This article was commissioned by the OPTF to as part of a project to encourage more writing on digital rights issues. Adenike Fapohunda is a candidate attorney who did her final year thesis on the Nigerian Twitter ban. Her writing can be found at https://medium.com/@nikefapohunda
On the 5th of June 2020, The Federal Republic of Nigeria joined a list of countries that have banned the social media application Twitter . The government justified this ban by claiming that it was necessary to protect the Nigerian state from the proliferation of anti-government political activity on and off the app. It also claimed this ban was necessary to protect peace and security in Nigeria.
Nigeria is not the first country to take unilateral action to block access to Twitter with China, Iran, Turkmenistan and North Korea imposing widespread social media bans that stop their citizens from accessing the site . In our global world, Twitter has become a battleground for political squabbles by allowing citizens to keep their governments accountable in a more direct way than traditional democratic infrastructure . This has resulted in many countries both on and off the African continent banning and interfering with its use during politically tumultuous times .
Nigeria also joins a list of states who have engaged in a retaliatory campaign against social media companies. India and Turkey both restricted access to Twitter for enforcing disciplinary measures against their leaders or for allowing a proliferation of anti-government sentiment .
Amidst an international reckoning with the effect of big tech on our democracies and societies, Nigeria’s complete ban of the app, which could be bypassed only by using a VPN, has led the non-government organisation litigation in the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) court . Evidently, the Nigerian Twitter ban is not unique, however the litigation surrounding the implementation of the ban has led to it being deemed the Bellwether case for the Right to Twitter in ECOWAS. Depending on the outcome, it could determine how governments in the region ought to interact with social media companies and what rights govern their relationship.
The Nigerian Twitter ban is of significance for many reasons. Firstly, it brings to the fore important questions about human rights — particularly the right to freedom of speech. From a regulatory standpoint, the Nigerian Twitter ban is an important case study into possible regulation of the digital economy on the African continent.
However, for the people of Nigeria, the Twitter ban had long lasting implications on their right to freedom of expression in more ways than one.
Nigeria implemented the Twitter ban when the social media platform applied its content policies and made the decision to delete tweets by Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari as well as restricting his access to the application . The decision came after a slew of tweets in which he reminded “those misbehaving today”, a group of pro-Biafra separatists who had engaged in political activity ranging from protest to arson, to remember the atrocities of the Biafran civil war . Many users reported the tweet, arguing that this threat constituted hate speech — and ultimately Twitter’s regulatory body agreed .
However, it is necessary to look at the climate of Twitter-Nigeria relations prior to Twitter’s finding that there had been a violation, which was essentially the straw that broke the camel’s back. It is important to note that the Twitter ban came on the heels of the 2020 #EndSars protests in which thousands of young Nigerians mobilised and organised the largest anti-government protest in recent history against police brutality primarily through the microblogging application . The ban was also implemented by a government which has long been hostile to social media, specifically Twitter, with many prominent state officials claiming that the application is only useful for spreading separatist propaganda and promoting insurgency .
Nigeria has since lifted the ban but the the implications for average Nigerians were twofold. They were deprived of their right to the internet and the offshoot of this deprivation was that they lost their right to protest. This is because twitter was vastly the mechanism through which Nigerians coordinated not only the protests but the legal and medical aid in response to the protests. After the protests twitter had become an indisputable asset to the Nigerian civic space. Twitter is also a place where Nigerians can engage in political discourse without the traditional gatekeeping.
The banning of Twitter occurs in a global environment of increased internet censorship, both on and off the continent . There has been an upwards trend in regulation of online freedom, with many countries, including those with tolerant laws that promote freedom of speech promulgating legislation that allows for the banning of specific content . or even attempts to end online anonymity such as has been seen recently in the United Kingdom .
However, Twitter, as with all social media, plays a very personal role in the lives of Nigerians. It is a place where they can meet in community, laugh, complain, vent and share their thoughts. The government’s choice to deprive its citizens of this was yet another reminder that the rule of law is amenable to the needs of the ruling elite and not something that is equally enjoyed by all citizens.
