The Federal Government of Nigeria’s indefinite suspension of Twitter in the country is by far the most trending news in the last 24 hours. The order did not come as a surprise.
First, Information Minister Lai Mohammed had given an indication on when the micro blogging and social networking service deleted President Muhammadu Buhari’s tweet on Wednesday for violating its rules. The Minister had said on that day that Twitter’s agenda was suspicious.
Twitter had said that the Nigerian President’s post, threatening to punish groups blamed for attacks on government buildings had violated its policy on “abusive behaviour”.
The ‘offensive’ tweet featured the Nigerian President saying:
“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.”
In announcing Twitter’s suspension, Lai Mohammed, in a statement by his Special Assistant in Abuja on the same Twitter platform, cited the persistent use of the platform for activities that are capable of undermining Nigeria’s corporate existence.
He said the Federal Government had also directed the National Broadcasting Commission, NBC, to immediately commence the process of licensing all OTT and social media operations in Nigeria. OTT stands for “Over The Top” and refers to any streaming service that delivers content over the internet. The service is delivered “over the top” of another platform, as in going above and beyond cable offerings and the content includes movies, TV shows and other long and short-form content that can be streamed on computers, smartphones, and other devices.
In its response to the suspension announcement, Twitter said it was deeply concerned and was investigating the order, promising to provide updates when it got more information on the matter.
Meanwhile, hours after the suspension on Friday, Twitter has continued to work in Nigeria and even several government officials and agencies continued to disseminate information on the micro blogging service, prompting queries as to the seriousness or workability of the ban.
Can the government prevail on Internet Service Providers, ISPs, including telephone networks like Airtel, MTN, Glo and 9Mobile to shut down the access of their subscribers to the Twitter website or App? Because, without this, the suspension order is dead on arrival.
There is also the small matter of the availability of Virtual Private Networks, VPN, through which a subscriber can establish a protected network, even through another country, thereby bypassing the local networks. In this case, if the Nigerian ISPs and telecoms networks are forced to comply with the government order to shut down Twitter service to Nigerian subscribers, such users can get free VPN by setting their location to another country. There are several free VPN providers.
Many people also find the order strange, in a country that is touting emphasis on operating a digital economy.
The suspension also goes a long way to increase unemployment and make working from home more difficult for many young folks. As a friend commented, “The government just rendered all Twitter influencers and marketers jobless by suspending Twitter in Nigeria”.
Remember, too, the saying that, ‘An idle mind is the devil’s workshop’; therefore all the youths and companies using Twitter to promote their businesses will close shop or get involved in something that may bring more stress to the country.
As expected, several voices have been raised against the government over the indefinite ban.
One of the first reactions came from SERAP – Socio-Economic Rights Accountability Project – which tweeted that it would be suing the Nigerian authorities over what the group called, ‘their ILLEGAL indefinite suspension of Twitter in Nigeria’.
SERAP said Nigerians had a right to freedom of expression and access to information, including online, and it planned to fight to keep it that way. It called on the government to immediately rescind the suspension within 48 hours or face legal action.
SERAP said that, “The suspension has the character of collective punishment and is contrary to Nigeria’s international obligations…..Suspending Twitter in Nigeria would deny Nigerians’ access to information, and disrupt the free exchange of ideas and the ability of individuals to connect with one another and associate peacefully on matters of shared concern. It would also seriously undermine the ability of Nigerians to promote transparency and accountability in the country, and to participate in their own government. We call on the Nigerian authorities to guarantee the constitutionally and internationally recognized human rights of Nigerians including online. Deletion of President Buhari’s tweets should never be used as a pretext to suppress the civic space and undermine Nigerians’ fundamental human rights.”
In its reaction, the Nigerian Bar Association, NBA, said it has noted with great concern the extraordinary decision of the Federal Government of Nigeria to suspend the operations of Twitter in Nigeria and, by necessary implication, the right of Nigerians to freely express their constitutionally guaranteed opinions through that medium. It said the action was at best, yet another disguised attempt to regulate social media, restrict freedom of speech and shrink civic space.
The Association said it found no constitutional or legal authority to support the peremptory action of the Federal Government to suspend the operations of Twitter in Nigeria and deprive Nigerians of their right to freely express their constitutionally guaranteed opinions.
Beyond the dent on our constitutional democracy at a time when the Nigerian economy is unarguably struggling, the NBA noted, the impact of arbitrary decisions such as this on investor confidence would be better imagined.
It concluded that if the decision was not immediately reversed, it would have no choice but to challenge it in the interest of the public and democracy.
It is still early hours to feel the impact or non-impact of the government suspension of Twitter. Conversations around the action are also just building up and several Nigerians, at and abroad, are weighing in on the pros and cons.
Will it become a matter of who blinks first?
Statistics show that about 40 million Nigerians have Twitter accounts, although not all of the accounts may be active.
Nigeria is not the first country to ban Twitter and it is only just joining the very short list of countries. Countries like Egypt, Turkey, Kenya and United Kingdom have at some point suspended Twitter’s operations. However, countries like China, Iran, North Korea and Turkmenistan, have officially blocked Twitter, mostly for what they term ‘security reasons’ and to prevent protests, although citizens of these countries have learnt to circumvent the blockade by using VPNs.
Epa Ogie Eboigbe, veteran journalist, broadcaster and public affairs specialist, writes on, and analyses current and historical issues with a ‘wise pen’.