Nigeria’s government versus Twitter

[FILES] A journalist sources for information with a smartphone on the internet at the Arise News in Ikoyi neighbourhood in Lagos on June 10, 2021. – Nigeria’s media and activists fear their country is slipping into repression after the government suspended Twitter in Africa’s most populous nation, where hyper-connected youth embraced the platform as a means of protest. The decision on June 11, days after Twitter deleted a remark from President Muhammadu Buhari, has already provoked an international outcry over freedom of expression and calls for protests online and on the street. (Photo by PIUS UTOMI EKPEI / AFP)

The latest on the needless and embarrassing saga of the Nigerian government versus Twitter is that the former has been served with the notice of hearing tomorrow in the case filed jointly by the Socio-Economic Rights and Accountability Project (SERAP) and 176 other concerned parties in the ECOWAS Court of Justice. They sued the Nigerian government for suspending Twitter operations in the country thereby denying the people’s universally guaranteed basic right to share and receive information.

This incident embarrasses Nigeria because, as a leading member state of the sub-regional body, Nigeria should not be one to be seen to pick such a quarrel with a foreign non-state entity. Furthermore, it is reasonable to expect that this country should not be dragged to a supra-national court as a violator of the globally recognised basic freedoms that, in any case, are first, enshrined in its own constitution and second, to which it has committed itself in many international documents, to protect.  

Reasonably handled, the matter of the Nigerian government versus Twitter was avoidable. Twitter deleted a post by President Muhammadu Buhari because his tweet that threatened to deal with anti-government agitators in the Southeastern part of Nigeria ‘‘in the language they understand’’ violated Twitter’s ‘‘abusive behaviour’’ policy.

Two days after, the Buhari government, not at all sensitive to the implications – legal validity, impact on information exchange and social interaction, economic cost and more, responded with the sledgehammer of suspending indefinitely, the operations of the micro-blogging platform that millions of Nigerians, including high government officials, use for real-time exchange of information. The government even considered prosecuting users of the platform.

The preponderance of opinion is that this government is mixing the personal concerns and interests of its high officials with the business of government as a manager of national affairs ultimately in the public interest, not the interest of officials.

Lai Mohammed, the minister of information, accused Twitter of supporting anti-government elements against the national interest. He said ‘‘we have found out that Twitter is actually the platform of choice for a particular separatist leader who resides outside the country and issues directives to its members to attack symbols of government authority…’’. He further accused Twitter of ‘‘helping to raise funds for the EndSARS protest’’ and of maintaining no corporate presence in the country whereby it may pay tax on the ‘billions’ it allegedly earns. It is obvious from these allegations that the move against Twitter is rooted in more than a deletion of Buhari’s alleged offensive tweet.  For example, the Nigerian authorities have apparently been smarting from Twitter’s choice of Ghana as its regional headquarters even though it has far more users of its service in Nigeria.

Nigeria may indeed have reasons to be unhappy with Twitter but did it explore any channel to formally lodge a complaint on any of the issues? If it has, it is not in the public domain. Mohammed said that social media platforms operating in Nigeria do not have offices here and do not pay taxes on what they earn.  ‘‘That is not the best practice globally and that is why (Nigeria is) insisting that, for you to operate in Nigeria, you must first be a Nigerian company and be licensed by the broadcasting commission.’’

The relevant question is why it took so long and also the Twitter action against Buhari, for the minister and his commission to go the way of global best practice? Is it an oversight or official dereliction? Legal practitioner  Louis Alozie rightly said that  ‘‘to have just remembered  that its operations are illegal only after Twitter deleted a hate speech and threat of genocide against a major ethnic group in Nigeria  calls to question the motive for such request for registration.’’

The simple deducible truth is that the circumstance, the context and the insensitivity of the ban of Twitter trivialises and damages whatever case the Federal Government may have with the consequence that it has very few voices to speak for it. Many across the social spectrum condemned the ban most importantly because it violates the rights of citizens to freedom of expression and freedom to receive and impart ideas and information without interference (s.39 of the 1999 Constitution). The U.S., the UK and a group of concerned foreign countries said that ‘‘free expression and access to information [is] a pillar of democracy …and these rights apply online and offline. Banning systems of expression…inhibit access to information and commerce at precisely the moment when Nigeria needs to foster inclusive dialogue…’’

There are indications that Twitter and the Federal Government are in discussion to resolve the disagreement. The Federal Government should negotiate quickly, an amicable resolution within the context of global best practices. Certainly, these platforms operate elsewhere and differences with host jurisdictions, inevitable once in a while, are sorted out without presidential aggrandizement.

All said the point must be made that Twitter has every right to set rules for the use of its facility. And whosoever wishes to enjoy that use should abide by its decision or face sanctions. Mohammed reportedly insisted on Buhari’s right to free expression. ‘‘Twitter may have its own rules; it is not the universal rule. If Mr. President, anywhere in the world, feels very bad and concerned about a situation, he is free to express such views.’’ The minister is right.  But Buhari can only ventilate his sentiments on the terms and conditions of the platform administrator. Or he can create his own platform with his own rules.

Regardless of the reasons put forward by Mohammed, it remains most strange, even ridiculous, except in a banana republic that tens of millions of legitimate users of a social media platform can be made to suffer a denial of service only because the president is aggrieved with the service provider. This is simply a case of using state power to avenge personal grouse. That is one embarrassment that the government measure has brought upon this country. Such muscle-flexing never happened even in the U.S. when President Trump was similarly sanctioned. Nigeria is bigger than, and the interest of its entire citizens vastly supersedes that of one man, no matter how highly placed. Leadership is about the collective good, not about the leader alone.

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