Nothing speaks to a time like this in Nigeria better than a Yoruba adage that could be considered obscene, so I crave the indulgence of readers: “Ohun tí a ni kí òkóbó bọ, kò ni bọ ibe; ó ní ohun lè bọ igba abẹrẹ lójú orun.” (An impotent man would leave what he was asked to ‘attend to’ and begin to tell tales of how he could, even with his eyes closed, thread a needle two hundred times without a single miss).
That is the only way to describe last Friday’s suspension of Twitter in Nigeria by the federal government. At a period when the country is bleeding on all fronts—with the life of an average Nigerian becoming worthless and means of livelihood disappearing for the majority—the microblogging and social networking service should be the least concern of the federal government. For almost two months now, the justice administration has been paralysed by the strike of judicial workers, with Nigerians practically left to self-help in the settlement of disputes.
Whatever may be the justification (and I will come to that later), it could not have escaped the attention of Nigerians that this ‘policy decision’ on Twitter came on the very day bandits killed 88 members of ‘Yan Sakai’ vigilance group in Danko/Wasagu local council of Kebbi State and injured nine people in Magami and Mayaba communities in Gusau local government area of Zamfara State. In a week in which more than 200 people, including policemen, were violently hacked down across the country and 136 students were abducted from Salihu Tanko Islamic School, Tegina in Niger State, one expected the federal government to be more serious.
All these challenges and many others, including last weekend’s mindless killings at Igangan, Oyo State, are enough to worry any administration. But the suspension of Twitter came as no surprise to me. I predicted a decision like this in my column last November. I also predicted what the outcome would be. Sadly, I have been proved right on both scores. Before I conclude with my intervention on the way forward, let me seek the indulgence of readers to rehash excerpts from that piece titled, ‘From EndSARS to Clampdown’.
…The clear message from that episode (the unprecedented stoppage of President Donald Trump’s live coverage by US major news networks and later removing the video from their platforms) is the responsibility the media has not only to hold people in power accountable but also to serve as a check on their excesses. Were such to happen in Nigeria under the present circumstances, the National Broadcasting Commission (NBC) that could penalize media houses for covering street protests would likely contemplate their permanent closure for “unprofessional coverage” of a presidential broadcast.
Since 2017, Information and Culture Minister, Alhaji Lai Mohammed has been obsessed with the idea of regulating or banning social media from the Nigerian landscape. He has only just added television stations to the brief. “When we went to China, we could not get Google, Facebook, and Instagram. You could not even use your email in China because they made sure it is censored and well regulated,” Mohammed said last week while rationalizing the federal government decision to ‘regulate’ social media.
Here are facts about the strict internet restrictions in China that the minister may not be aware of. In China, there are indigenous companies such as Alibaba for e-commerce (i.e. Amazon), Baidu for search engine (i.e. Google), Weibo for microblogging (i.e.Twitter) while WeChat is their own response to WhatsApp. To counter YouTube, China has Tudou and Youku. And in case the Information Minister does not know, TikTok with which young people all over the world send short-form videos originates from Beijing. So, beyond the issue of ‘national security’, there are hundreds of billions of dollars in financial gains and millions of local jobs accruing to China for its decision on Western social media. China knows what it is doing. On the contrary, to shut out these apps in Nigeria (assuming we have the capacity) will send hundreds of thousands of our young people out of jobs and deny them the creativity that sets our country apart on the continent. And to contemplate that in a post-Covid world will be suicidal.
Beginning from October 2000 when I covered the first Sino-African conference in Beijing, I have been to China eight times and on no occasion was I unable to access emails. Besides, while China may have ‘banned’ Western social media platforms, they are not inaccessible in the country. So, if the idea is to spend billions of Naira to acquire obsolete gadgets to jam social media in Nigeria, it will be a waste of time and money. The generation of Nigerians that the Information Minister is dealing with are decades ahead of him. Perhaps the country he has in mind is North Korea which by the way I also had the privilege of once visiting. But since he is focused on China, let me break that down: Using a virtual private network (VPN) that is available for free download, anyone can bypass the Chinese ‘Great Firewall’ and the same will happen in Nigeria. VPN not only masks internet protocol (IP) address making online actions virtually untraceable, it configures phones to show a different location. It is therefore an open secret (and the authorities in the country are quite aware) that Twitter, WhatsApp, and the likes are easily accessible and are accessed by smart people, even in China! Next time the Honourable Minister is going to Beijing he should consult me…
While I wrote the foregoing seven months ago, I am also aware of ongoing conversations around the world about social media platforms and accountability. In the specific case, Mr Daniel Bwala, a United Kingdom based lawyer said to be a member of the All Progressives Congress, (APC), has made the most coherent argument for the federal government. According to Bwala, Twitter rebuffed requests to take down incendiary posts by Kanu, despite how it reacted to similar situations in other countries. He cited as example the August 2011 threat by then British Prime Minister, David Cameron to do “whatever it takes” (including shutting down Twitter, BlackBerry and Facebook) to restore order in London and other cities after days of riots, widespread destruction, looting and death.
