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Twitter ban in Nigeria: Looking to the Future

Disclaimer: The views expressed are that of the individual author. All rights are reserved to the original authors of the materials consulted, which are identified in the footnotes below.


By Thomas Clapp


Nigeria’s Twitter ban

Twitter’s close association with political matters are not new and now widely acknowledged - especially after the attention and impact it has had on US politics under the Trump Administration. The same can be said for many other countries around the world and Nigeria was no exception. That is, until early June of this year, when Twitter deleted a tweet by President Buhari and the subsequent chain of events lead to an outright ban of the social media platform’s operations in the country. In response, the ban has been appropriately been challenged by Nigerians - both informally and officially in court. This piece will shed light on the reason behind the ban, how it is being enforced and what impact the ban might have on the future.



Twitter and Nigeria: a difficult relationship

President Buhari’s decision to ban Twitter in Nigeria at first appears straightforward because it occurred days after one of the president’s tweets was deleted and his account suspended for twelve hours. The tweet threatened to punish pro-Biafra groups that had been blamed for attacks on government agencies, stating the government would “treat them in the language they understand”.[1] Twitter’s reasoning for removing the tweet was because it violated their guidelines of abusive behaviour and conduct. These guidelines rightly exist to hold public figures accountable for the potential instigation of conflict that a careless tweet may give rise to, especially since they are key figures in their society with great influence and a mass following. Still, President Buhari unsurprisingly disagreed with Twitter’s assessment and so there is a nonetheless a clear connection between the deletion of tweets and the ban of the app.

However, a closer look at history would tell you that a deleted tweet may have been the final straw for President Buhari but he already had plans to reduce the influence of social media in Nigeria. President Buhari’s term began in 2015 and since taking office he has sought to reduce the influence, reach and power of social media in an effort to ensure it does not undermine his control.[2] The power of social media was proven by protests in 2020 against Buhari’s government, where demonstrations were organised on Twitter by young protesters and facilitated their cause. The protests threatened to seriously undermine Buhari’s government and limiting the use of Twitter was seen as a plausible solution to stop opposition groups to organise effectively. The President was certainly incensed by the removal of his tweet, but the Twitter Ban was not a knee-jerk reaction, and instead scaling back social media had been planned throughout his presidency.


Nigeria is by no means the first country to contemplate reprimanding Twitter. A French court in 2013 ordered Twitter to disclose the identity of users who posted anti-Semitic tweets, and create a simpler system to report “incitement to racial hatred”.[3] Twitter argued that there was a jurisdiction issue: Twitter was not a registered company in France, and it did not have any employees there. However, the refusal of the French Court of Appeal to hear the case and the threat of a multi-million-pound civil lawsuit led to a rare move by Twitter to disclose the data of some of its users six months later.[4] Similar to France, Twitter is not a registered company in Nigeria and it does not have an office in the country. Effectively this calls into question the issue of jurisdiction and whether President Buhari could force Twitter to comply with orders - such as restoring his Tweet. Instead, a ban makes more sense for a President looking for a quick solution to disband social media and what he sees as a threat to his presidency.


Enforcement of the Ban

It is unclear whether the Twitter ban in Nigeria is temporary or permanent. The Financial Times reported that the Nigerian Government signalled that the ban may only be “temporary”.[5] This on the surface could indicate that the ban is more of a threat of further action, rather than a permanent feature of government policy. This position taken by the Financial Times is somewhat contradicted by the context. The Nigerian attorney general has taken steps to prosecute Nigerians who still use Twitter, such as through a virtual proxy network (VPN) and this would suggest that this could be a more permanent step.[6] Additionally, the Nigerian Government’s decision to join the seemingly more malleable ‘Koo’ - an Indian made rival to Twitter - also indicates that the Nigerian Government could be considering a longer-term ban.[7].


The Impact on Social Media

Nigeria’s Twitter shutdown may not be particularly damaging for Twitter because only a minority of Nigerians used Twitter before the lockdown.[8] Moreover, users can use VPNs to pretend that they are connecting to Twitter from another country, negating the restrictions placed on Twitter by telecommunication companies. A relatively small user base and simple tools to circumvent the restrictions suggests that the use of Twitter will only be partially curtailed in Nigeria, and encryption used by VPNs means that tracking down Twitter users will be even more difficult for the government, making the ban difficult to enforce.


