'An attack on freedom' - Buhari's twitter ban sparks backlash in Nigeria


An attack on freedom” is how one prominent lawyer has described the move by the Nigerian federal government to ban Twitter in the country, and who could disagree with him?

The announcement on 4 June came as a shock to many International observers although if you read the November 2020 article on ‘why Nigerians are fighting back against attempts to regulate online expression’ this might not be the case. Likewise, if you consider the reaction of the APC's Abdullahi Adamu to the End SARS protests, it may not come as too much of a shock. As was made clear last November, there are members of the House of Representatives and the Senate who are sceptical of social media's impact on the nation's youth.

It has felt as though some measure to this effect would eventually arrive provided the right opportunity presented itself, but the spark behind this has been worrisome.

It comes in the aftermath of Twitter’s decision to delete a tweet by President Buhari. Some believed it could incite violence against Igbos in the country's southeast. Buhari had tweeted he would treat those who were “misbehaving” in the “language they understand,” a statement in response to a string of attacks targeting INEC (Independent National Electoral Commission) offices over recent months. 

INEC buildings have been the target of persistent arson attacks. 41 offices have been targeted in the last two years.

A number of these have occurred in Nigeria's southeast where Igbos are the majority ethnic group. Authorities had attributed the attacks to pro-Biafran separatists and the Eastern Security Network in particular but IPOB (the Indigenous People of Biafra) have denied involvement in the attacks. 

“Anybody who hears the story will be mad at the story. But who are the people who are burning INEC offices? Who is killing the police? There is the impression that some people who are not even Igbo are guilty of organising such things and blaming it on IPOB and ESN."

Former Anambra Governor Chukwuemeka Ezeife

The connection drawn between the civil war and recent events has been seen as insensitive and unwarranted. Only a day prior, many in the southeast had observed Biafra remembrance day in commemoration of those who died in the civil war and famine in the late 60s. Twitter subsequently deleted the tweet stating that it was abusive.

Nigerians have now been forced to turn to VPNs in order to access the social media platform, and the National Broadcasting Commission has issued a directive to prominent radio and television broadcasters ordering them to deactivate their accounts. 

The country’s citizens are not the winners here. They now face restricted access to a communication site reportedly connecting roughly 40 million Nigerians to the rest of the continent and the world (although this figure has come into question given more recent analysis).

It is especially cruel given that post covid, the federal government should be exploring ways to expand the digital opportunities available to its youth, this move however will come as a backwards step.

Internet penetration has increased since the onset of the pandemic and now stands at 50%, just short of the global average of 59%. This appeared to create a new vigour to accelerate the pace of digital transformation in the country. In May, the government announced it had teamed up with Microsoft to undertake a series of projects aimed at hastening this process. It included work to upskill 5 million Nigerians over the next three years and the development of "high-speed internet infrastructure" in six of the country's regions.

In March, Paypal's partnership with Flutterwave meant that Nigerian merchants could receive direct payment from users anywhere in the world. The decision to remove this notable barrier to trade has been an important development for African and Nigerian businesses looking to grow in the e-commerce space. All of this has occurred while Nigeria's tech industry continues to expand and earn praise for the talent it possesses. The Twitter ban will only serve to erect another impediment to showcasing the talent that exists within the country. This is without mentioning that the social media site has been an important tool for the government itself in providing updates for its ongoing vaccination campaign. 

It also restricts access to a channel that exposed the intimidationdetention and abuse of power which occurred during last year's protests. We saw how online activism was key in organising Nigeria’s youth to engage in one of the most important calls for change seen in years. Yet, instead of them converting that activism into a force for good, we’re left with this. Buhari has proven once again that he does not understand the language of the youth, nor does he intend to.

For Buhari, does this truly shift the needle in his efforts to frustrate Biafran secessionists as is implied? Does it strengthen counterinsurgency efforts in the southeast? Unlikely, but as many suspect that's not necessarily the point of all of this. 

Maybe it's partly influenced by the tide of negative International press. Criticism has come for failing to arrest rising extremism in the northeast and northwest of the country, and this has contributed to the humanitarian crisis which is unfolding in real-time.

Speaking to Ruth Olurounbi, Joan McEbong of SBM Intelligence branded him as "weak" in the fight against security and corruption, while the EndSARS protests which captured global interest for all the wrong reasons last year were bookmarked by a spate of mass abductions which show no sign of slowing down. I'm not referring to the 300 boys kidnapped from a boarding school on the outskirts of Kankara, Katsina State in December last year, or the 317 Zamfra schoolgirls that were kidnapped at the end of February; I'm referring to the estimated 136 students that were kidnapped from a school in Niger state, last week. Between December 2020 and May 2021 alone, no fewer than 939 students were kidnapped from schools in Nigeria, according to a Global Rights report made available to THISDAY

Locals gather after the mass abduction which saw 136 students taken from Salihu Tanko Islamic school.

For the federal government to suggest that this was in no way a response to the deletion of the tweet is disingenuous. To indefinitely ‘shut down’ Twitter in reaction to the deleted tweet is a failure of responsibility for which Nigerians will pay the price. The internet watchdog Netblocks estimates that the shutdown will cost the country $6 million a day. 

“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 the government and its agencies who in turn, use these to improve policies.  

“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. Others who may not have physical stores also rely on Twitter to give visibility to their products and services."

Oyo State Governor, Seyi Makinde

The decision points to an unwillingness to properly engage with an issue bigger than any one individual and their ego. We know this because if it were truly part of Buhari's solution to 'dealing' with secessionists, this measure would have been implemented with the same zeal a long time ago. 

It is unclear how long this will last. Members of the opposition party PDP (People’s Democratic Party) staged a walkout during a House of Representatives session on Tuesday to express their displeasure at the new directive. It is expected that Legal action will follow as opposition groups question the legality of the ruling.

The situation is worrying because measures such as censorship are the go to for governments looking stiffle dissident views and aware of their inability to arrest control of unfolding events. It continues a pattern that sees the threats to Nigeria's civic space continue to grow. Rampant youth unemployment, high inflation, fragile ethnic tensions, a worsening security landscape that sees kidnappings out of control, horror stories that are all too common and a leadership that has repeatedly shown that it lacks regard for its citizens is a poisonous mixture that will yield no good for the nation. 

The diaspora in the UK and further abroad is strong enough for events in Nigeria to be a matter of concern to us all. 


Mayowa Ayodele