On Friday, June 4, 2021, the Federal Ministry of Information and Culture announced the suspension of Twitter in Nigeria. As expected, this announcement not only met with backlash but with defiance, and as of June 5, 2021, a lot of Nigerians were still using Twitter, even when Telcos had taken the move to block access to the site.
Before going further, let us understand the reason for the Twitter ban. On Tuesday, June 1, 2021, the official Twitter account of the President of Nigeria, @Mbuhari, released a series of tweets. The theme of the tweets was that the Federal Government was going to take tough action against criminal elements in the country. But it was the last tweet that drew intense examination and uproar from all corners of Twitter. The exact tweet was “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.” The fact that the President drew allusion to the Civil War, which was unofficially commemorated a day ago, was seen as distasteful by many. That he went further to threaten to “teach them in the language they understand” was interpreted as invoking imagery of the war and unleashing same Civil War tactics on criminal elements in the country or maybe not just them alone. Nigerians mass-reported the tweet and by Thursday, it had been deleted by Twitter, who said it violated their policies. Minister of Information and Culture, Lai Mohammed, went ahead to accuse Twitter of meddling in local political affairs, and by Friday, his Ministry banned the operations of Twitter in the country.
First, this is the fastest decision ever implemented in the country. At other times when things would have to pass through panels and committees and be reviewed over a dozen times, this one happened so fast and by 12:00 AM June 5, 2021, all telcos complied with the directive and cut off access to Twitter. For a long time now, the Federal Government, through the legislative and even the executive arm, has been mulling the idea of social media restriction. The argument for this is due to the amount of fake news and misinformation being pass around on social media platforms. Without a doubt fake news is dangerous and actions need to be taken to curb the spread. That’s on one hand. On the other hand, is the fact that free speech is a fundamental human right. If people are restricted from communicating effectively on social media platforms, what else do they have?
The Federal Government, through the Ministry of Information and Culture, also gave the directive for social media platforms, like Instagram and Facebook, to register through the National Broadcasting Commission (NBC) for them to operate freely here. If or when the suspension on Twitter is lifted, they would also have to register with the body.
This is the second time this year that Twitter would hot topic over deleting the tweets of a Head of State. In January, they deleted and suspended the account of former United States President, Donald Trump, accusing him of inciting violence with his tweets after protesters stormed the Capitol on January 6. There was a lot of back and forth, but Trump never said anything about suspending Twitter in his country.
People who accuse Twitter of being unfair should understand that Twitter has rules and policies. Some things are not allowed there to keep the platform safe for everyone. That is why every day, hundreds of accounts are suspended and thousands of tweets are deleted. It’s not a new thing. Every day, people break Twitter rules and the company takes action. It is nothing extraordinary. But for some reason, when Twitter takes the same actions against politicians and Heads of State, they are accused of having an agenda.
The Nigerian government accusing Twitter of meddling in local politics goes back to October last year. Twitter’s relationship with Nigeria grew last year during the #EndSARS protests when Twitter gave the hashtag a symbol and verified some people involved in the struggle. Twitter CEO, Jack Dorsey, also tweeted in support of the protest from his account. But it was a protest against police brutality. Anyone would have supported it. The suspension on Twitter is an apparent way to prevent Twitter from “meddling” in local politics. But is it the best option?
The ban on Twitter has been called a “hasty decision” by many. The Federal Government looks at Twitter through one lens, but for the average Nigerian on Twitter, the platform is a lot of things. Twitter represents jobs, promotions, marketing, fast information, and more. Many people have gained jobs through Twitter, many others have gotten justice through Twitter. There is no denying that people use Twitter to disseminate fake news and false information, but many people on Twitter are not interested in that. Most people look to the site for opportunities that would make their lives better. Twitter has also provided a platform for the citizens to demand accountability from the government, which is one of the hallmarks of Democracy. We have seen decisions reversed due to outrage on Twitter. Twitter has given people that power and leverage they lack ordinarily as citizens. To suspend Twitter is to deny Nigerians so many things.
Nigerians have had to rely on Virtual Private Networks (VPNs) to bypass the restrictions placed by these telcos but that does not solve anything as the latest news is that the Attorney General of the Federation, Abubakar Malami SAN, has ordered the arrest and prosecution of those still using Twitter in Nigeria.
Indeed, these are tough times. But like they say, tough times do not last, only tough people do. Already, Twitter has said they are investigating the ban and were working to see how to make Twitter accessible again. Maybe they would reach a deal with the government? We would have to wait to see what happens in the following days.