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Nigeria's Twitter Ban: blocking the chatter from the bird app

August 20th, 2021
topic: Freedom of Expression
by: Ndubuaku Kanayo
located in: Nigeria
tags: freedom of speech, Nigeria, social media, Twitter

Social media users in Nigeria have expressed shock at the government’s indefinite suspension of Twitter, a platform that serves as a crucial economic tool and method of communication and organisation in the West African nation.

The government’s announcement, which was made on Friday, 4 June, left users surprised and stranded by Sunday, as most of them were unable to access the platform through mobile networks in the country, which prompted to block access to the site.

Speaking with FairPlanet, Jerry Caesar, a digital marketer based in Lagos, narrated how the ban, which came as a surprise to him, is restricting digital entrepreneurs in the country to a very small market reach.

"Like play, I woke up that blessed morning and found out that I couldn't access my twitter account anymore, also the news was everywhere from people, screenshots from Whatsapp, calls were coming in," said Caesar. "Up until now, I can't access my twitter from my laptop, home and office. it's just crazy."

"Twitter as we know is a vast marketplace, entrepreneurs who know this seize the opportunity. Not only are they seizing this opportunity, they are monetising it," he added. "The Twitter ban is like restricting everyone to a smaller marketplace and cutting them off from what I call a ‘universal marketplace’." 

"There are other things that twitter brings to our table as Affiliates,” he further remarked, “from jobs, sales [and] referrals to comments and engagement."

Gov’t bans twitter to stifle dissent

While citing the persistent use of the microblogging platform for activities capable of undermining the corporate sector of the country, Nigeria's information minister, Lai Mohammed had accused the social media company of destabilising the country by playing a role in the #EndSARS demonstrations that rocked the nation.

"Twitter has consistently made its platform available to those who are threatening Nigeria's corporate existence; that is the reason for suspending their operations in Nigeria," Mohammed stated. “I said Twitter funded the #EndSARS protests in Nigeria last year and people have challenged it. Twitter played a prominent role in helping to raise funds for the #EndSARS protesters. Whether they paid directly, helped to pay or helped to raise funds, it’s a matter of semantics.”

“So, whether donating money himself or helping to raise money, the Twitter owner is one of those who helped to fund the #EndSARS protests that were later hijacked leading to loss of lives and massive destruction of property,” he added. 

By providing and mobilising information and news that are not readily available in other media, and by enabling the coordination of protests, digital platforms like Twitter have created structures for debating contentious issues in Nigeria and elsewhere.

#EndSars protests

Nigerian youths took to twitter during the #EndSars demonstrations to voice their displeasure over the harassment, extortion and other human rights violations by security agencies of the state.

The protests, which started from online hashtags, had metamorphosed into a global social cause even as the agitations caught the attention of international organisations, foreign governments and citizens of the world.

While responding to the ban, the social media company stated its concerns around the suspension of its activities in the West African nation, even as it promised more updates pending an ongoing investigation. 

“The announcement made by the Nigerian Government that they have suspended Twitter’s operations in Nigeria is deeply concerning,” the company said in a statement. "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."

Recall that when the company had earlier announced its decision to open up an African headquarters in Ghana, it cited free speech, online freedom and open internet as the cardinal reasons for moving its African office to the West African country.

Nigeria tumbles on Human freedom Index

Since 2000, the number of restrictions on political and civil liberties globally has grown, even as data compiled by Freedom House reveals that freedom of expression has steadily declined each year over the last 13 years.

According to a Human freedom index report, a global measurement of personal, civil and economic freedom for 2020 compiled by the Fraser and Cato institute, Nigeria fell 14 places downward to rank 131 out of 162, even as indices like the rule of law, security and safety, market  and business regulations and freedom of expression were yardsticks considered in the report.

But days after the ban, the government had insisted that all social media companies  must be licenced and registered as a Nigerian company. "We are insisting that for you to operate in Nigeria you must first be a Nigerian company and be licensed by the broadcasting commission," Mohammed said, referring to social media firms.

"The new regulations will include conditions for continued operation," he further noted.

Violating constitutional rights and international treaties

With around 39 million Nigerian users restricted from accessing the platform, tech policy lawyer Timi Olagunju explains how the Nigerian constitution guarantees each person the freedom to express ideas, form opinions and access information.

"According to the Nigerian constitution section 39 subsection 1-3, Every person shall be entitled to freedom of expression including freedom to hold opinions and receive and impart ideas and information without interference.”

He further points towards legal frameworks supporting freedom of expression in the Nigerian constitution and other international treaties and agreements guaranteeing of information which Nigeria is signatory to. "Nigeria is signatory to certain treaties and UN resolutions that will not just ensure freedom of expression, but will also provide policies that will facilitate freedom of expression,” stated Olagunju. 

Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights provides everyone with the right to freedom of opinion and expression, including freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media, regardless of the frontier.

"On socio-economic rights, Nigeria is signatory to the African Charter for human and people's rights which has been domesticated in Nigeria and to a large extent, twitter provides livelihood for so many Nigerians,” Olagunju further stated.

While countering the argument that the ban remains a directive from the state towards a private company within its jurisdiction, the tech policy consultant argues that "Since twitter is not an artificial entity registered under Nigerian law, the jurisdiction of the government's policy ban might not affect twitter as a public company rather it would affect the Nigerian people who are within the jurisdiction of the Nigerian government."

"So the question now will be, Is the ban facilitating or restricting the freedom of expression, what we get will determine the reality,'' he concluded.

Even as the ban has continued to generate widespread reactions from social media users in the country, the decision to suspend the microblogging site from the West African nation could cost the state's fragile economy, while also hurting its nascent democracy.

Image: Akshar Dave. 

Article written by:
Ndubuaku Kanayo
Ndubuaku Kanayo
Author
Nigeria
#EndSars protests in Nigeria in October 2020 originated in Twitter posts.
© PHILL MAGAKOE/AFP via Getty Images
"Twitter has consistently made its platform available to those who are threatening Nigeria's corporate existence; that is the reason for suspending their operations in Nigeria." Lai Mohammed, Minister of Information and Culture.
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