Nigeria turned off Twitter. Nigerians ask, what now?

Afolabi Sotunde/Reuters
A man crosses a street opposite the Nigerian Communications Commission headquarters in Abuja, Nigeria, June 5, 2021. Last weekend, the national government suspended Twitter's operations in the country.

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Nigeria is the latest country where Twitter has become a political lightning rod, with citizens caught up in a larger debate about free speech on social media. Incensed by Twitter’s removal of a presidential post, which the company deemed threatening, the government cut off access last weekend.

Around the world, Twitter critics have accused the platform of censoring politicians’ speech. Yet Nigeria’s move to silence Twitter, after its central role in recent protests, has raised fears about wider freedoms in Africa’s most populous country.

Why We Wrote This

Debates about free speech online are increasingly pitting social media sites against politicians. Will everyday citizens wind up paying the price?

The spat did not come out of the blue. With a bulging, ultra-connected youth population, Nigeria has some of the most engaged Twitter users in Africa. Amid increasing insecurity and unemployment, the country’s youth have wielded the platform as an accountability weapon, calling out politicians in scathing tweets – and making government officials jittery about the sheer power of the social media site.

“This ban targets mass movements as young Nigerians have used Twitter to organize, crowdfund, and create global awareness in the past,” says activist Rinu Oduala, a leading voice in last year’s #EndSars protests against police brutality. “If the Nigerian government can suspend Twitter now, then it can even try to suspend the internet during elections. I won’t put it past them.”

Days after Nigeria suddenly banned Twitter, the country’s netizens say they are bearing the brunt of a battle between big tech and government.

Nigeria is the latest country where Twitter has become a political lightning rod, with citizens caught up in a larger debate about free speech on social media. Incensed by Twitter’s removal of a presidential post, which the company deemed threatening, the government cut off access last weekend for the country’s users – estimated to be about 1 in 5 Nigerians.

“The effect is so bad,” says Chinonyelum Nnaji, who sells thrift clothing for men online, and did most of her business on Twitter. “There’s the frustration of having clothing and not a single person buys it from you. I was close to tears yesterday.”

Why We Wrote This

Debates about free speech online are increasingly pitting social media sites against politicians. Will everyday citizens wind up paying the price?

Around the world, Twitter critics accuse the platform of censoring politicians’ speech with its much-debated decisions to remove or label posts containing false information or threatening language. Yet Nigeria’s move to silence Twitter, after its central role in recent protests, has raised fears about wider freedoms in Africa’s most populous country, particularly with general elections in two years’ time.

“This ban targets mass movements as young Nigerians have used Twitter to organize, crowdfund, and create global awareness in the past,” says activist Rinu Oduala, a leading voice in last year’s #EndSars protests against police brutality. “If the Nigerian government can suspend Twitter now, then it can even try to suspend the internet during elections. I won’t put it past them.”

Twitter tension

The West African country’s information minister, Lai Mohammed, announced Twitter’s indefinite suspension the evening of June 4, citing “persistent use of the platform for activities that are capable of undermining Nigeria’s corporate existence.” By the following evening, users found that they could no longer access the platform.

The blackout came two days after Twitter deleted a tweet by President Muhammadu Buhari, saying the post violated its policy against “abusive behavior.” In it, Mr. Buhari – a former army general who led troops during the country’s civil war in the late 1960s – had threatened to crack down on young people from the southeast agitating for greater recognition and secession.

Officials have blamed recent attacks on government buildings in the region on Biafran separatists, whose push for independence set off the civil war. “Those of us in the fields for 30 months, who went through the war, will treat them in the language they understand,” the president tweeted.

Facebook took down a similar post made by Mr. Buhari, but its site remains accessible.

In a statement Saturday, a presidential spokesman called Twitter’s suspension “temporary,” and said it was a response to several problems in addition to the tweet’s removal, including misinformation. 

While this is the first time Nigeria has disrupted an internet service, there have been several past attempts to rein in social media. A proposed bill currently sits with parliament after it was met with huge outcry last year. If passed, the law would hand out a three year prison term or fine to anyone sharing information that the government deemed false.

Nigeria’s spat with Twitter did not come out of the blue. With a bulging, ultra-connected youth population, Nigeria has some of the most engaged Twitter users in Africa. Amid increasing insecurity and unemployment, the country’s youth have wielded the platform as an accountability weapon, incessantly calling out politicians in scathing tweets – and making government officials, many of them much older and less technology-savvy, jittery about the sheer power of the social media site.

Siphiwe Sibeko/Reuters/File
Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari speaks at a news conference during a visit to Pretoria, South Africa, Oct. 3, 2019. Last week, Twitter deleted a post of Mr. Buhari's, saying that it violated its policy on abusive behavior.

Things came to a head when thousands of Nigerians took to the streets last October to protest SARS, a police unit notorious for targeting and profiling young people, and which has been accused of extrajudicial deaths. Christened the EndSARS protests, the movement became so popular globally that marches were held from Boston and Budapest to Cape Town, and the hashtag #ENDSARS trended on Twitter USA.

When security forces cracked down hard on protesters, the world watched on Twitter and Instagram. And when celebrities started to lend their voice to the movement, Twitter founder Jack Dorsey did too, riling government officials further.

A global trend

Debates about whether to delete politicians’ social media posts have swirled in several countries recently, including the United States and India. Meanwhile, internet censorship is becoming increasingly common in repressive regimes, particularly during uprisings, protests, and elections. Senegal, Uganda, and Chad are among African countries that have disrupted social media sites or internet services this year alone. Thirty of the continent’s countries have blocked social media in some way since 2015, according to a report by Surfshark, which provides virtual private networks (VPNs).

As Nigeria’s 2023 election approaches, there are fears of more repressive tactics reminiscent of the country’s 21-year-long military rule. Over the weekend, local investigative platform FIJ reported that officials from China are in talks with the Nigerian government to create an internet “firewall” to enable deeper digital surveillance and internet blocks. Officials have denied the report.

So far, Nigeria’s government has resisted calls to restore Twitter access from nongovernmental organizations and foreign governments, including the U.S. The “decision to ban and prosecute those who continue using the platform is a blatant and unjustified restriction on civic space and people’s rights to information through social media,” says Anietie Ewang, the Nigeria researcher for Human Rights Watch. “The ban follows what appears to be a pattern of attacks aimed at muzzling free expression. Authorities should immediately lift the ban and ensure people in the country can access [Twitter] without restrictions or fear of reprisal.”

For now, many Nigerians are circumventing the ban by resorting to VPNs. Downloads shot up this week by 1,409%, according to the United Kingdom tracking site Top 10 VPN – despite government threats to arrest those who breach the ban. A recent directive has also targeted the press, banning television and radio stations from sharing their stories on Twitter or using it to report.

But ordinary Nigerians are likely to continue bearing the brunt of the ban. In a country with high unemployment rates, many young people have taken to trading on sites like Twitter and Instagram. And already, business owners say, the ban is taking a toll.

“Twitter is the source of my livelihood,” says Ms. Nnaji. “I don’t have a physical store yet and even if I did, I would not be able to reach the people I’ve sold to in different parts of the country [as fast]. The government needs to lift the ban as soon as possible.”

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