Analysis

Buhari’s Authoritarian Twitter Ban Continues to Silence Nigerians

Meanwhile, Nigeria teeters on the path to failed statehood.

By , director of the Centre for Democracy and Development, and , the senior director for policy and government relations at Humanity United.
A man carries a banner that reads "Digital right is human right" during a demonstration in Lagos, Nigeria, on June 12, 2021.
A man carries a banner during a demonstration in Lagos, Nigeria, on June 12. Pius Utomi Ekpei/AFP via Getty Images

Four months after imposing a national Twitter ban, Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari’s administration announced it would reverse course after having reached agreement with the social media company on a number of issues. However, in recent days the administration appears on course to continue the ban until the end of the year, despite initially signaling the reversal was imminent. The delay will continue to silence the voices of millions of Nigeria’s Twitter users, and some Nigerians question the government’s commitment to ending the ban.

The administration’s foray into the authoritarian toolkit was unsurprising, and most saw it for what it was: a desperate attempt to distract from the myriad problems facing the country and Buhari’s failure to address them. Six years into Buhari’s presidency, many Nigerians across social and economic divides believe the president has failed to deliver on the promised change that propelled him to electoral victory in 2015. If anything has changed, it’s been decidedly for the worse, not better.

Buhari was elected on a promise to curb endemic corruption in the country; instead, corruption has flourished—due not to a lack of laws but rather to a failure to implement them. He promised to address the nation’s electricity shortage; instead, the country’s power supply has plummeted. And he promised to bolster the value of the naira; instead, Nigeria’s currency has been in free fall.

Four months after imposing a national Twitter ban, Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari’s administration announced it would reverse course after having reached agreement with the social media company on a number of issues. However, in recent days the administration appears on course to continue the ban until the end of the year, despite initially signaling the reversal was imminent. The delay will continue to silence the voices of millions of Nigeria’s Twitter users, and some Nigerians question the government’s commitment to ending the ban.

The administration’s foray into the authoritarian toolkit was unsurprising, and most saw it for what it was: a desperate attempt to distract from the myriad problems facing the country and Buhari’s failure to address them. Six years into Buhari’s presidency, many Nigerians across social and economic divides believe the president has failed to deliver on the promised change that propelled him to electoral victory in 2015. If anything has changed, it’s been decidedly for the worse, not better.

Buhari was elected on a promise to curb endemic corruption in the country; instead, corruption has flourished—due not to a lack of laws but rather to a failure to implement them. He promised to address the nation’s electricity shortage; instead, the country’s power supply has plummeted. And he promised to bolster the value of the naira; instead, Nigeria’s currency has been in free fall.

Despite Buhari’s lagging performance, Nigerians surprisingly gave him a second chance at the presidency in 2019, presumably with the hope that he would rescue his reputation and finally keep his word. Yet, for the second time, Buhari is on track to disappoint Nigerians. Insecurity has peaked at an all-time high, and governance and respect for human rights are at all-time lows.

Sadly, this damning performance has not created a sense of urgency for Buhari and his administration. He’s asked Nigerians to pray for the country; his government appears to be out of any other ideas how to solve to the nation’s problems. And he seems most concerned with stifling criticism and dissent, including from young people, whom he condescendingly advised to behave themselves if they want jobs.

The Twitter ban is a case in point. Instead of fostering channels of conversation with citizens, Buhari succumbed to his predilection for repressive tactics. The former general had promised Nigerians that his military days were over. However, in June he appeared on a march to authoritarianism when he made Twitter inaccessible from any internet protocol (IP) address within Nigeria.

The majority of citizens who want to share their thoughts or exchange information via the website or app now see a blank screen. Similarly, the president’s Twitter handle and the Nigerian government’s official handle have been quiet since June. Covid-19 information also became scarcer, as the Nigeria Center for Disease Control had been actively using Twitter to share information.

