Like many local and international voices that condemned the ban on Twitter by the Nigerian government, last month, the administrator of the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), Samantha Power, described it as a “state-sanctioned denial of free speech”.
“This suspension is nothing more than state-sanctioned denial of free speech and should be reversed immediately. #KeepitOn,” the tweet by Ms Power, who heads the agency, a major international donor to Nigeria, reads in part.
“#Twitterban undermines Nigerians’ ability to exercise this fundamental freedom and sends a poor message to its citizens, investors and businesses,” the tweet read in part.
True to the U.S. embassy’s prediction, the “poor message” is already reverberating through small Nigerian businesses with online vendors and influencers who heavily depend on Twitter, already counting their losses. One said the ban has yanked food out of her mouth.
Although some Nigerians have remained on the platform by using Virtual Private Network (VPN) applications to bypass the ban, things have not remained the same for many of these virtual vendors with many of their ought-to-be clients yet to find their way around the VPN and others sceptical about its cyber-safety.
“The ban has greatly affected us because many people have left the app (Twitter),” Tope Ajenifuja, who sells Tiger nut juice on Twitter, stated in a text message responding to PREMIUM TIMES enquiry.
“They can’t use VPN,” Ms Ajenifuja, popularly called Olori Tigernut, said while lamenting about the reduced patronage from Twitter users.
She said “they have nothing to lose anyway, so if no one sees your products on Twitter, no one will buy.”
Asked to quantify its impact on her business, Ms Ajenifuja said since the Twitter ban, her sales have reduced by 85 per cent.
On her part, Chidinma Uche-George, who also uses Twitter to market her clothing business, said, “given the lack of good jobs and high cost of acquiring a physical store, I decided to start an online store. The power of social media cannot be undermined.”
Ms Uche-George said she uses other platforms like Instagram and Facebook but none matches Twitter’s reach for her as she is able to reach people outside the country.
“At least 80 per cent of my customers are on Twitter. My first ever international client was on Twitter, I think because it’s more interactive.
“Since the ban, patronage has nosedived badly. For instance, this week, I have not sold a single item,” she added.
The ban has not only affected her sales but also her ability to purchase food.
She said, “The ban will definitely have a ripple effect if not lifted. We can barely afford to buy food because of the high prices, and it keeps increasing every week.
“I have been really worried because of the low sales and I really hope that the government will put the people first this time and lift the ban.”
Beyond vendors, influencers like Aboh Ibe are also affected by the ban.
“Twitter has been a lifesaver to many, in fact to me personally. Twitter is beyond the networking site or what they think it is, it is where I make my daily bread by being the ‘loudspeaker’ for brands,” Mr Ibe said.
The Twitter ban announced on June 4, two days after the platform took down a controversial tweet by President Buhari, came to effect on June 5 when network providers complied with the directive of the government to block access to Twitter.
Since then, many big brands across different sectors, including banks, that could be Mr Ibe’s potential clients, have disappeared from the platform.
Mr Ibe said not only has the ban infringed on citizens’ freedom of expression, it has also shown brands the exit as most brands no longer associate themselves with the platform which in turn strongly affects influencers whose job is to be on Twitter working for these brands.
Rhetorically, Mr Ibe asks, “how does one survive or make ends meet if all of a sudden, your source of income is taken?”
Nkeiruka Okwudiri, who doubles as a brand influencer and social media manager, said the ban literally drove her out of her “office” – Twitter.
She earned about N200,000 monthly before the ban, but that is no longer realisable with the ban on Twitter biting harder by the day.
“The Twitter ban has really affected me because I literally work on Twitter. Twitter is my office, I wake up in the morning to make posts and comments for brands I work for, but since the ban, these brands have asked me to stop posting or commenting on Twitter.”
She added that she has had to move to Instagram and Facebook which are not her forte, although she is still trying to get a hang of them. These other platforms, she said, are not as impactful as Twitter for her.
“This ban has yanked the food out of my mouth, I haven’t gotten any job since the ban and it is over a month already. I cannot start looking for a 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., there are no jobs. What does the government want me to do, where do they want me to start from?”
It has been 40 days (as of Tuesday) since the ban on the platform in Nigeria.
NetBlocks, an organisation that estimates the economic impact of internet disruption, mobile data blackout or app restriction using Cost of Shutdown Tool (COST), puts “the total cost impact” of the Twitter ban for 40 days in Nigeria at about $240.6 million and its naira equivalent at N87 billion (“using exchange rate as of November 2019”).
Pap business enlarged by Twitter also groaning
Pap is a Nigerian breakfast staple made from fermenting cereal, particularly corn. Referred to as ‘ogi’ or ‘akamu’ in Nigeria, it is usually produced by locals whose reaches are usually limited to their neighbourhoods.
But for 22-year-old Yakubu Jimoh, founder of Yakubu Edibles Venture, pap production is no longer a neighbourhood business, thanks to social media, particularly, Twitter.
“Without social media, I don’t think I, particularly, could have had such a speedy breakthrough in my business within such a brief period,” said the Ado-Ekiti, Ekiti State-based Mr Jimoh.
Giving special credit to Twitter, he told PREMIUM TIMES, “I first made a post about my business on Facebook in 2020 and a lot of positive reactions followed with a lot of commendations.
“But it was different when I posted it on Twitter, I was surprised that within 48 hours, it went viral. I started receiving calls, links from popular bloggers and the number of followers following my handle quickly ballooned.”
