The suspension of Twitter came after the platform deleted the Nigerian President’s tweet. But the beef between Nigeria and Twitter is nothing new.
There are ministers in Nigeria, senators, the house of representatives. There are traditional Chiefs, Emirs, Ogas and then the elite who accumulated immense power through economic wealth and political influence for decades. Below the pyramid of wealth, there are millions of youth who struggle to thrive due to lack of infrastructure, education and resources in Nigeria, which has the world’s highest number of people living in extreme poverty.
Over the years, digital platforms have become a safe haven for young people in Nigeria where, away from harsh economic realities and mismanagement, they promote their businesses, build connections, find jobs and freely express their political views.
But those digital platforms, particularly Twitter, have become “a constant source of headache” for the government, Nigerian columnist Gimba Kakanda told TRT World.
"Both historic #OccupyNigeria protests of 2012 and the 2020 #EndSARS protests, which disrupted Nigeria, were initiated on Twitter. This meant the platform has become a threat [for the government]," Kakanda said.
The Twitter ban
The Nigerian government in an unexpected move decided to shut down Twitter last Friday, only two days after the social media giant deleted a tweet by President Muhammadu Buhari that threatened secessionist groups in the southeast who carried out attacks on government offices in recent months.
“Many of those misbehaving today are too young to be aware of the destruction and loss of lives that occurred during the Nigerian Civil War,” President Buhari said in the now-deleted tweet. Those “who went through the war, will treat them in the language they understand.”
President Buhari participated as a commander in the devastating civil war in the 1960s between the Nigerian state and the self-declared Republic of Biafra based in southeastern Nigeria.
Perceived as a threat of genocide against the Igbo ethnic group who make up the majority in the southeast, the tweet was deleted by Twitter who said it violated its “abusive behaviour” policy.
Information Minister Lai Mohammed said the government had acted because of "the persistent use of the platform for activities that are capable of undermining Nigeria's corporate existence".
In a statement, Justice Minister Abubakar Malami said anyone who defies the ban and continues to tweet will be immediately prosecuted.
According to Kakanda, the ban isn’t because of the removal of the President’s tweet.
“The Nigerian government has always found Twitter complicit in attempts to destabilize the country…In the government circle, the platform is marked as an agent of anarchy and serving an evil purpose,” he said.
Controlling the digital space
Since 2015, the Nigerian government has been toying with the idea of regulating the country’s social media and internet. The anti-social media bill proposed in 2015 went as far as suggesting the death penalty for those found guilty of hate speech. The bill was withdrawn but it was re-introduced again in 2019 in the senate.
In the wake of popular social media-driven protests last year which shook the country, the information minister Mohammed called for full control of social media to combat fake news.
”They mobilised using social media. The war today revolves around two things: smartphones and data,” the minister said.
“If we don’t regulate social media, it will destroy us”, he said.
There is an intention behind the government’s attempts to control the digital world, Dr Leena Koni Hoffmann, an associate fellow of Africa Programme at Chatham House.
“The current suspension of Twitter is an important part of the Nigerian government's efforts to clamp down on public criticism which often moves from online mobilisation to offline action like street protests,” Hoffmann told TRT World.
“Social media has offered young people in Nigeria platforms to connect and organise in ways that the government struggles to control and co-opt so the status quo of unaccountability can continue”.
Last April, Twitter chose Ghana’s capital Accra to be its first African office and not Lagos, even though Nigeria has more Twitter users - 40 million - than the entire population of Ghana.
Missing the opportunity to host one of the biggest tech companies, information minister Mohammed was understandably not happy with the decision. He claimed the company had been influenced by media misrepresentation of the country, including the deadly shooting at the protest site in Lagos that made headlines across the globe. Rights group Amnesty International said soldiers and police shot dead at least 12 people last October during largely peaceful protests against police violence. The military and police deny the allegations.
Shocked by the immediate effect of the decision, Nigerians woke up last Saturday to realise that the platform was inaccessible. But the effectiveness of the decision to prevent Nigerians from using Twitter is an open question.
“Thank God for VPN” was trending on Nigerian Twittersphere on Saturday. In a matter of hours, YouTube videos and Twitter threads which explain how to download and use “VPNs”, the virtual private networks which enable users to hide their online identity and location, were extensively shared across the country. Many Nigerians managed to access the platform to express their worries about suppressing the right to free speech in Africa’s biggest democracy of nearly 200 million people.
“The ban on Twitter is not surprising to most because social media is the last place Nigerians have to express themselves freely and hold the government accountable,” Rinu Oduala one of the leading voices behind the End Sars Movement told TRT World.
“They don’t like Twitter,” Oduala said referring to government officials because Nigerians are able to question the government policies, organise movements and create crowdfund through the platform, she believes.
A political force
It’s crystal clear: Twitter has become an influential political force in Nigeria, particularly during the anti-Sars protests last October.
Those protests were triggered by the murder of a man by the Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS), a police unit notorious for kidnapping, extortion and torture. While the police force announced the dissolution of the unit, it was too little and too late for protestors who were sceptical of the dissolution given as it had been banned four times before.
The decentralised, youth-led leaderless protest movement spread like wildfire within and outside Nigeria, with an unprecedented level of organisation and mobilisation through Twitter.
The sustained protests, with a snowball effect, had become an outlet for angry and frustrated youth whose dreams had been shackled by the economic crisis, lack of infrastructure, governance crisis and insecurity.
As millions of tweets sent across the globe, the #ENDSARS hashtag found its place on the top trending list in many countries including the US and UK.
As the protests quickly became a top story in international newsrooms, the world witnessed how a Twitter hashtag transformed into a huge weeks-long street protest which shook the foundations of Nigeria, a milestone that became a tipping point for a generation of young Nigerians.
The political shift was evidently clear. Young people were used to being told “keep your head down and play by the rules” by their parents, who experienced successive brutal military regimes in the 1980s and 1990s and eventually made a living by aligning existing ethnic, religious and political lines.
On the other hand, Nigeria’s youth - under 30 years with a median age of 18 - make up more than half of its population. Having no memories of dictatorships or military regimes, young Nigerians began speaking up without fear of reprisal and tapped into digital tools to be heard and seen by the older generation who hold power.
Their anger and frustration represent a disruptive force. Last year’s protests were nothing but a powerful reminder for the political class that they were sitting on a powder keg.
During the violence following the protests in Lagos, the youth trashed the palace of the highly respected Oba, the traditional ruler of Lagos, dragging his throne around, looting his possessions and swimming in his pool.
But the impact of a Twitter ban on the youth would not be limited to the political arena. Nigeria has the largest number of people in poverty in the world, with the unemployment rate among 15-34 year-olds around 35 percent in 2020
To escape this harsh reality, young Nigerians connect, conduct businesses, find employment and start their careers through social media. Twitter has helped young people in Nigeria leapfrog the country's severely limited and fragmented physical infrastructure, Hoffmann said.
“It is a digital platform that has been a crucial link in the operations of millions of small and medium-sized enterprises, it allows the kind of business competition that gives consumers options which leads to innovation and better products and services,” Hoffmann said.
The economic impact of the suspension of Twitter is immense. NetBlocks, an internet watchdog, has estimated that each day of the shutdown will cost around $6 million.
Geoffrey Onyeama, Nigeria’s Minister of Foreign Affairs on Monday said that Twitter’s operations in Nigeria would be restored only if the platform would be used “responsibly,” without mentioning a date for the suspension of the ban.
Nevertheless, armed with their VPNs, the Nigerian youth continue to tweet with the #KeepIton hashtag.