The long-running row between the Nigerian federal government and social media giant, Twitter, reached a crescendo Friday with the West African country suspending the activities of the company indefinitely.
The suspension is seen by many activists and other Nigerians as a step towards the actualization of the government’s resolve to regulate social media.
This move followed President Muhammadu Buhari’s controversial tweet about the civil war which was deemed as inciteful by Twitter.
The government accused the platform of meddling in Nigeria’s internal affairs and undermining Nigeria’s corporate existence.
By early Saturday morning, the suspension had taken effect and Nigerians had begun to shop for alternatives to bypass the domain restriction.
The government now appears set to launch a crackdown on other social media platforms; a move that reflects the mindset of a government, at both legislative and executive levels, that has mulled regulation of social media for months.
Information minister Lai Muhammad said in a statement that “the Federal Government has also directed the National Broadcasting Commission (NBC) to immediately commence the process of licensing all OTT and social media operations in Nigeria.”
According to Adjust’s Mobile Marketing Glossary, OTTs 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, hence the moniker.
Licensing the services means that YouTube, Zoom, Googlemeet, WhatsApp, Skype, Facebook, Telegram, Twitter, Snapchat, Instagram, Signal and other OTTs/social media could be suspended or banned when the government deems it fit.
There are some palpable fears that the government may come for the press too, and critics say it may be a reincarnation of the crackdown on speech typical of the military era.
The fear is further fueled by President Buhari’s history as a dictator who wielded absolute powers as a former military head of state in the early 1980s where he jailed journalists and critics.
At the time, Mr Buhari’s draconian Decrees two and four prohibited journalists from writing articles that were factual but “insulting” to public officials.
The government’s Twitter suspension has the fingerprints of the era of decrees because in a democracy you do not rule by fiat, Adeboye Adegoke, a senior programme officer at Paradigm Initiative, said.
“What rule was used to come to the decision of suspending twitter?” he asked. “The ban is a breach of the fundamental rights of Nigerians. It is a flagrant abuse of people’s rights.”
“Twitter is a corporation. It has its own rules. I see the ban as an emotional reaction. I feel their ego was bruised and Lai Mohammed feels too big,” he added.
Mr Buhari had once decried democratic checks and balances as unnecessarily cumbersome even though he had no choice but to respect them in order not to jeopardise the country’s nascent democracy.
In 2019, he longed for those military days.
Aware that Nigerians may doubt that he could ever sheath himself of authoritarian tendency to embrace democratic ethos, Mr Buhari came into office in 2015 by saying he was a “reformed democrat.” Not so much, however, has shown that to be true of the retired general.
Mr Adegoke said he doubts that the Nigerian government has the technical know-how for digital censorship and the control of online information from the top.
The suspension, however, will take effect by the government restricting access by ordering internet service providers (ISPs) to limit access to their subscribers, the digital rights advocate added.
Already, the mobile telecommunication operators say they have been directed by the government to ban their users from accessing Twitter and they have complied.
The latest crackdown on Twitter means that the voices of a slew of Nigerians have been blacked out. The incessant arrests and clampdown on protesters also mean Nigerians have limited medium to protest.
It also means that the surging number of digital entrepreneurs who use Twitter as their e-shop may see a dip in their revenue. More so, citizens who rely on Twitter feeds to stay on top of information may have been disenfranchised.
Known for its tepid communication with the citizens, it is unclear how government agencies, particularly the presidency, intend to keep citizens informed about its activities.
Edged by only WhatsApp, Facebook, YouTube, Instagram and FB Messenger, Twitter is the sixth most used social media platform in Nigeria as of the third quarter of 2020 with 61.4 per cent of internet users in the country using the platform, according to data tracker Statista.
There were 104.4 million internet users in Nigeria in January 2021.
Nigeria now joins a league of eight infamous countries that have banned the use of Twitter either temporarily or permanently. Russia’s internet and media regulator, Roskomnadzor, in April threatened to block access to Twitter from within Russia.
Uganda, Ethiopia, Zimbabwe, Togo, Burundi, Chad, Mali and Guinea also restricted access to the internet or social media applications at some point in 2020.
According to Access Now, an independent monitoring group, there were 25 documented cases of partial or total internet shutdowns in 2019, compared to 20 in 2018 and 12 in 2017.
“Anyone can access Twitter through VPN services (Virtual Private Network),” Mr Adegoke said as a way forward for Nigerians.
But more than that, he added, “we need to push back in terms of litigation. The challenge is that the courts are not on session.”
“In the meantime, there needs to be more awareness on how the average citizen can circumvent this Twitter ban as well as on digital security.”
“All Nigerians have the right to freedom of speech and the responsibility not to misuse that right. Any action taken by (the) Government must be measured, proportionate and not (suppress) basic freedoms,” the British Deputy High Commissioner to Nigeria, Gill Atkinson, wrote on Twitter.
“Freedom of speech, used responsibly online and offline, and access to reliable information are fundamental human rights protected by #Nigeria’s constitution and a cornerstone of democratic life around the world,”, the High Commissioner of Canada in Nigeria, Nicolas Simard, also tweeted.
"Freedom of speech, used responsibly online and off line, and access to reliable information are fundamental human rights protected by #Nigeria’s constitution and a cornerstone of democratic life around the world" @NicolasJSimard. (1/2)
— Canada in Nigeria (@CanHCNigeria) June 4, 2021