By Festus Eriye
Birds of a feather flock together. Last Friday, Nigeria joined the likes of China, North Korea, Myanmar, Iran, Turkmenistan and Turkey in blocking Twitter.
One thing common to these countries is repression and denial of citizens’ rights to freely express themselves or exhibit dissent.
In Myanmar, for instance, Twitter was blocked following widespread resistance to the February military coup that toppled the elected government of Aung San Suu Kyi.
It’s important to note that of 195 nations in the world today, just eight have taken this sort of action. It’s sad that a government that advertises itself as ‘progressive’ is the one behind this retrogressive move.
Much has been said about what the country loses daily while the ban subsists. But just as important is the danger posed to constitutionally guaranteed rights.
The immediate background to this saga is the deletion of President Muhammadu Buhari’s tweet where he threatened to deal with separatist groups “in a language they understand.” This was widely interpreted to be a reference to the Nigerian civil war of the late 60s.
A day after Twitter took down the post claiming it violated the platform’s rules, the hammer came down. Would government have acted out of the blues had the tweet not been deleted? I doubt it.
The president’s spokesman, Garba Shehu, has since stated that the sanction wasn’t just about Buhari’s tweet. He said the site had become a major channel for spreading misinformation and fake news and a threat to Nigeria’s corporate existence.
In reality, Twitter is just a microcosm of the internet which is itself an ocean of misinformation and fake news. So why not go the whole hog and ban the internet because it harbours things that are untrue or is abused by people whose intentions are malevolent?
Threats to national security and corporate existence cannot be limited to the activities of Nnamdi Kanu and his Independent Peoples of Biafra (IPOB) in the Southeast or the #EndSARS episode. The net must be spread to include the reign of bandits in the Northwest, the Islamist insurgency in the Northeast, killer herdsmen who have left their bloody imprint from Benue to Ibarapa and the legion of kidnappers who have blanketed our landscape.
Are we now blaming Twitter alone for all these evils that have overtaken our land?
In desperate defence of the government some argue that Nigerians may have a right to tweet, but no freedom is absolute. However, in making that argument they unfairly convict all 40 million Twitter users in the country of abusing the platform to undermine national security.
There are millions of small business owners, corporate organisations and government institutions all using the platform for positive ends. Within Aso Rock there are prolific tweeters who joyfully deployed the app to fight Buhari’s critics and other ‘enemies of state.’
Why should millions of innocent individuals and organisations be punished unjustly and stripped of their rights because of the sins of Kanu and #EndSARS promoters?
One big challenge with this ban is that a law or order you cannot enforce doesn’t qualify to be so called. In this instance there’s no specific legislation outlawing tweeting in Nigeria. There’s no Executive Order to that effect. Laws in this country are still made by the National Assembly, not the Presidency.
That didn’t stop Attorney General of the Federation and Minister of Justice, Abubakar Malami, from threatening to arrest and prosecute users of Twitter. But he’s about to discover that through the ages whenever people are confronted with unjust orders or laws they resort to civil disobedience.
Prominent Nigerians, anonymous ones, civil society activists and organisations, are openly defying him and tweeting. He has two options: one is to arrest people for using Twitter and worsen the government’s PR mess. The other is to do nothing – realising there aren’t enough jail houses to accommodate the dissidents in their numbers. Nothing is more embarrassing than when a government is made to look toothless.
There are also those who have emotionally argued that deleting Buhari’s tweet was somehow an insult to Nigeria. I disagree. Twitter is a private company with terms and conditions for using its platform. Our president doesn’t have to own an account on the site. This wasn’t a bilateral arrangement between two sovereign nations. He walked in with his eyes open and subjected himself to the imperfect judgment of Twitter administrators.
Let’s not forget that this same organisation shut down former US President Donald Trump’s handle. He didn’t jail the company’s executives for their action, neither did Americans moan about some supposed slight to their great leader.
This whole episode is damaging for the president because it stirs up all the old stereotypes about his past as a military ruler who took an axe to civil liberties.
It is equally damaging for the country. A nation that should be Africa’s democratic example by expanding freedoms has chosen the bad company of those who would limit them.
Little wonder that Twitter chose to site its Africa headquarters in Ghana despite Nigeria’s massive market and potential. Imagine if that facility had been located here at this time!
Imagine how the ban is presently playing before investors looking to place their resources somewhere on the continent. Imagine how much this helps when we make our next arms buying pitch to the same Western countries that have denounced the ban as undemocratic.
If the government were truly concerned about fighting misinformation the worst thing they could have done was to take down Twitter. The speed at which a naughty tweet goes out is the same speed at which a fact checking post neutralises it.
Love it or hate it there are very few platforms in the world today with the instant communication power of Twitter. What a shame that the government has ignored all its positives and thrown the baby out with the bath water.
For a regime run by politicians this administration has exhibited an incredible talent for alienating its support and acquiring enemies. The day before the ban there were millions of apolitical Nigerians who were largely indifferent to it; today they are furious that a part of their lives has been snatched away for less than convincing reasons.
But it isn’t too late for the government to craft a face-saving exit from the mess it has created.
At a time when it should be focusing on insecurity and economic challenges confronting the country, every day spent on this nonsense is a wasted opportunity.