“Freedom of speech used responsibly online and offline, and access to reliable information are fundamental human rights protected by Nigeria’s Constitution and cornerstone of democratic life around the world. These human rights should be fully protected while preventing inflammatory rhetoric and hate speech that could fuel tension and conflict”
Canadian High Commissioner to Nigeria
“Don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater”
While just recovering from the declaration that Nigeria is a failed State by the United Council of Foreign Relations (CFR), the news of an indefinite suspension of the operations of Twitter, the microblogging and social networking service, in Nigeria, on Friday, 4th June, 2021, came as a massive shock to the Nigerian social media world, the country at large and even to the international community. Nigerians never saw the reaction of the government coming in this dimension, but here we are today without twitter (officially) on the internet space of Nigeria. Prior to the suspension of twitter in Nigeria, twitter had deleted a tweet of the President, made on Wednesday, 2nd June, 2021, which according to them violated their rules.
A twitter spokesperson in reaction to the President’s tweet, stated that the post was in violation of the twitter Rules and the said tweet was immediately removed. Obviously, the retort of twitter to the deleting of the President’s post did not go down well with the Presidency and in reaction to this, the government, through the Ministry of Information, while accusing twitter of double standard, declared that the microblogging company was suspended indefinitely from the Nigerian internet space. According to the Information Ministry, this is because of the persistent use of the platform for activities that are capable of undermining Nigeria’s corporate existence. This announcement to suspend the operation of Twitter within the Nigerian internet space was further published via the already suspended twitter by the Special Assistant to the President (Media), Segun Adeyemi, Office of the Minister of Information and Culture.
A cursory look at the action of the Nigerian Government, shows that it has exercised an authority it ‘believes’ it has the power to exercise. However, the Nigerian government failed to realize that the overreaching effect of this action is doing more damage than good to Nigeria and Nigerians. The Presidency would probably not have suspended twitter if its post had not been deleted. The action of the government, to say the least, is quite myopic, hasty, emotion loaded, unnecessary and adverse to the Nigerian populace and the Nigerian economy. This action is already placing Nigeria in a bad light, especially on the global watch.
The President Buhari led administration should know that this unfortunate suspension placed on twitter does not shelve the government from criticism whatsoever, instead it has only opened up the government and the country at large to stronger criticisms, as a country where human rights are being violated. The repercussion of this grave act by the Nigerian Government is massive and self-destructive. The earlier the government retraces its steps and accept that it acted out of emotions, the best it would be for the government and for Nigeria. This is not the first time the tweet of a President will be deleted. As a matter of fact, several tweets by former US President, Donald Trump, were deleted on the grounds that they violated the rules of the company, yet heavens did not fall. The American government did not suspend the operation of the organization whether temporary or indefinitely.
Embarrassing reactions to the ban on Twitter in Nigeria.
Reactions to the suspension of twitter in Nigeria has been embarrassing, though expected to say the least. As at the time of publication of this article, the United States, Canada, Sweden, America, UK, the republic of Ireland and Global Amnesty Watch (GAW) have expressed disappointment over the action of the government.
We have referred to the tweet of the Canadian High Commissioner to Nigeria in our catch phrase at the beginning of this write up. The Global Amnesty Watch (GAW), also described the decision of the Federal Government as the height of impunity and intolerance to criticism. The Country Representative of the Organization, Mr. Terrence Kuanum in an interview stated thus:
Twitter did not come to Nigeria because of President Muhammadu Buhari, so his decision to suspend the operation of Twitter in Nigeria is the height of impunity and intolerance to criticism.
The British Deputy High Commissioner to Nigeria, Gill Atkinson, also lend her voice to the Nigerian situation. In her tweet, she stated thus:
“All Nigerians have the right to freedom of speech and the responsibility not to misuse that right. Any action taken by Government must be measured, proportionate and not suppress basic freedoms.”
The Sweden Embassy to Nigeria in a terse post vide its twitter handle noted that Nigerians have a constitutional right to exercise their freedom of expression and a right to access of information. This must be respected.
“Safeguarding free, independent media and civic spaces is an important part of Sweden’s #DriveForDemocracy #TwitterBan”
In a joint statement by the diplomatic missions of Canada, the European Union (Delegation to Nigeria), the Republic of Ireland, the United Kingdom and the United States of America convey their disappointment over Nigeria’s announcement suspending #Twitter and proposing registration requirements for other social media.
They further stated that they strongly support the fundamental human right of free expression and access to information as a pillar of democracy in Nigeria as around the world and these rights apply online as well as offline. Banning systems of expression is not answer.”
Are all these reactions not embarrassing enough for Nigeria to immediately retrace its dictatorial, archaic and myopic decision?
On the effect of the suspension on twitter in Nigeria,
Firstly, the suspension of Twitter in Nigeria is a direct breach of the constitutional rights of the Nigerian citizen as enshrined in the 1999 Constitution, as Amended. The Constitution expressly guarantees the freedom of speech to its citizens. Section 39(1) of the Constitution specifically provides for freedom of speech to Nigerians. The section reads thus:
“39. (1) Every person shall be entitled to freedom of expression, including freedom to hold opinions and to receive and impart ideas and information without interference.”