Following the deletion of President Buhari’s tweet, Bwala claimed that the attention of Twitter management was drawn to multiple tweets that were inciting violence. “Twitter responded by saying they reviewed it and did not find that those tweets violated their rules. So clearly, by that indication, Twitter expressed and demonstrated bias. Hence the government of Nigeria decided that Twitter must respond to the takedown request or Twitter will be suspended. Twitter never honored the request of Nigeria,” he said.
Bwala did not help his case with the claim that President Buhari was treated with disrespect, by citing a widely circulated fake tweet (@muhammadubuhari, we don’t know who you are or the country you lead. We came across a tweet that violated our rules, and we decided to take it down) to make the point. Bwala then accused Twitter CEO, Jack Dorsey of showing personal interest in Nigeria. “He participated at the EndSARS protest sometime in October last year by retweeting a tweet that was made to generate funds for the protest. He is not a Nigerian; he has no basis to participate in any protest in Nigeria…”
Whatever may be the merit of his argument, Bwala missed important points. One, the factor of timing. The suspension of Twitter followed the deletion of a presidential tweet. So, it was seen largely as a response to the bruised ego of one man. Two, no due process was followed prior to such an important decision being taken. India that Bwala cited has been in discussion with Twitter since February and as at today, Indians still tweet. Three, this decision will hurt the economy and impact negatively on jobs, especially for our young citizens. On Tuesday, the Nigerian Economic Summit Group (NESG) weighed in on the implications of Twitter suspension saying, “small businesses that engage in digital trade will be gravely affected, raising further concerns on unemployment, poverty, insecurity and our economic attractiveness.” Four, the recourse to VPN by many Nigerians have now multiplied negative stories about our country to their new ‘virtual abodes’. Besides, with VPN, we may also witness a spike in internet fraud. Five, Twitter suspension is just the culmination of the attempt to gag the social media that started a few months after this administration came to power in 2015 with the ‘frivolous petitions’ bill, which prescribed jail terms and $10,000 fine for ‘offensive’ social media posts and was only withdrawn after widespread public criticism. Six, if the idea is to copy and paste what happens in China, then we must do it right. In a special report titled, ‘Leveraging Location amid Global Disruption: Which Economies Showed the Most Digital Progress in 2020?’, a recent Harvard Business Review edition stated: “China is a noteworthy outlier in this group: Its digital evolution is significantly higher than that of all other economies, due in large part to its combination of rapidly growing demand and innovation.”
In my November 2019 column, ‘Lai Mohammed and the Social Media’, I highlighted challenges with the social media and how many countries are dealing with them. I concluded that what the federal government should understand is that a nation divided along partisan, sectarian, geo-political and ethnic lines is a breeding ground for hate speech and the weaponisation of falsehood masquerading as alternative truths. As it is now quite evident, the technology of social media only makes it easier for a thousand lies to multiply. But the war against Twitter is a needless distraction.
At this period when there is an urgent need to concentrate energy in dealing with serious national challenges, fighting Twitter is akin to behaving like the proverbial impotent man. But it is also becoming typical of the current administration. From national security to the economy, we hardly see any sense of urgency when it comes to dealing with these challenges. But the moment Twitter deleted just one paragraph of a presidential statement that was already widely disseminated, that became the only priority on the federal government’s agenda.
While Twitter is just one of many readily available social media platforms, it happens to be the only one I use, essentially to send out my column and trade banters. So, I can do without it. But people like me who play at the margins of social media are few. The suspension will affect the livelihoods of many of our young people who depend on it for e-commerce, even though I also understand that Instagram is the platform of choice. The challenge of course is that the federal government is becoming increasingly intolerant and may be using Twitter to test the waters for a total clampdown on social media. That is where the danger lies.
Meanwhile, the conversation for tech companies to take responsibility for their content, especially to curb fake news and hate speech, is ongoing, including in Western countries with liberal views on freedom of expression. If that is what the federal government is saying, then it must be more strategic and ensure that our young people are carried along regarding intention. In fact, alienating our young people is counter-productive in the circumstance. We should not forget that this entire controversy began with the security challenge in the Southeast. The problem is still there.
