June 7, 2021
The Nigerian government has decided to put an indefinite ban on the use of Twitter, just two days after an offensive tweet by President Muhammadu Buhari was removed by the platform with a 12-hour suspension of his Twitter account.
Ironically, the ban was announced via a tweet by Nigeria’s Ministry of Information and Culture on Friday, prompting ridicule in the replies. The statement reveals the reason for the ban to be “the persistent use of the platform for activities that are capable of undermining Nigeria’s corporate existence.”
Mere hours after the announcement was made, the ban went into effect after the Association of Licensed Telecommunication Operators of Nigeria (ALTON) was instructed to suspend access to Twitter. Any Nigerian who tries to circumvent the ban will be prosecuted.
Nigerians didn’t take long to find a solution—VPN services. The phrase “thank God for VPN” was trending in the country, as stealthy users joked about tweeting from Atlanta, Dallas, or the UK. This is, of course, a reference to the ability of VPNs, such as Surfshark and NordVPN, to hide and change one’s location on the internet.
Although ALTON is the one suspending access, the association has expressed its support of the right to online and offline communication.
Nigerians Fight Back
According to an NOI poll from 2019, 20% of Nigeria’s population uses Twitter. This number isn’t that different from the US, where 23% of its adults used the microblogging network in 2020 if recent stats are to be believed.
As Twitter is (was?) prominently used among Nigerians, the backlash is immense, with many pointing out the blatant breach of the freedom of expression.
In a reply to the announcement, lawyer and human rights activist Festus Ogun said, “Banning @Twitter violates S. 22 & 39 of the 1999 Constitution. Twitter seems to be the only medium through which we hold the reckless regime of Buhari responsible. We will resist the attempts to ban Twitter in Nigeria.”
Some organizations have gone a step further and decided to take action. The Nigerian Bar Association is threatening legal action if the ban is not lifted immediately, with its president—Olumide Akpata—stating that the ban takes away “the right of Nigerians to freely express their constitutionally guaranteed opinions through that medium.”
Adding to the legal threats is SERAP—a civil society group from Laos that has announced a planned lawsuit against the Nigerian government.
Nigeria’s Love-Hate Relationship With Twitter
Nigeria’s relationship with Twitter has certainly changed, as it used to be a key asset in Buhari’s presidential campaign. As a candidate with autocratic antecedents, he used social media to rebrand, improve his image, and increase his winning odds—a campaign which ultimately came to fruition.
After Twitter announced that it had chosen Ghana to house its first African base in April, Minister of Information Lai Mohammed—the head of the ministry behind the ban—aired his frustration with Nigeria not being chosen. He blamed the citizens for criticizing their country and lamented that the “headquarters in Nigeria would have created the kind of visibility it would have given Nigeria but we destroyed it.”
Only two months after this statement, it seems that Mohammed himself has closed the door to future collaborations with Twitter. At least in the near future.