Twitter was also an important part of Nigeria’s economy with some people using it to find remote work or sell products, many Nigerians, much like people in other countries without universal health care, have even used twitter to fundraise for their medical expenses.
Nigeria ranks quite low in terms of journalistic freedom, with Reporters Without Borders scoring it 129 out of 180. This makes social media an essential tool for journalists and grassroots activists, especially those who cover underreported areas like the parts of Northern Nigeria affected by the Boko Haram insurgency, to share information to the general public. By banning twitter, the state not only drastically affected the meme supply chain, but they also removed one of the platforms through which vulnerable people can access help.
The suspension also negatively affected many small and medium sized businesses who used the platform to communicate with their customers. It goes without saying that social media personalities and influencers were also severely affected by the ban.
Nigeria, like all modern democracies, faces the uphill battle of ensuring that the news and information that is posted on twitter is not “fake news”. The rise of online disinformation is something that cannot be understated when mentioning the innumerous ways social media and Twitter has changed our world. In fact, the proliferation of false information was one of the justifications stated by the Nigerian government for the ban.
This complicates the narrative, on the one hand the Nigerian government like other governments should be able to implement restrictions on large social media companies, as has been done in countries like Germany. However, the line that it failed to tow was providing justifications for these restrictions and affecting them through laws that have gone through the democratic process. Without these crucial steps, how could the ban be seen as anything other than a clamp down on legitimate dissent?
The Twitter ban was lifted after the tech company agreed to certain conditions including establishing a local office in Nigeria and being sensitive to national security concerns. However, at the time of writing, the case against the government is still being considered by the ECOWAS court.
At the time of writing, the case lodged against the Nigerian government is still in the ECOWAS high court. However, the Twitter ban has now been lifted — with the caveat that Twitter will meet certain requirements set out by the Nigerian government. This is not truly a win, because the Nigerian state has continually banned first and negotiated later; engaging in the wholesale banning of any tech companies they disagree with before taking steps to engage with and regulate them.
For the citizens of Nigeria, it seems that all has gone back to normal. However with rising inflation, high unemployment rates and continuous fuel scarcities, it remains to be seen whether the calm brought through the Twitter ban will be long lasting.
- Al Jazeera News ‘Court restrains Nigeria from prosecuting Twitter users: Activists’ available at https://www.aljazeera.com accessed on 25 November 2021.
- Joe Walsh ‘Nigeria Has Banned Twitter- Along With These Other Countries’ available at https://forbes.com accessed on 10 November 2021.
- Nwachukwu Egbunike & Noel Ihebuzor ‘Twitter as a Tool of Political Discourse in Nigeria: Dialogue, Self-Aggrandizement or Party Politicking?’ in (2018)
- Walsh op cit note 3.
- Newley Purnell ‘Facebook, WhatsApp and Twitter Face New Rules in India’ available at https://www.wsj.com accessed on 6 October 2021.
- Op Cit note 1.
- Helen Nyambura ‘Nigeria Lifts Twitter Ban With Limits After Four-Month Sanction’ available at https://bloomberg.com accessed on 11 November 2021.
- Kian Vesteinson ‘Nigeria’s Twitter Ban Is a Bellwether Case for Internet Freedom’ available at https://www.justsecurity.org accessed on 25 November 2021.
- Jeffrey Conroy-Krutz ‘Nigeria’s Twitter ban could have a long-term economic impact’ available at http://qz.com accessed on 11 November 2021.
- Chris Ewokor ‘Nigeria’s Twitter ban: The people risking arrest to tweet’ available at https://bbc.com accessed on 15 November 2021.
- Jonathan L Zittrain et al ‘The shifting landscape of global internet censorship’ (2017) Berkman Klein Center Research Publication
- Ruth Smeeth ‘There’s no case for ending online anonymity’ available at https://www.telegraph.co.uk accessed on the 26 October 2021.