Not many Nigerians saw it coming but it nevertheless came when, with a simple statement, the rights of Nigerians to share and receive information was violently curtailed in what has become the #TwitterBan.
The Minister of Information and Culture, Lai Mohammed jolted Nigerians back into the reality of what the administration of President Muhammadu Buhari has steadily become when he announced on Friday that the operations of the microblogging site have been suspended indefinitely, effectively placing over 30 million Nigerians who depend on Twitter for information sharing and digestion, and off course, the millions of young Nigerians who have found solace in Twitter for their entrepreneurial activities in the cold.
Mohammed, while announcing the suspension, accused Twitter of allowing its operations to be used for activities that were subversive and undermining the corporate integrity of Nigeria.
While not doubting that fake news and scaremongering have become part and parcel of the social media all over the world, banning the operation of Twitter shortly after it deleted an offensive tweet by President Buhari says more about its reasons than the stated.
Presidency’s Desperate Explanation
With the flurry of condemnation that trailed the announcement by the Information Minister, the Presidency, on Saturday, embarked on a futile attempt at explaining why Twitter operations were suspended, insisting that it has nothing to do with the deletion of Buhari’s tweet.
In a statement by Buhari’s Senior Special Assistant on Media and Publicity, Garba Shehu, the Presidency said Twitter operations were suspended because they are associated with misinformation and fake news spread through it, with real world violent consequences. It also added that the San Francisco based company had escaped accountability.
“The temporary suspension of Twitter is not just a response to the removal of the President’s post. There has been a litany of problems with the social media platform in Nigeria, where misinformation and fake news spread through it have had real world violent consequences. All the while, the company has escaped accountability.
“Nevertheless, the removal of President Buhari’s tweet was disappointing. The censoring seemed based on a misunderstanding of the challenges Nigeria faces today.
“President Buhari has therefore been warning against social media’s disruptive and divisive influences and the government’s action is not a knee-jerk reaction to Twitter’s preposterous deletion of his tweet which should have been read in full.”
Telcos Complaince, Veiled Disagreement
Following the pronouncement of the suspension, telecommunications companies in the country, also on Saturday, released a statement to the effect that they have started blocking access to Twitter, following a directive from the Nigerian Communication Commission (NCC).
The Mobile network operators under the aegis of the Association of Licensed Telecommunications Operators of Nigeria (ALTON) said this in a statement signed by its Chairman, Gbenga Adebayo and Executive Secretary, Gbolahan Awonuga.
“We, The Association of Licensed Telecommunication Operators of Nigeria wish to confirm that our members have received formal instructions from the Nigerian Communications Commission, the industry regulator to suspend access to Twitter.
“ALTON has conducted a robust assessment of the directive in accordance with internationally accepted principles.
“Based on national interest provisions in the Nigerian Communications Act, 2003, and within the licence terms under which the industry operates; our members have acted in compliance with the directives of the Nigerian Communications Commission, the industry regulator.
“We will continue to engage all the relevant authorities and stakeholders and will act as may be further directed by the NCC. We remain committed to supporting the government of the Federal Republic of Nigeria and upholding the rights of citizens”, ALTON said.
The telcos however, in the same statement, made a veiled disagreement with the suspension, agreeing that depriving Nigerians access to Twitter operations is a violation of their rights.
“As an industry, we endorse the position of the United Nations that the rights held by people offline must also be protected online. This includes respecting and protecting the rights of all people to communicate, to share information freely and responsibly, and to enjoy privacy and security regarding their data and their use of digital communications”, the operators said in solidarity with the Nigerian people.
Malami’s Martial Law
The nation’s number one law officer, Abubakar Malami again on Saturday, added to the brewing controversy when he ordered the immediate prosecution of Nigerians who violate the order of the Federal Government suspending Twitter operations in the country.
Malami, in a statement by his media aide, Umar Gwandu, directed the Director of Public Prosecution of the Federation to immediate start the prosecution of offenders.
“Attorney General of the Federation and Minister of Justice, Abubakar Malami, SAN has directed the immediate prosecution of offenders of the Federal Government ban on Twitter operations in Nigeria.
“Malami directed the Director of Public Prosecution of the Federation at the Office of the Attorney General of the Federation and Minister of Justice, to swing into action and commence in earnest the process of prosecution of violators of the Federal Government De-activation of operations of Twitter in Nigeria.
“Malami directed the DPPF to liaise with the Ministry of Communication and Digital Economy, National Communication Communication and other relevant government agencies to ensure the speedy prosecution of offenders without any further delay”, the statement read.
It is however still curious under what law Malami hopes to prosecute Twitter users in the country and if whatever law he hopes to use is superior to the Constitution of the country, which guarantees expressly, freedom of expression.
Malami must also be reminded that what the Federal Government did was to suspend the operations of Twitter in Nigeria. It did not, by any law or statute, forbid Nigerians from having access to the site. A mere pronouncement by Mohammed or directive by Malami, does not translate to a law that can bar Nigerians and effectively take away their rights.
Standing with the People – Minority Reps Caucus Example
The minority caucus in the House of Representatives has increasingly shown that it is standing with the long suffering people of Nigerians as it has continued to speak out against acts of the government adjudged to be against the interest of citizens.