Nigeria’s decision to ban Twitter could potentially follow a similar pattern to other African countries such as Uganda who in previous years have banned social media in the run-up to an election.[9] The opposition candidate running for president, Bobi Wine, had a strong social media following which was negated by the social media shutdown. Nigeria’s next presidential election is not until 2023, but there is a fear that this ban could be a precursor to further measures taken against social media networks in the country to suppress political opposition.


The Impact for Nigerians

Freedom of speech is important for political engagement in Nigeria. Nigerians have felt that their freedom of speech has been interfered with by the banning of Twitter and ironically for the government many have taken to Twitter to vent their frustration.[10] Tweeting has taken on a new meaning of defiance with the government ban.


Nigeria may also experience some economic consequences that were overlooked by the government. Nigeria is a hub for tech start-ups because of its skilled workforce and large economy.[11] There are fears that close to $400 million raised in start-up capital in 2019 could be harmed by the decision to take action against a technology company. Moreover, small merchants that use social media to advertise their services could also suffer under the Twitter ban.


Concluding Thoughts

President Buhari’s decision to ban Twitter is not a surprising move for a President who from the start of his term in office looked to curtailing the influence of social media in Nigeria. It is also unclear whether this is a long-term solution, or a temporary measure to remind Twitter of the government’s authority. What is more interesting is the negative implications it could have for other social media networks in the country as well as on the freedom of speech and economic prosperity of Nigerians. With social media quickly becoming a fixture of modern society, the world is watching - and tweeting - about the now infamous ban.



 

[1] E. Akinwotu, "Nigeria suspends Twitter access after president's tweet was deleted," The Guardian, 2021. [Online]. Available: https://www.theguardian.com/world/2021/jun/04/nigeria-suspends-twitter-after-presidents-tweet-was-deleted. [Accessed 07 June 2021]. [2] N. Orjinmo, "Twitter Nigeria: Users struggle to access site after government suspension," BBC News, 2021. [Online]. Available: https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-africa-57363779. [Accessed 07 June 2021]. [3] P. Jackson, "French court orders Twitter to reveal racists' details," BBC News, 2013. [Online]. Available: https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-europe-21179677. [Accessed 08 June 2021]. [4] A. Chrisafis, "Twitter gives data to French authorities after spate of antisemitic tweets," The Guardian, 2013. [Online]. Available: https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2013/jul/12/twitter-data-french-antisemitic-tweets. [Accessed 08 June 2021]. [5] N. Munshi, "Nigeria’s ‘authoritarian’ Twitter ban decried by activists and west," Financial Times, 2021. [Online]. Available: https://www.ft.com/content/e0c422a2-bb52-49b6-bb39-f149ccd94ee9. [Accessed 08 June 2021]. [6] N. Princewill and S. Busari, "Nigerians can now be prosecuted for sending tweets following ban on Twitter," CNN, 2021. [Online]. Available: https://edition.cnn.com/2021/06/05/africa/nigeria-prosecute-twitter-users-intl/index.html. [Accessed 08 June 2021]. [7] P. Mukul, "Explained: Nigerian govt joins Koo; what this means for Twitter’s India-made rival," Indian Express, 2021. [Online]. Available: https://indianexpress.com/article/explained/nigeria-twitter-ban-koo-app-7352292/. [Accessed 08 June 2021]. [8] J. Conroy-Krutz, "Nigeria’s Twitter ban could have a long-term economic cost," Quartz Africa, 2021. [Online]. Available: https://qz.com/africa/2017673/nigerias-twitter-ban-will-have-a-longterm-economic-impact/. [Accessed 08 June 2021]. [9] R. Staff, "Uganda bans social media ahead of presidential election," Reuters, 2021. [Online]. Available: https://www.reuters.com/article/us-uganda-election-idUSKBN29H0KH. [Accessed 08 June 2021]. [10] D. Paquette, "Nigerians could get arrested for tweeting. They’re protesting on Twitter anyway," The Washington Post, 2021. [Online]. Available: https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/2021/06/07/nigeria-twitter-ban-buhari-lawsuit/. [Accessed 08 June 2021]. [11] C. Nwokoma, "4 ways Nigeria’s Twitter ban could affect businesses," Techpoint, 2021. [Online]. Available: https://techpoint.africa/2021/06/05/nigeria-twitter-ban/. [Accessed 09 June 2021].

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