On Monday, the Brigade Commander of 34 Artillery Brigade in Imo State, Brigadier-General Raymond Utsaha, accused the Eastern Security Network (ESN) established by the Indigenous People of Biafra (IPOB) of killing at least150 security operatives and civilians in the South-east zone. “Within these few months, they have killed 78 police officers, 38 army officers, five naval officers, seven air force officers, 15 civil defence officers, 31 community policing members. Over 100 innocent citizens and civilians who decided not to support the IPOB/ESN or refused to pay them money were also killed and properties worth billions of naira destroyed”, said Utsaha. “With this staggering number of casualties, no serious government will stand by and watch the life of security personnel and its citizens to be destroyed. Survey reports show that 80 per cent of the security personnel killed are from the eastern part of the country.”
These, no doubt, are shocking disclosures. Ordinarily, Nigerians will support the federal government in its effort to stop the ongoing mindless violence in the Southeast. But considering claims by IPOB/ESN that they are not the “unknown gunmen”, the Twitter conversation does not advance the cause of the federal government. We need a thorough investigation that will unearth those responsible and bring them to justice. No matter how well intentioned, a time when you need to rally all citizens to confront a serious national security threat is not when you assault the freedom of young people and their livelihood. You only play into the hands of your enemies.
The federal government should understand that critical stakeholders are becoming increasingly worried about the country. Yesterday in Abuja, at the instance of Bishop Matthew Hassan Kukah, I ‘gatecrashed’ into a high-level consultative meeting on ‘the state of the nation’, jointly convened by John Cardinal Onaiyekan and the Sultan of Sokoto, Muhammadu Sa’ad Abubakar III. It was a tripartite meeting of three platforms: The Interfaith Initiative for Peace, National Working Group and the National Peace Committee. Aside the two conveners and Kukah, others in attendance included former Head of State, General Abdulsalami Abubakar, Etsu Nupe, Alhaji Yahaya Abubakar, Emir of Keffi, Dr Shehu Chindo Yamusa III, as well as Dr Usman Bugaje, Prof Jibrin Ibrahim and a few others. In his opening address, Onaiyekan said that “in the midst of the cacophony of discordant voices (in the country), the government has done little to come out with a clear conversation to offer some clarity and explanation for why certain things are happening that ought not to happen in a modern civilized state.”
I encourage the federal government to find a sensible way out of this Twitter mess. Given my own experience, I can picture what is going on within government circles right now. But the hawks must not be allowed to win this argument. As I recounted in my book, ‘Power, Politics and Death’, the closure in 2009 of Channels television (over a fake report about the president’s resignation) was one of my most difficult periods in office as presidential spokesman. When my late principal called a meeting on the issue and announced it was at my instance, I received the support of the then Secretary to the Government of the Federation, Alhaji Yayale Ahmed who always had my back. But the man who tilted the scale in favour of reason was the then Director General of the State Security Service (SSS), Mr Afakriya Gadzama, a thoroughbred professional who enjoyed healthy debate (where is he now?). I am aware that there are many people in this government who feel uncomfortable with the suspension of Twitter. This is the time to whisper to all ‘constituted authorities’.
That Kanu’s incendiary tweets were taken down is already a win which also means that Twitter will be more alert to such posts in future. The federal government has therefore made its point. I believe Twitter too must have learnt significant lessons. The tacit involvement of its CEO in the EndSARS protest was a wrong judgement call. EndSARS was a good cause, but the story is now not just about the tragedy at Lekki. There was also the destruction that Lagos is yet to recover from, and the attack on police stations (including arms carted away) and killing of several police personnel after the protests had been hijacked by hoodlums.
It is important for the federal government to be more strategic on two fronts: timing of its actions and being aware of unintended consequences—in this case, how it has allowed a legitimate concern about the alleged activities of IPOB/ESN to degenerate into an attack on a region and later, a war on freedom of expression. In all of these, it is important to have a strategic exit—the point at which you take your victory and move on. That point is now, and should not be allowed to slip away. Information Minister said yesterday that Twitter management was seeking “high-level discussion” to resolve the issue. This is good.
While Twitter should indeed have held Kanu accountable for his tweets (as it has belatedly done), there is a higher burden on President Buhari on this issue. Even if we discountenance all the arguments about fundamental rights and laws, when the young citizens of any country are barred from socializing openly, you heighten the sense of hopelessness and push them into the numerous underground spaces that are also available, including online. When that happens, you lose the opportunity to monitor or moderate discussions. That is a dangerous place to be for a country like Nigeria.