The said section of the Constitution did not restrict the kind information that can be made. Now a suspension of the voice of Nigerians through twitter is a direct violation of the Constitution of Nigeria. And the Section 1(3) of the same Constitution had provided that were there is such inconsistency, this Constitution shall prevail, and that other law shall, to the extent of the inconsistency, be void. The act of the Federal Government of Nigeria cannot stand, even without invoking the powers of the judiciary to interpret the Constitution, the said “decree” ought to and should fall if the Federal Government must uphold sanctity and sacredness of the Constitution. In addition to the Constitution, Article 9(2) of The African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights (Ratification and Enforcement) Act Cap A9 Laws of the Federation of Nigeria 2004, to which Nigeria has fully subscribed,and enshrined in the Constitution provides that “every individual shall have the right to express and disseminate his opinions within the law.”
If the government of Nigeria believes that an expression of opinion or dissemination of opinion was not done within the ambit of the law, the government should deal with the expression and opinion and not the means by which the expression was made.
Secondly, the ban has placed Nigeria on a bad light before the international community rather than protect the country. The Ministry of Information had stated that twitter was suspended because of the persistent use of the platform for activities that are capable of undermining Nigeria’s corporate existence. Rather than achieve this purpose, the suspension has place Nigeria in the depraved public eye of the international community, where rights of Nigerians are being violated and there is no freedom of expression as there should be in a civilized society. To worsen the situation, a circular came out on Saturday, 5th June, 2021, wherein the Attorney General of the Federation directed the Director of Public Prosecution of the Federation (DPPF), to liaise with the Ministry of Communication and Digital Economy, National Communication Commission and other relevant government agencies to ensure the speedy arrest, and prosecution of Nigerians still using twitter, despite its de-activation of operation in Nigeria. This to my mind is a full stamp and stomp on the violation of the Section 39(1) of the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria and the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights (Ratification and Enforcement). The Attorney General of the Federation should know better, with all due respect to him and to the sacred office he holds.
Thirdly, the ban on the use of Twitter in Nigeria, places Nigeria on the same pedestal with the known dictatorial government in North Korea, the Communist government in China, Egypt, Turkey and Iran, where twitter has been banned for several years running. Particularly, the dictatorial government of North Korea is known to be one of the most ruthless, violent and brutal government on the surface of the earth. As part of its measure to gag and subdue its populace, especially in respect to its method of rulership, the North Korean dictator nearly shut down the entire internet system in the country in a bid to control the spread of information online. It is quite unfortunate that Nigeria now finds itself towing the same disreputable part and being categorized alongside North Korea as a country that limits access to the internet. It is quite pathetic.
Fourthly, this is a continuous attempt by the Federal Government, to gag the media and subject it to only what is approved by the government or what paints the government in good light.
Fifthly, the ban on twitter has already impacted negatively on the economic activities in the country. Millions of Nigerians source their income through various activities on twitter. This action of the government is definitely grounding all that. Many news platforms that leveraged on twitter to reach out to Nigerians would be suffering a shortfall by now. The telecommunication industry is also not left out because there would definitely be a dip in data revenue, which depend largely on their activities on twitter. An estimation from Netblocks states that Nigeria will lose N2.18 Billion per day for blocking the operations twitter. Adverts and commercials on twitter automatically ceases. New generation companies in Nigeria that do not have physical building anywhere in Nigeria have utilized twitter in running their online businesses, but are all on the verge of a near collapse, thanks to suspension.
Sixthly, against the tall order suspending twitter, the ingenious Nigerian populace are already devising techniques to still remain active on twitter in Nigeria, using other means, thereby rendering the proclamation of the government a huge joke and a direct stroke against the government’s directives. It would end up being an effort in futility.
While concluding on this issue, it is imperative that the Nigerian government can express its displeasure to twitter in a better way than throwing away the bath water and the baby. After all, the very Federal Government that banned twitter, was also a user and is also affected by the suspension. Now, everyone including the government suffers the unfortunate effect of the suspension. Has the government done well or further deepened the overgrown disbelief in its potency among Nigerians in the last few months? The government should not block a flowing river in the middle and expect it to stop. The water will definitely find its way, they should block the source. The Government should deal with the Nigerian problem and not try to fight the product of a failed system. As long as we fight the product, we will have more products to fight.
In conclusion, the tweet of the Canadian High Commissioner, used as the catch phrase of this write-up, speaks volume on this issue. The concluding part of the tweet says “These human rights should be fully protected while preventing inflammatory rhetoric and hate speech that could fuel tension and conflict”. The government can prevent inflammatory rhetoric and hate speech, the government can take steps to report to twitter and other social media outlets, any speech, write up, video or audio that is “capable of undermining Nigeria’s corporate existence” instead of shutting up everyone, including itself. We are at some very dire times in Nigeria at present. Shutting down the voice of the average Nigerian would be counterproductive, they will only shout louder and cause more havoc than imagined. Government definitely do not know the impact and place that social media, especially twitter plays in the lives of millions of Nigerians and the livelihood that is generated from being in this platform. A decision like this can only further weaken the fragile legs of the Nigerian economy. If the Federal Government of Nigeria is trying to control or manage the use of twitter and other social media devices, a total suspension of its operation is never the solution to the problem. Water would always find its course. The frustrations of Nigerians would be let out, one way or the other.
Will the Buhari led administration learn and retrace their steps?
May God save Nigeria.
Akintayo Balogun Esq., LL.B (Hons), BL, LL.M, is a legal practitioner in private practice and based in Abuja, FCT. A prolific writer, public affairs analyst and commentator on national issues.