Alvaro Dominguez for BuzzFeed Messages
On the morning of June 5, 23-year-old Farida Garba * opened her Twitter app and found that she, like 39 million other Nigerian Twitter users, could not access the platform.
“Tweets stopped loading and it took me an hour to find out what happened,” Garba * – who chose this pseudonym for her personal safety – told BuzzFeed News.
Just the day before, Nigeria’s government announced that it would cease Twitter operations in the country, ironically via the Twitter account of the Federal Ministry of Information and Culture. On the day the ban went into effect, the Association of Licensed Telecommunications Operators of Nigeria, which represents all telecommunications companies and service providers in the country, confirmed that its members had received orders from the federal government to suspend access to Twitter for all network users.
The government called the ban “temporary” but did not specify how long it would be in place. Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari, who was asked about the future of the ban in a rare interview, remained closed and said he would keep the schedule to himself.
Michael Kappeler / dpa via Reuters
Nigeria’s President Muhammadu Buhari
To many, the ban’s announcement appeared to be a response to Twitter’s decision to delete a tweet from Buhari that was described as violating the app’s “abusive behavior” rules. His account was also blocked for 12 hours.
The controversial tweet threatened to treat rebel groups believed to be behind recent attacks on security agents in southeastern Nigeria with violence reminiscent of that during the Biafra-Nigeria civil war from 1967 to 1970. Buhari’s message, a direct quote from a speech he gave, met with criticism and many raised the alarm about the potential harm it could cause to a country that continues to grapple with ethnic rivalries and separatist tensions by those who want to break away from Nigeria and restore an independent state of Biafra.
In response to the deletion of the tweet, the Minister for Information and Culture, Lai Mohammed, held a press conference in the capital, Abuja, in which he described Twitter’s activities in Nigeria as “suspicious” and accused the platform of setting an “agenda” to have.
Days later the ban was announced and quickly passed without consulting the legislature, leaving many Nigerians in disbelief.
Since then, few people have been able to access Twitter through virtual private networks to bypass the restriction. The government also stated that anyone who circumvents the ban will be prosecuted.
In the West African country, social media has played an important role in enabling citizens to voice their opinions and openly express their frustration with the government outside of election cycles. In October 2020, the microblogging platform was instrumental in sustaining the #EndSARS protests against police brutality, which lasted more than two weeks before ending in a massacre of at least 12 people by the military.
Before the brutal end of the # EndSARS movement, Twitter helped protesters organize donations, secure donations, allocate resources and keep protesters in touch on the ground and online. When the Nigerian central bank blocked donations to nearly two dozen bank accounts in connection with the protests on federal orders, Twitter founder Jack Dorsey signaled his support for the demonstrations by tweeted that Nigerians should accept Bitcoin as an alternative.
Many Nigerians believe the ban is also, in part, retaliation for Dorsey’s actions during the fall protests.
Pius Utomi Ekpei / AFP via Getty Images
A man carries a banner during a demonstration in Ojota, Lagos on June 12, 2021, as Nigerian activists called for nationwide protests against President Muhammadu Buhari’s government’s recent ban on Twitter.
“The protests started and gained a lot of momentum thanks to social media,” 23-year-old journalist Eniafe Momodu told BuzzFeed News. “It was probably the first time many of the elderly Nigerians, including most of our government officials, really understood the power and impact of social media.”
But even before #EndSARS, the Nigerian government, under the administration of Buhari, had been trying hard to impose restrictions on social media. In 2019, the Anti-Social Media Bill was proposed to criminalize the use of social media to “spread false or malicious information”. The law was rejected by members of the public who started petitions while calling it an attempt to keep the population under surveillance and was eventually killed.
Previously, in 2015, less than a year after Buhari took office, another now withdrawn law called the Frivolous Petitions (Prohibitions) Bill was introduced. The proposed law threatened up to seven years in prison or a $ 25,000 fine for anyone found guilty of “disclosing false information that could endanger the security of the country.”
Twitter bans and threats of prosecution are illegal under the Nigerian Constitution, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights, human rights lawyer Ridwan Oke told BuzzFeed News.
“They’re all talking about the same thing, which is the right to freedom of expression. They are inalienable rights, ”said Oke.
Several human rights organizations have spoken out against this ban, with the Socio-Economic Rights and Accountability Project taking the federal government to the court of the Economic Community of West African States, with 176 worried Nigerians joining the lawsuit.
