It is quite amazing how quickly the government of Nigeria can descend into international disrepute following the threat made by President Muhammadu Buhari against people in the South-East. Astonished by the threat, Twitter quickly deleted the incendiary post. By threatening the South-East, by revisiting ghoulish images of the Biafran civil war of 1967-1970, Buhari demonstrated lack of sensitivity.
It’s alright for a President or Prime Minister to talk tough but the address must not deploy threatening language. The latest incident appeared intended to reopen the wounds of a genocidal civil war that ended 51 years ago. With Buhari, there seems to be no closure to the atrocities committed during that civil war that blighted Nigeria’s image, which is perhaps why he decided to play back, for public consumption, the ugly images of that civil war.
In one week, everything about the government has spiralled out of control. In retaliation over Twitter’s deletion of Buhari’s comment, the government took to vengeance by announcing a ban on Twitter operations in Nigeria, whatever that meant. It is one thing to announce the banning of Twitter but the greater challenge lies in its implementation. How does Information Minister Lai Mohammed aim to execute that retrogressive action? The government’s action is clearly symbolic of the deteriorating environment in which Nigerian citizens reside.
While other countries are using and harnessing new technologies to improve the socioeconomic conditions of their citizens, Nigerian government officials are desperately looking to invent ways to prevent the citizens from accessing and using technology. Different countries, different priorities.
Unfortunately for Lai Mohammed and his team of official censors, history will undermine their schemes. Nowhere in the world has any government effectively blocked people’s access to the Internet and social media. Each time authorities in a country roll out laws to ban access to the Internet or social media, the citizens always found a way to circumvent the laws. At one stage during the popular uprisings in North Africa in 2011, the Egyptian authorities cut off the Internet in a move to disrupt protest organisers from mobilising demonstrators against the government of Hosni Mubarak. Unfortunately for the Egyptian government, the protest leaders were always one step ahead.
In this age of digital technology, the government will find that it cannot stop youths who are technologically savvy from accessing and using Twitter, the Internet and other social media. A tit-for-tat action directed at Twitter will backfire against the Buhari government.
Banning Nigerians from accessing or using Twitter will endanger Nigeria’s interests in various ways. It will hurt businesses and discourage foreign investment in the country. The decision will affect secondary school and university students and teachers. The media will feel the impact even more. Freedom of the press will be severely constrained in that environment. That action by the Nigerian government will confirm to the rest of the world the tyrannical and vengeful nature of the government.
The decision to ban Twitter has other wider ramifications for the country. Nigeria is a signatory to international laws, treaties, conventions and agreements. By banning Twitter, Nigeria would have infringed on its international obligations, one of which is Article 19 of the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights that guaranteed everyone, regardless of their country of residence, religious faith, socioeconomic status, ethnicity, race, gender, age and so on the basic right to access, consume and disseminate information through any channel.
Specifically, Article 19 states that: “Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.”
Inherent in Article 19 is the protection of human rights through the rule of law. While the rule of law may have eluded Nigerians through the policies, actions and inactions of the government, the government must be reminded of its duty to honour its international obligations.
One of the good things about democracy is that every country chooses what model to practise and what types to ignore. In some countries, politicians develop a mock imitation of the original form of Western democracy. Undoubtedly, this is the current brand of democracy that exists in Nigeria. And it is for this reason that our democracy has become the subject of ridicule and late-night comedy shows in overseas drama theatres and nightclubs. The kind of democracy that exists in Nigeria has key similarities with military dictatorship.
Consider, for one moment, the language with which Buhari threatened the people of the South-East. That chilling threat exposed clearly the ugly underbelly of the government, the high level of insensitivity and the repressive style and intentions of the government. How can the government expect to unify the country by using unacceptable language to “whip anybody who misbehaves into line”, as Femi Adesina, Special Adviser (Media and Publicity) to Buhari, justified Buhari’s threat?
In a true democracy, there will be no need for an elected President to “whip anyone into line” if there is respect for rule of law and respect for citizens’ rights, if the country has fair and just laws that are recognised by citizens and effectively implemented by the government, and if the government has a policy of inclusiveness. The government cannot discriminate against people in a particular part of the country, deny them their rights, marginalise them in federal appointments and then block their right to complain or criticise the government. A proverb says you cannot beat a child and prevent that child from crying.
Since the attainment of political independence, Nigeria has been swinging between lawlessness and order. It uses unprecedented brutish force against its own citizens. Past and present governments demonstrated a preference for use of hard, and sometimes, insulting language against the people. In the past few weeks, soldiers and policemen and women have been committing atrocities by shooting erratically at people in the South-East who did not commit any crime. Sometimes, private homes are invaded and youth removed, tortured, stabbed endlessly and shot at. All these are happening in a country that claims it is a democracy but prefers to use disproportionate military and police force to coerce and “whip people into line.”
The real test of the Federal Government’s commitment to law and order, equity and justice would be revealed by how quickly the government takes similar high-handed actions to deal with growing insecurity in the North. This is the region in which bandits and Boko Haram terrorists have made life difficult and painful for ordinary people.
Nigerian political leaders seem to endorse an unwritten rule which states that power, undiluted and rotten power, belongs to soldiers and police personnel who wield the gun. It is this kind of mindset that drives extrajudicial killings of citizens in the South-East under the direction of the government. The impression, therefore, is that it is all right for security forces to shoot and mow down people without fear of prosecution.
People in the South-East are trapped. The cold-blooded murder of innocent people in the region, documented by human rights groups, foreign and local media, will be used as evidence to prosecute the perpetrators and their officials who sent them on their macabre mission. No one should be deluded to think that government officials and security forces are above prosecution by the international court. Various groups have sent out warnings, including Amnesty International, the Nigerian Bar Association, foreign diplomats in Nigeria and human rights organisations. The day of judgment is coming.