Shock and disbelief have greeted the announcement by the federal government suspending the operation of micro-blogging and social networking services, Twitter in Nigeria indefinitely.
Many experts also doubted the capacity of the government to enforce the purported ban as the platform was still active as at the time of filing this report.
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The federal government made the announcement yesterday via the verified Twitter handle of the Federal Ministry of Information and Culture, @FMICNigeria, which has over 263,000 followers.
The Minister of Information and Culture, Alhaji Lai Mohammed, who announced the suspension in a statement, cited the persistent use of the platform for activities that are capable of undermining Nigeria’s corporate existence.
The statement also noted that the federal government had directed the National Broadcasting Commission (NBC) to immediately commence the process of licensing all over-the-top media service and social media operations in Nigeria.
The announcement came days after Twitter deleted President Muhammadu Buhari’s tweet, in which he made a reference to Nigeria’s civil war of 1967 and its implications, in reference to the ongoing confrontation between the proscribed Indigenous People of Biafra (IPOB) and security agencies, which led to killings in the South-East.
The federal government had accused Twitter of double standards, claiming that the social media giant had conveniently ignored inciting tweets by Nnamdi Kanu and his cohorts.
President Buhari had, in a series of tweets on Tuesday via his verified Twitter handle, @Mbuhari, stated, “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. Those of us in the field for 30 months, who went through the war, will treat them in the language they understand.”
Following many complaints, especially by people from the South, Twitter deleted Buhari’s tweet, stating: “This tweet violated the Twitter rules.”
The video where the president made the speech, which was posted on the handle of the Ministry of Information and Culture, was also taken down by Twitter.
However, it is unclear if the federal government would also move against another social media giant, Facebook, which took down the same video on its platform yesterday.
“In line with our global policies, we have removed a post from President Buhari’s Facebook page for violating our Community Standards against inciting violence.
“We remove any content from individuals or organisations that goes against our policies on this platform,” Facebook stated on Friday.
The latest controversy comes less than 60 days after Twitter announced its decision to establish its African headquarters in Ghana instead of Nigeria because the country is “the champion of democracy, a supporter of free speech, online freedom and the open internet.”
NBA, SERAP, others react
A media consultant and senior lecturer in Journalism at the Lagos State University, Dr Tunde Akanni, said the announcement did not look real, lamenting that the government does not know how the digital space works.
“I feel that whosoever suggested the idea just wanted to entertain Nigerians. Do we have a bunch of entertainers in government? What does the ban mean? You are banning Twitter the same way Abacha proscribed Punch and Concord in those days? It doesn’t work like that. People in government don’t understand how the digital space works.
“Buhari is re-enacting Nigeria of 1984 when he was military head of state. I find it difficult to believe that it is true. I think it is sheer misinformation or disinformation, as the case maybe,” he said.
A media trainer and executive director at Media Career Development Network, Lekan Otufodunrin, said the decision was unfathomable, noting that there are other ways the government could have reacted to the decision taken by Twitter.
Also, a security risk management and intelligence specialist, Kabir Adamu, said the move was not a positive development and would not help the image of the country, especially for a government that has been accused of making an attempt to suppress a universally accepted freedom of speech.
Gbenga Olorunpomi, a former media aide to Governor Yahaya Bello of Kogi State and a member of the Buhari Media Centre declined comment.
A data scientist and analytics consultant, Blaise Aboh, said the government could enforce the suspension by issuing orders to internet service providers, ISPs in the country to limit access to the platform.
The founder of AI Envoy Robotics said the decision would be counterproductive as the government had several initiatives that leverage social media to enlighten citizenry on its activities and achievements. He said the decision would also affect the ISPs, which depend on the platform to engage their users and attend to their complaints, among others
In his reaction, a lawyer and social media analyst, Malachy Odo, said the minister of information had always been angry with Twitter, even before the removal of the president’s tweet, especially from the #EndSARS protest, which was organised and publicised with the platform.
He said the action of the federal government was mere rhetoric as the country had not devised another alternative to the social media application, adding that when the capacity to carry out the ban takes place, there are other VPN apps which Nigerians can use to bypass the ban, such as NordVPN 2, TunnelBear, HideMyAss, Hotspot Shield and ExpressVPN.
Meanwhile, the Nigerian Bar Association (NBA) and the Socio-Economic Rights and Accountability Project (SERAP) have threatened to challenge the decision in court, while describing it as illegal.
In a statement, the NBA president, Olumide Akpata noted, “The Nigerian Bar Association finds no constitutional or legal authority to support the peremptory action of the federal government to suspend the operations of Twitter in Nigeria and deprive Nigerians of their right to freely express their constitutionally guaranteed opinions. Beyond the dent on our constitutional democracy at a time when the Nigerian economy is unarguably struggling, the impact of arbitrary decisions such as this on investor confidence is better imagined.
“Consequently, if this decision is not immediately reversed, the NBA will have no choice but to challenge same in the interest of the public and our democracy.”
Responding to the likely abridgment of people’s freedom of expression, Abdulhamid Mohammed, a lawyer, said the rights under the law were not absolute.
“Most of these rights are not absolute. There are certain statutory restrictions that are imposed so that you can watch those rights,” he said.
He said the NBC had codes and statutory provisions, adding that in the exercise of freedom of opinion and right to expression, it must be within the limits of the law.
“Unless you feel that the action of the government in curtailing those rights is in breach of the constitutional provision, then you can go to court and say that your rights are being breached.
Bashir Ahmad, personal assistant on new media to Buhari, did not answer calls to his known telephone number.
But a former presidential aspirant and chief executive officer of IPI Solutions, Adamu Garba, praised the decision of the federal government to suspend Twitter
“Excellent! There should always be consequences for anyone threatening the peaceful coexistence of Nigeria,” Garba posted on his verified Twitter handle. He is also the founder of a local social networking site, Crowwe.
Twitter, international community react
Meanwhile, Twitter’s senior policy communications manager for Europe, the Middle East and Africa, Sarah Hart, noted in a statement that the company was looking into the situation.
“The announcement made by the Nigerian government that they have suspended Twitter’s operations in Nigeria is deeply concerning.
“We are investigating and will provide updates when we know more,” the statement reads.
The acting High Commissioner of Canada to Nigeria, Nicolas Simard, the Embassy of Sweden in Nigeria and Amnesty International, on Friday warned that the ban could violate the freedom of speech and access to information of Nigerians.
Abiodun Alade (Lagos), John C. Azu & Maureen Onochie (Abuja)