its agencies which in turn, use the feedback to improve policies.

Also fundamental is the fact that Twitter has gone beyond a source of communication for many hardworking Nigerian youths. It has become a source of livelihood for many, irrespective of their political affiliations or religious leanings. Nigerian youths and digital communication organisations as we all know, earn a living from being able to use the platform to post communications on behalf of their clients.

For instance, and even without physical stores, so many Nigerians are now relying on Twitter and other social media platforms to give visibility to their products and services.

Therefore, a responsible government with a huge number of unemployed youths as is the case with Nigeria, ought to be actively interested in how certain policies and actions will affect investor confidence for the common good.

More so, a government that rode on the back of such a platform to get to power has no moral justification to turn round to ban it from operating in the country. The accusation that it has become notorious for spread of false religious, racist, and xenophobic messages capable of inciting citizens against each other, thus leading to loss of many lives, is merely sitting truth on the head.

One cannot but ask any such accuser how much could have happened overnight, if he/she was not part of it. After using social media to campaign vigorously for the election that brought him to power in 2015, the newly sworn-in President Buhari had tweeted: “I thank those who passionately carried the campaign on social media. I belong to everybody. I belong to nobody.”

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Isn’t it curious, therefore, that the same man who maximized the use of the platform to campaign, express himself then, sometimes freely dishing out all manner of questionable claims and was not gagged, would now go on to infringe on the rights of others just because his offensive tweet was deleted?

Though Senior Special Assistant on Media and Publicity to the President, Malam Garba Shehu, in a statement, has said the ban is temporary, insisting however that the Federal Government action against Twitter “is not just a response to the removal of the President’s post,” could also suggest that a government that has been so obsessed with the oppression of free speech would use the slightest excuse to do so…meaning that the Buhari-led All Progressive Congress (APC) government that has been working so hard to regulate the Internet and social media, may have, after all, done so through the backdoor.

Shehu’s argument though is: “There has been a litany of problems with the social media platform in Nigeria, where misinformation and fake news spread through it have had real-world violent consequences. All the while, the company has escaped accountability,” adding, “nevertheless, the removal of President Buhari’s tweet was disappointing. The censoring seemed based on a misunderstanding of the challenges Nigeria faces today.”

Nigerians, however, are quick to remind him that the major violent consequences they are suffering are the high rate of insecurity in the land, which the government seems to have no clue on how to address. Nigeria seems to have broken down completely. Life in Nigeria today has gotten nastier, more brutish and short.

Daily, lives are lost to some monsters, who kill, maim, and rape innocent Nigerians, burning and destroying communities with hardly anyone apprehended.

Nigerians would like to see, instead, a government that protects them against the growing arms of terrorists, bandits, and kidnappers, among other criminal elements that have made living in the country one horrendous experience.

Living in the 21st century without electricity, having to do with death traps as roads and mere consulting clinics as hospitals, among other completely collapsed infrastructure, is harsh. Rather than jeopardise the economic interests of many Nigerians who rely on Twitter for important information to make informed business decisions and even earnings, daily, the government can do well in channeling its energy to making life more bearable.

The Buhari-led government more than any other should know that Over-The-Top (OTT) platforms of which Twitter is one, is an integral part of the digital economy that it claims to be promoting.

This is why the step taken by the telecommunications companies, said to be currently working closely with relevant stakeholders to ensure there is a speedy resolution of the current suspension of Twitter activities in Nigeria, is a welcome development.

However, it remains to be seen how much of the digital world can be controlled by the Buhari government. Any such decision would no doubt be weakened by the fact that there are several other ways users can bypass the ban and easily access their accounts. Indeed a lot are doing so already via the virtual private network (VPN).

Twitter doesn’t have a physical office or presence in Nigeria. Their regional office is in Ghana, which is a loss to Nigeria with more than 39 million users. Rather than drive them away further, a government that cares about the welfare of its people should rather do everything possible to woo them.

Being a platform through which issues of public concern are frequently debated, suspending its operations in Nigeria is tantamount to suspending the right of Nigerians to freely express their constitutionally guaranteed right.

It is a brazen attack on free civil space, more so when the Federal Government can hardly cite an example of where Nigerians used the platform to promote treasonable acts as claimed.