Airbus’ innovative in-flight quarantine concept
Delta Variant: What to Know For Summer Travel
The Delta Variant Could Create “Two Americas” Of COVID,…
The move to block Twitter was backed by former US President Donald Trump, who suggested that he should have done the same during his tenure, accusing social media platforms of “not allowing free and open expression”.
It would be difficult to quantify how much this ban affects the millions of people who consider Twitter to be an important resource. Nigerians we spoke to have shared that they feel angry, scared, or anxious and most say they are still incredulous.
“When the ban was announced, I was scared that something bad was going to happen and we couldn’t get any help,” Olapeju Jolaoso, a 28-year-old business owner, told BuzzFeed News. “My first customers weren’t on Twitter. Now I’m just scared of tweeting from my business account; I am afraid that they will bother me. It’s more scary because you can’t predict their next actions, ”she continued.
On top of her frustration, Jolaoso, who had a network of vendors on Twitter, had to move her online business activities to other apps like Telegram and Facebook.
But the benefits of Twitter also come from the security and community it provides for women and queer people – both highly marginalized groups in the country. Somi, a non-binary trans woman from Nigeria, thinks this ban is a major disadvantage.
“Twitter is a place where I made friends and community,” said the 19-year-old, who is currently crowdfunding her medical switch. “To seek advice and encouragement without judging from the outside world. I was here [used my voice] and I got all the help I needed. “
For 21-year-old queer liberation activist and author Ani Kayode Somtochukwu, the potential impact on LGBTQ Nigerians who see social media apps like Twitter as escaped is enormous.
“For us, social media isn’t just about the convenience of organizing – it’s also about security. We cannot legally assemble without being targeted by the law, ”he said.
In Nigeria, showing affection for members of the same sex is a criminal offense that carries a 10-year prison term.
Somtochukwu also said that if the ban continues, LGBTQ Nigerians will suffer.
“It will mean loss of community, loss of access to sometimes life-saving information, loss of access to help in times of need,” he said.
For Nigerian women, Twitter has been helpful in fighting inequality and the increasing violence against them. Campaigns like the Yaba Market March, which fought against the culture of groping and sexual harassment, have found their lives on Twitter.
“This has become a space for mutual opportunity, a place where we speak out against violations of our rights, offer emotional support, etc.,” said PR consultant and activist Ebele Molua. “We strive to find a way to sustain ourselves in a society that does not care about human rights and the progressiveness of marginalized groups.”
Nurphoto / NurPhoto via Getty Images
Protesters hold banners during a citizens’ demonstration in Gani Fahweyinmi Park, Ojota District, Lagos, Nigeria, on June 12, 2021.
Experts suspect that Nigeria will lose a lot with this ban. According to NetBlocks’ Cost of Shutdown Tool, Nigeria loses just over $ 6 million every day when Twitter is inaccessible. The consequences include damaging the nation’s reputation as a democracy, said Adeboye Adegoke, a senior program manager at the Paradigm Initiative, which advocates digital inclusion and digital rights in Africa.
“The incumbent government in Nigeria has already proven several times that it does not believe in democratic ideals,” said Adegoke. “Movements like this scare off investors. So there is definitely this FDI (Foreign Direct Investment) impact that hopefully we can measure so that we can actually determine what has potentially been lost. “
For many Nigerians, there seems to be no end in sight.
“I don’t think the ban will be lifted anytime soon,” Cheta Nwanze, one of Nigeria’s political thought leaders and senior executive at SBM Intelligence, told BuzzFeed News.
“This particular government has a track record of duplicating bad ideas … I sincerely hope I’m wrong, but I see this ban through election season.”
It looks like young Nigerians have got into conflict on the way forward. Some of the sources we’ve spoken to have no idea what’s next and just choose to wait and see the ban. “I am very afraid of a protest because these people have killed us before, [and] they will probably do it again, ”said Garba.
Others, however, looked forward to taking to the streets again for protests such as those held on June 12 to mark Nigeria’s Democracy Day. The demonstrations, which took place in different parts of the country, were largely peaceful, but were faced with a heavy presence of the Nigerian police. The officers did not hesitate to use force and violence, some used tear gas while arresting others.
Molua said she doesn’t think “Nigerians can be patient much longer.”
“October awakened something in us insofar as it shook us to the core,” she said. “It has shown us that we have one voice and can ask more of our leaders when we go with one voice, and I hope that [can] actually brings us victory in the end. ”●