Nigeria: Twitter Ban Exposes Deep Rift

(file photo).

Nigeria's indefinite Twitter ban has cut off an estimated 40 million users in the country. The prohibition of the microblogging platform is being celebrated by some, highlighting the country's growing north-south divide.

Social media companies that want to operate in Nigeria must register a local entity and be licensed by the country's broadcasting commission, Information Minister Lai Mohammed said on Wednesday.

It followed the banning of Twitter by the Nigerian government, who alleged that the platform was being used to destabilize the country and undermine "Nigeria's corporate existence" by spreading fake news.

"Twitter has consistently made its platform available to those who are threatening Nigeria's corporate existence, that is the reason for suspending their operations in Nigeria," Mohammed said.

The decision came days after the microblogging site deleted a tweet by Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari, stating that it threatened secessionist groups in the southeast that were allegedly responsible for attacks on government and electoral offices.

Civil war comparisons

In the 1960s, Nigeria waged war on one of those groups, which had declared itself the Republic of Biafra and fought a devastating civil war.

In the deleted tweet, Buhari compared the civil war -- which killed more than 1 million people -- to recent attacks on offices of the national electoral commission.

Buhari threatened to "treat" those who vandalized the electoral offices "in the language they understand."

"Many of those misbehaving today are too young to be aware of the destruction and loss of lives that occurred during the Nigerian Civil War," Buhari's tweet read.

The president used to be an army general who fought on behalf of the federal government against the Biafra separatists.

The tweet was still online after several users urged Twitter to remove it. Some saw the tweet as "a threat of genocide" against the predominantly Igbo ethnic group in Nigeria's southeast. After Twitter removed it, it said the tweet violated its "abusive behavior" policy.

Biafra wounds

Today, renewed calls for secession have gained momentum online, pushed by an army of activists who use social media platforms like Twitter to disseminate information.

"More than 120 million Nigerians have access to the internet, and nearly 40 million of them have a Twitter account -- 20% of the population," according to Lagos-based researcher NOI Polls.

This call for Nigeria's split has irked many in the country's north, including the president, who is also a northerner.

The government's main defense claims that Twitter allows secessionists to disseminate information that undermines the country's stability, while blocking the president's remark.

"We found out that Twitter is the platform of choice for a particular separatist leader, who resides outside the country and issues directives to his members to attack symbols of government authorities such as the police, military, electoral commission offices, correctional centers, etc.," Lai Mohammed said.

"This is being done willfully and consistently, without any consequences from Twitter. No country that wants to survive would tolerate that and no company, no matter its self importance, would force a nation to accept this."

The ministers are referring to Nnamdi Kanu, the de facto leader of the Indigenous People of Biafra (IPOB) movement. Kanu, a British Nigerian, was arrested for spearheading a renewed call for Biafra's independence, but he secretly fled the country while on bail. His exact whereabouts is unknown, but some assume he is hiding in Israel.

"Twitter gives the upper hand to the other parties, who are against Nigeria," political analyst Abdullai Mohamed Koli told DW.

"IPOB and so many other bad associations are against the corporate existence of Nigeria."

Twitter ban reaction

Twitter users in Nigeria expressed outrage at the ban and warned of Africa's most populous nation slipping into repression. Many bypassed the suspension by using virtual private networks (VPNs) to access the service, which has become the default platform to criticize the government.

"This is a clear violation by the Nigerian government or is an attempt by the Nigerian government to deprive the rights of the ordinary citizen in expressing their own voice regarding to governance system, on how the government governs its own citizens," said political activist Ibrahim Adamu.

"Twitter and all other social media platforms are the last alternatives for the common man to express their own mind or to communicate between the citizens and their own leaders," Adamu told DW.

"When these platforms are blocked, there is no way that ordinary citizens can communicate with their leaders."

However, in a series of social media posts by DW's Hausa service, many users hailed the ban.

"Twitter has despised my country and our president," wrote Itz Khaleed Bin Muhammad on the Facebook page of DW Hausa.

"We love our country and we want to live in unity and they do not want that. We hope the government should expel them completely."

Nura Haruna Maikarfe Fta also wrote: "Even though I am not a supporter of the Buhari administration, its response towards Twitter is a good one, considering what I call open lack of respect of the platform to the presidency of our country."

Analyst Abdullahi Mohamed Koli also supports the government's new directives requiring so-called over-the-top (OTTs) services to register locally.

"For many, it has been a welcome idea by the Nigerian government. They have not been following the due process, the rules and regulations of the NBC [National Broadcasting Cooperation]," Abdullahi said.

"They do not have any office in Nigeria, they are not paying tax in Nigeria and they refuse to register in Nigeria. A lot of irregularities have been happening under no regulations of the activities of social media in Nigeria."

However, some northerners were against the ban.

"This action is a violation of human rights, and it will not be effective because the proper channel has not been followed, therefore the law does not necessarily apply," wrote Ahmed Mohammed in one of DW Hausa's post.

"I do not support this kind of banning because Twitter is the most verified social media outfit," Muhammadu Ibrahim, a youth in Bauchi city, told DW.

"Despite the fact that I do not support the ban, I also do not support the action of Twitter to delete the president's tweet. I disagree with it because he is the number one citizen of this country."

Freedom of expression on the line?

Legal pundits in Nigeria said the Twitter ban violates the freedom of expression guaranteed by the country's constitution.

"I consider this new directive very detrimental to Nigeria and Nigerians," Baba Dala, a constitutional lawyer, told DW.

"I think the unilateral decisions of sending them away will go a long way ... but won't stop the enthusiasm of Nigerians."

Nigeria's bar association was hoping to file a court motion to lift the ban, but an ongoing nationwide strike by judiciary staff prohibited lawyers from taking further action.

Nigeria's 40 million Twitter users are primarily young southerners who use the platform to hold their government to account.

In 2020, the microblogging platform provided protesters with a means to communicate and make publicity during the #EndSARS protests, which were aimed at a notorious police unit but later metamorphosed to include governance and corruption.

President Buhari also has an active Twitter account with 4.1 million followers.

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