Nigeria’s Twitter ban has a lesson for big tech


Nigeria’s Twitter ban removes 40 million users

Last week, Twitter found itself on the wrong side of the Nigerian government when it deleted a tweet from President Muhammadu Buhari sounding about the country’s precarious security situation.

“Many of those who behave badly today are too young to be aware of the destruction and loss of life that occurred during the Biafran War. Those of us in the fields for 30 months, who have been through the war, will treat them in the language they understand ”, Buhari wrote in the now deleted tweet.

During the war between the federal government and the secessionist state of Biafra (1967-1970), a government blockade resulted in massive famine. Buhari’s veiled threat to today’s separatists in the south went against Twitter’s rules against abusive behavior.

In response to Twitter’s action, Buhari’s government banned the platform indefinitely, cutting an estimate 40 million Nigerian users. Ironically, the Ministry of Information and Culture announced the decision in a Twitter thread. He also said that all other social media operations and services, such as streaming and chatting, must be licensed by the National Broadcasting Commission. Those who violate the ban on Twitter could face pursuit.

Twitter has long angered Buhari and his government, even though the president has an active account with 4.1 million followers. Last year, #EndSARS activists used Twitter to organize mass protests and raise awareness for their cause. After Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey tweeted in support of the move, Buhari called for stricter regulation of the company.

Focusing on Twitter also provides a practical distraction from the deteriorating security situation in Nigeria. Kidnappings from schools have increased, with bandits moving into the field of jihadist groups to obtain ransoms. Pastoral violence continues in the north, as does resource violence in the south.

Time travel. Nigerians are already using VPNs to bypass the ban and bypass compliant telecommunications networks. For some citizens, the repression on freedom of expression recalls Buhari’s tenure as a military dictator in the mid-1980s, when his regime attacked the press and arrested critics. His comments on the Biafran war, in which up to 2 million people died but have yet to be fully considered in contemporary Nigeria.

Digital authoritarianism. Nigeria’s extended ban serves as a lesson to social media companies around the world. Although Twitter cited freedom of speech as the reason for choosing Accra, Ghana, over Lagos for its headquarters in Africa, the proximity to Nigeria, Africa’s most populous country, was intentional.

As Torinmo Salau wrote in Foreign police last week most of Twitter’s jobs in Accra focused on business development in Nigeria. (June 5, Twitter expressed concern on the ban and pledged to “work to restore access” to Nigerian users.)

And as Kọ́lá Túbọ̀sún wrote in Foreign Policy this week, the ban on Twitter portends future difficulties under Buhari. The president could use this decision to further erode the rule of law and citizens’ rights, especially for young people. Twitter is in talks with the federal government to restore service, raising questions about whether the company is relaxing its strict violation policies for Buhari.

The decision then falls to Twitter: will he maintain his stance against violations of policy – even by the president – or subject him to the anachronistic tactics of an increasingly repressive government?