The Caucus, in its reaction to the Twitter ban, said it was a violation of the freedom of speech and other democratic rights and tenets as provided by the 1999 constitution.
The caucus, in a statement on Saturday by the Minority Leader of the House, Ndudi Elumelu, said the suspension was “provocative, obnoxious and unjustifiable”, adding that the suspension also “smacks of intolerance, insensitivity and aversion to the views, opinions and aspirations of Nigerian citizens, especially the youth, on matters of state.”
The lawmakers said further: “Our caucus rejects this thoughtless decision of the Federal Government, which amounts to a clampdown and a direct infringement on the rights of Nigerians to free speech as guaranteed by the 1999 Constitution (as amended). It further shows the All Progressives Congress-led administration as one that is unwilling to listen to Nigerians but ready to use any means to suppress and subjugate its citizens.
“The minority caucus is disturbed that the suspension of Twitter in the country came after the social media platform deleted President Muhammadu Buhari’s tweets. Such response by the Federal Government has raised further concerns over the APC-led administration’s disturbing rating on issues of political intolerance, abuse of rights and violation of rules in our country.
“The minority caucus cautions that the development is capable of leading to further restiveness among Nigerians and worsen the situation in the country.”
Sanwo-Olu’s Words of Wisdom
Lagos State Governor, Babajide Sanwo-Olu is one governor not known for antagonist views or hard stand on any issue. In fact, he is known for always playing safe at all times on controversial National issues.
However, knowing the importance of the social media platform, Twitter to governance in the state and the role it has played in giving voice to the youths in Lagos and helped in enhancing their buisness interests, Sanwo-Olu could not afford to stay silent.
During an appearance as a guest on Arise TV on Monday, the governor lamented the ban placed on Twitter operations in Nigeria by the Federal Government, declaring that Lagos and its youths are already hurting from the ban.
According to him, the Federal Government can handle the Twitter imbroglio better, adding that the government can sign ‘rules of engagement’ with the San Francisco-based social media giant on Twitter usage in Nigeria.
He said: “People are losing money but there are also security issues. Let us be circumspect and not throw the baby away with the bathwater.
“Regarding the specifics around Twitter, I cannot sit down here with all of the responsibilities that I have and fly (sic) the commander in chief of the armed forces. He would have the prognosis and security information that I do not have. I cannot begin to say that was he’s done is right or wrong.
“What I see is that on both sides, there are issues that can be resolved between Twitter and the (Federal) Government and I think what they’ve done is not a ban but a suspension. So, in the period of suspension, let us sit down…we need to have that conversation with them (Twitter).
“In other climes, they sign some underlying agreements on the rules of engagement. I am not sure that is happening here. Having said that, the Federal Government can also handle things a lot better because of the number of e-commerce, because of the number of youths that are doing a lot of things on the internet and we cannot throw that away.
“I believe there could be better restrain and management from both sides. In the next one or two days, let us see that happen. Lagos is hurting, our youths are hurting, Nigeria is hurting, let us understand the issues and put it behind us so that we don’t politicise it.”
Gagging the Press
Following the suspension of Twitter operations, the National Broadcasting Commission (NBC) on Monday ordered all television and radio stations in the country to de-activate their Twitter handles and also directed them to discontinue the use of Twitter for User Generated Content (UGC).
The NBC order was conveyed in a statement by its acting Director General, Professor Armstrong Idachaba.
He said: “Consequent on the suspension of Twitter operations in Nigeria by the Federal Government over the persistent use of the platform for activities that are capable of undermining the corporate existence of Nigeria, the National Broadcasting Commission directs all Broadcasting Stations in Nigeria to suspend the patronage of Twitter immediately.
“In Compliance to the above directive, Broadcasting Stations are hereby advised to de-install Twitter handles and desist from using Twitter as a source (UGC) of information gathering for News and programmes Presentation especially phone-in.
“Section 2(1) r of the NBC Act entrusts the Commission with responsibility to ensure strict adherence to the national laws, rules and regulations. Also, Section 3.11.2 of the Nigeria Broadcasting Code provides that “the broadcaster shall ensure that law enforcement is upheld at all times in a matter depicting that law and order are socially superior to or more desirable than crime and anarchy.
“Attention is also drawn to section 5.6.3 of The Code which requires Broadcasters to be mindful of materials that may cause disaffection, incite to panic or rift in the society in the use of a user generated content (UGC).
“Note that it will be unpatriotic for any broadcaster in Nigeria to continue to patronise the suspended Twitter as a source of its information therefore strict compliance is enjoined.”
From the NBC statement, no law has been qouted that directly forbids the use of Twitter or any other social media platform by broadcast stations, except that the regulator, just like the Nigerian government is bent on forcing compliance to it’s now highly faulted action.
Depriving broadcast stations from accessing Twitter is tantamount to gagging the press and if the government can have its way, more stringent orders may be coming in the days ahead. The print and online news media may just be the next in line for these draconian orders.
Whatever happens in the days ahead, one thing is sure, the Nigerian government is steadily descending into dictatorial authoritarianism!