The recent lifting of the ban on the micro-blogging site, Twitter, by the Federal Government came as a huge relief to millions of Nigerians. The Chairman of the Technical Committee, Nigeria-Twitter Engagement and Director-General, National Information Technology Development Agency (NITDA), Kashifu Inuwa Abdullahi, who announced the cheery development, said President Muhammadu Buhari approved the lifting of the ban with effect from January 13, 2022. According to him, the approval followed a memo the Minister of Communications and Digital Economy, Prof. Isa Ali Ibrahim Pantami, wrote to the President requesting approval for lifting the ban based on the recommendations of the Technical Committee, Nigeria-Twitter Engagement.
The Federal Government had suspended the operations of Twitter in Nigeria in June 2021. The suspension came when the social media giant deleted a post by President Buhari which reportedly violated its policy. Specifically, the President had made reference to the civil war while warning the Indigenous People of Biafra (IPOB) against some violent conduct. He had warned that people like him who went through the war would treat IPOB members in the language they understand. Some angry Nigerians who felt insulted by the comment reported the post to Twitter.
The seven-month ban on Twitter had elicited angry reactions from many Nigerians. A group like the Socio-Economic Rights and Accountability Project (SERAP) and 176 other concerned Nigerians even dragged the Federal Government to the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) Court of Justice in Abuja. They claimed the suspension of Twitter was to intimidate and stop Nigerians from using the medium to assess government policies, expose corruption and criticise acts of official impunity by the agents of the government. Even during the ban, many Nigerians circumvented it by using Virtual Private Networks (VPN).
In lifting the ban, which spanned 222 days, the Federal Government gave some conditions that Twitter must meet. The conditions, it said, addressed legal registration of operations, taxation and managing prohibited publication in line with Nigerian laws. According to the government, “Twitter has agreed to act with a respectful acknowledgement of Nigerian laws and the national culture and history on which such legislation has been built and work with the government and the industry to develop a Code of Conduct in line with global best practices, applicable in almost all developed countries.”
Nevertheless, a group like SERAP has written the President, asking for a copy of the agreement with Twitter. It also asked Buhari to widely publish the details of any agreement. According to SERAP, publishing the agreement would enable Nigerians to scrutinise it, seek legal remedies as appropriate, and ensure that the conditions for lifting the suspension of Twitter are not used as pretexts to suppress legitimate discourse.
Be that as it may, the long ban imposed on Twitter was needless and ill-advised. It portrayed the country in a very bad light and presented it in the mould of such countries as Russia, North Korea and China where freedom of expression is usually suppressed.
Nigeria belongs to a global community and cannot operate in isolation. The former President of the United States, Donald Trump, was similarly banned by Twitter for making some incendiary comments when he was President. The envoys of the United States, United Kingdom, European Union, Canada and some other countries condemned the ban at the time and urged Nigeria to rescind it.
It is estimated that Nigeria lost over N2 billion everyday that the ban lasted. For the seven months, the loss amounted to over N500 billion. Twitter has gone beyond just being a communication outfit. It is also a marketing tool and millions of Nigerians depend on it not just to access and disseminate information but to also sell their products. Many Nigerians were shut out of business during the ban.
All things considered, government should not repeat such an action in the future. Going forward, it is hoped that both parties have learnt lessons from the ban. The President’s communication should be delivered without creating unnecessary controversies. Government must not be hasty in taking decisions that will harm the business interests of Nigerians. Let it tolerate opposing views.
Twitter, on its part, should ensure fairness in setting its standards. Part of the complaints of the Federal Government was that the site initially failed to pull down some acerbic tweets by the leader of IPOB, Nnamdi Kanu, as it did that of Buhari. However, It later took action against Kanu. References were also made about the role of the social networking site in the #EndSARS protests that rocked the country in 2020.
At all times, our government should remember that Nigeria is a signatory to many international conventions such as Article 9 of the African Charter on Human and People’s Rights and Article 19 of the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights. We must respect these conventions as well as Section 39 of the Nigerian Constitution, which states that every person shall be entitled to freedom of expression, including freedom to hold opinions and to receive and impart ideas and information without interference. Let government desist from acts that tend to undermine these basic freedoms.