What followed was a rare invitation to the Ekiti State Governor’s Office to meet with Governor Kayode Fayemi.
With the governor himself sharing the video clip of the meeting via his Twitter handle, the encounter came as another boost to his business. In the process, he got support to upgrade his pap production house and buy a new mini grinder and petrol engine.
“My network kept growing, a significant number of my customers are people I met through Twitter. Just before the Twitter ban was announced I supplied 30kg of pap to a customer in Port Harcourt (Rivers State),” he said.
He confirmed that his business is among tottering commercial endeavours whose sales have been dealt a blow of “downturn spiral” since the Twitter ban.
“There’s a noticeable decline in sales,” Mr Jimoh, who put his undergraduate studies at the National Open University of Nigerian (NOUN) on hold to stabilise his pap business, said.
For him, the business is his ticket to completing his education, just like many other Nigerians who saw themselves through school using money they make from their small businesses.
Mr Jimoh said before the ban, he sold about 30 kilogrammes (N24,000) of pap a week, but now he barely sells six kilogrammes (N4,800) a week.
The Small and Medium-sized Enterprises, like Mr Jimoh’s business, “play a major role in most economies, particularly in developing countries,” the World Bank says.
According to the international financial institution, SMEs account for the majority of businesses worldwide and are important contributors to job creation and global economic development.
“They represent about 90 per cent of businesses and more than 50 per cent of employment worldwide,” it adds.
In its 2020 SME Survey, PwC, a multi-national professional services network of firms, says SMEs contribute 48 per cent of national Gross Domestic Product, account for 96 per cent of businesses and 84 per cent of employment.
Citing a report of Nigeria’s National Bureau of Statistics (NBS), the group says SMEs in Nigeria have contributed about 48 per cent of the national GDP in the last five years.
It added that with a total number of about 17.4 million, they account for about 50 per cent of industrial jobs and nearly 90 per cent of the manufacturing sector, in terms of number of enterprises.
‘A blow to start-ups, employment profile’
While many and their businesses are having a rough time because of the Twitter ban, things remain rosy for others. Precious Malomo is barely affected by the ban as she believes that a business built on integrity cannot be affected by the ban. Her customers, she said, make use of VPN to access the platform and she gets orders daily.
Ms Malomo shares in the pain of other vendors, saying, “…but for new businesses here, it must be very difficult because it takes a while to gain trust and build a brand.”
Governor Rotimi Akeredolu of Ondo State, a member of the All Progressives Congress (APC) like President Buhari whose administration banned Twitter, recently lamented the negative impact the suspension would have on the country’s youth employment profile.
The governor, speaking at the state government-organised June 12 Democracy Day in Akure, the state capital, noted that Nigerian youth have been taking advantage of Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and other social media platforms to earn their living.
Reacting to the ban, Mr Akeredolu asked rhetorically, “There is youth unemployment everywhere and we are hearing the banning of Twitter and banning that, where do you want them to go?”
PREMIUM TIMES also reported how the ban is limiting access to justice and shrinking civic spaces. The report illustrated how, without Twitter, many cases of injustice would have gone unnoticed and unaddressed.
Tech experts’ concerns
Lydia Ume, a writer and digital content strategist, lamented the impact of Twitter on businesses.
She expressed concerns about the long-term negative impact the widespread use of VPN, which many businesses have been forced to embrace to maintain their online outposts, will have on businesses.
She, said, for instance, measurement of the success of business strategies will be affected.
She explained that one of the metrics used to measure the success of business marketing strategies is how many people see their content. According to her, the higher it is, the more likely it is to convert those eyeballs to customers.
“Although VPN allows businesses to stay online, you can’t trust or accurately measure performance since the data is skewed from the location changes,” she said.
“Your potential customers’ VPN might be set to Italy or San Francisco, so the algorithm reduces your content’s visibility to them because they are not considered your ideal audience. It’s not just social media, a lot of digital experiences are customised based on your location.”
“Additionally,” she said, “digitisation helps to level the playing field, especially in a country that claims small businesses are the backbone of the economy. Social media plays a significant role in helping businesses grow and remain profitable and businesses need that competitive edge.”
Echoing Ms Ume’s view, Prince Nathan, a digital marketing executive, noted that before the ban, businesses could run marketing campaigns using accurate data provided by Twitter, decipher where, how, and who their target audiences are and how best to reach them.
“But currently, with the use of VPN, prospective clients tweeting from Nigeria are shown as living in the U.S., UK or Somalia and that messes up the algorithm and your ability to pinpoint where your prospects congregate.
“Less eyeballs means less awareness and less awareness ultimately means less patronage and this is where a lot of businesses are currently. Hoping that the ban is lifted so they can get better data, enabling them to reach their target audience,” he said.
Nigeria’s federal government had on June 4 suspended Twitter’s activities, two days after the social media giant deleted a controversial tweet by President Muhammadu Buhari which it said violated its rules.
Apart from banning Twitter in Nigeria, the federal government also “directed the National Broadcasting Commission (NBC) to immediately commence the process of licensing all OTT and social media operations in Nigeria.”
The Attorney-General of the Federation and Minister of Justice, Abubakar Malami, also threatened a crackdown on those defying the ban on Twitter, saying defaulters of the order would be charged to court. He was to later backtrack on it.
The ECOWAS Court of Justice in a landmark ruling stopped the federal government from taking any action against Twitter users in Nigeria pending the hearing and determination of a suit challenging the ban.