Days before Buhari’s administration imposed the ban on Twitter, the social media company removed a tweet by the president that seemed to threaten a subset of Nigeria’s population. Rather than take this reprimand in stride, the president’s information and culture minister, Lai Mohammed, announced the ban, claiming that too many people were using Twitter for activities “capable of undermining Nigeria’s corporate existence.”

Mohammed did not explain what the government meant by corporate existence, but it’s conceivable he was alluding to some recent events. In October 2020, young people used Twitter to mobilize against security overreach in Nigeria with the #EndSARS protests. In April 2021, Nigerians took to Twitter to demand the removal of the minister of communications and digital economy, Isa Pantami, a Muslim cleric whose past support of Boko Haram and al Qaeda surfaced online. The hashtag #PantamiMustGo trended, embarrassing the administration. While Buhari stood by the minister, Pantami was forced to publicly renounce some of his past controversial comments.

Ironically, Buhari’s own party used Twitter effectively when it was in the opposition: It started the 2012 #OccupyNigeria movement and helped fuel the 2014 #BringBackOurGirls campaign. Yet when it found itself on the receiving end of Twitter activism, Buhari’s administration panicked, and the social media platform quickly became the enemy, inspiring efforts in both 2015 and 2019 to muzzle free speech. It now seems anything critical of or embarrassing to the president is a threat to the nation’s corporate existence.

The Nigerian minister of justice even threatened to prosecute anyone who used Twitter after the ban. To no one’s surprise, there have been no such prosecutions; instead, the government was pilloried, given how easily Nigerians with financial means have used virtual private networks (VPNs) to circumvent the ban.

A West Africa regional court also barred the Nigerian government from prosecuting its citizens for browsing Twitter, ruling it a human rights violation. But although many Nigerians continue to access Twitter via VPN, for others the site remains inaccessible because acquiring VPN licenses can be prohibitively expensive. The government has also peddled misinformation, claiming that using a VPN may lead to loss of private data such as bank account details.

Instead of wasting energy to seek out those who break the law by posting on banned websites, the Buhari administration should focus on more pressing matters that are actually impacting citizens. More than 700 children have been kidnapped by extremists since December 2020, and the government has been unsuccessful in finding most of them. Rather than guarding against unprecedented levels of insecurity, the president chose to spar with a social media company.

Nigeria continues to teeter on the path to failed statehood as all regions suffer from internal conflicts. At no time since the civil war in the 1960s has the country faced so much conflict concurrently. The northeast continues to struggle with decades-long insurgency; there’s an upsurge of banditry in the northwest; in the southeast, Biafran separatists are fighting for secession; and in the southwest, clashes between herders and farmers continue to stoke tensions and the clamor for a Yoruba nation is becoming more prominent.

Following the administration’s logic, these crises are not threatening the corporate existence of Nigeria. The culprit is Twitter, the platform citizens use to vent their frustrations, network, run their businesses, and find jobs. It’s unclear if Buhari considered the socioeconomic impact of his Twitter ban on the teaming Nigerian population that depends on the platform for its livelihood. It seems what mattered was his embarrassment, so all Nigerians had to pay.

Buhari still has two years to make a meaningful difference as president, should he choose to. Nigeria’s corporate existence is threatened by insecurity, corruption, rapid economic decline, and rising unemployment. Lifting the Twitter ban would be welcome news. Instead of focusing on restricting citizens’ ability to express discontent, the president might begin listening to citizens’ valid concerns and then roll up his sleeves to address these pressing problems.

Idayat Hassan is director of the Centre for Democracy and Development, an Abuja-based policy advocacy and research organization focusing on deepening democracy and development in West Africa, and a senior associate of the Center for Strategic and International Studies’ Africa program. Twitter: @HassanIdayat

Kehinde A. Togun is the senior director for policy and government relations at Humanity United. He previously led democracy and governance programs in Eurasia, the Middle East, and sub-Saharan Africa. He is a Truman National Security Fellow and a Non-Resident Fellow at the Centre for Democracy and Development. Twitter: @KehindeTogun

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