It began with a tweet on June 1 from President Muhammadu Buhari’s Twitter handle @MBuhari. He reprimanded angry youths who were “misbehaving” and alluded to his role in the civil war, promising to treat the secessionists “in the language they understand”. This tweet was followed by a huge public outcry and condemnation, as many considered it repulsive, and some even deem it as a call for genocide. As a result, Twitter pulled down the specific tweet and its embedded video, in response to which the Federal Government banned Twitter in Nigeria indefinitely (although this was subsequently described as ‘temporary’) and called for other social media restrictions. Like the actions of any leader, the ban has been received with mixed reactions.
It is understandable why the President should be irritated with the country’s deteriorating security situation, especially with regards to the South-Eastern part of the country. Since the turn of the year, attacks by “unknown gunmen” have led to the death of scores of Policemen, Army personnel, as well as officials of other security agencies in Nigeria. In addition, many public institutions, especially Police stations and offices of the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC), have been razed by the ravaging hoodlums in the South-East.
The Nigerian Police has linked the attacks of public property, particularly in the South-East, to the Indigenous Peoples of Biafra (IPOB), a secessionist group that seeks to restore the defunct state of Biafra. The group, led by Nnamdi Kanu, is believed by security agencies to have commenced an arms struggle with the Nigerian state.
On social media, Nigerians trended the #IAmIgboToo hashtag to express their displeasure with the President’s statement. In addition, Nigerian Twitter users of different ethnic groups have also adopted Igbo names in solidarity with the Igbo people.
What followed was the removal of the President’s tweet by Twitter, with the tech company citing its policy on hateful conduct, which prohibits tweets that “promote violence or threaten” people on the basis of “race, ethnicity, (and) national origin.” The violation of this policy makes Twitter to delete any contravening tweet or compel users to “remove the violating content.”
Reacting to such seeming contradictions and lack of neutrality, the Minister of Information, Lai Muhammed, complained that Twitter condones worse tweets from the IPOB leader, Nnamdi Kanu. This comparison demeans the Nigerian President’s office. How can the Minister compare tweets from the President with that of a secessionist leader known for acerbic and uncouth language, coupled with temper tantrums?
The initial announcement that the Federal Government had banned Twitter indefinitely took many Nigerians by surprise, and it seemed across many quarters not to have been a well thought-out response. It appears that the Federal Government may have taken on a battle it can never win, and the reasons for this view are manifold.
First, the speed and context of the Twitter ban by Federal Government smirks of a hasty and jerky reaction, and retaliatory action against an organisation upholding the dictates of its policies. The reasons proffered by the Federal Government are, at best, conjectural, and unrelated to the issues at hand. Misinformation and the spread of fake news, which may have affected national security, as claimed by some of the president’s handlers, would not fly as the reason for the ban, if this came only a few days after Twitter pulled down the President’s tweet. People are wise to uncover the hidden reason, and many felt the government was not telling the whole truth, and it was disingenuous of the administration to pull such a stunt.
The second reason is that people are suspicious of any fight against the media, which many often interpret as an attempt to muffle their freedom of speech and expression, in a country practising constitutional democracy. On the contrary, Twitter and platforms like it create a public sphere for the expression of divergent views by all. They are marketplaces of ideas and counter ideas, often competing for relevance and acceptance. Everyone with a smartphone and mobile data could air his views on local, national, and international issues, mobilise and fight for a cause, and access and learn about current events. Therefore, a complete ban on Twitter may be seen by many as an affront to their fundamental liberty.
The ban immediately brought to peoples’ mind the draconian decree 4 of 1984 that curtailed the freedom of speech of journalists and public commentators. This decree was promulgated during the military regime of General Muhammadu Buhari, and any assault on the media forces people to recall those days, and specuate about its return.
The third reason is that the Federal Government cannot afford to engage in a war with the international media, especially at this auspicious time. Insecurity, banditry, the poor economy, and secessionist agitations have negatively affected Nigeria’s image, locally and internationally. We need the international media as our friends rather than foes, particularly at this point. Banning Twitter sends a wrong signal that the Federal Government is applying undue high-handedness in dealing with domestic issues. Opposition and non-state actors will milk this to prove that the government is persecuting them for their contrary views, and that the Federal Government is anti-people. Other international media (social and traditional) may likely come together to portray the government in a bad light across the world. We should avoid this at all costs, especially given our current impasse. We cannot multiply the war front.
Fourthly, President Buhari is not the first head of a government to have a face-off with Twitter. Donald Trump, the former U.S. President, has been totally banned from Twitter and other social media platforms for almost two years. As Twitter has become powerful, so have its users become vulnerable to the dictates of the owners and managers. Jack Dorsey, the CEO of Twitter and Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook founder, have become two of the most powerful men in the world. As such, when Twitter decided to suspend the account of Donald Trump after the January 6 insurrection when his supporters stormed the U.S. Capitol, it caused severe reverberations. It meant that a private company could clip the wings of a sitting U.S. President, widely regarded as the most powerful man in the world.
The fifth reason is that Nigeria should be worried about being counted among countries that have banned Twitter and other social media platforms, including China, Iran, North Korea, Cuba and Turkmenistan. How can Nigeria be listed among countries widely accepted as stifling free speech, discouraging dissent, and abusing human rights? These countries do not have democratic values and profiles, and Nigeria should be highly concerned about being placed within the same category with them.
The sixth reason is that social media is an outlet for people, especially young people, to express themselves and vent their anger. Imagine the amount of frustration young people will experience, as they get cut off from the global world they link to through social media. Any parent of young persons can testify to how attached they are to the social media, from where they get most of their information. Young people inhabit this virtual reality bubble created by social media, to the extent that some are addicted to it and may struggle to clearly distinguish between digital reality and social reality. Young people might subsequently rebel against any ban on social media.
Moreover, I am not sure that Nigeria has the technical capacity to shut down social media over the internet. Why then should we make laws or rules that we cannot enforce? Even if we can implement this ban, why waste resources that should solve a panoply of other pressing needs confronting Nigeria on it?
The Federal Government seems to be acting desperately and, therefore, may be making more mistakes. We should remember that once rulers, Hosni Mubarak of Egypt and Muammar Ghadaffi of Libya tried to ban social media during the Arab Spring but this failed. Banning media is an antiquated technique of social control, which adopts a standard military approach that cannot work in a democracy.
However, after posting the tweet and the backlash ensued, which culminated in the removal of the tweet by Twitter, the government should have learnt its lessons and ensured that any tweet to be uploaded to the President’s handle goes through greater scrutiny. Maybe they should have interrogated the President’s social media management team. Instead, suspending Twitter in the country adds more fuel to the fire and depicts the government as being dictatorial.
There was some rumpus when Twitter announced the setting up of its African office in Ghana some months ago. However, many people had expected them to set up shop in Nigeria, as the country offers more significant opportunities than Ghana. With this development, the decision of Twitter to snub Nigeria would be seen as a wise move, as they would have been more susceptible to government sanction if their offices were in Nigeria.
Social media has become an essential tool in the everyday lives of many Nigerians. It is a symbol of free speech and a vital ingredient for democratic rule and governance. The issue of the regulation of social media is a matter for another day. The current administration is a beneficiary of social media, as it used it extensively in the arduous battle to unseat the People’s Democratic Party (PDP)-led government in 2015.
This ban has economic consequences and may damage Nigeria profoundly by creating the loss of jobs of our teeming youths in the digital marketing sector, it could rub off negatively on Nigeria’s image abroad, batter the confidence of foreign investors in Nigeria, dampen our democratic antecedents, widen the communication gap between the Federal Government and the people, and lead to international embarrassment and hostile public diplomacy.
In summary, by banning Twitter, we will be hurting our economy more and the Federal Government risks sending the message that we are back to the old days of military dictatorship, during which the free press was usually the first target. Moreover, it risks undermining the assertion by the President’s supporters that he has fully transformed from a military man to a democrat, and that the current administration is different from the time the President took power as a soldier via a coup d’état in 1984. There are many ways the government can address the unfortunate removal of the President’s tweet or even our security challenges. But, unfortunately, banning Twitter in the country is not one of them.
Dakuku Peterside is a policy and leadership expert.