Nigeria: Mohammed, Malami, Fashola, Others to Meet Twitter Over Suspension

23 June 2021

Abuja — The federal government yesterday kick-started the process of resolving its dispute that led to the suspension of the operations of the microblogging platform, Twitter, in Nigeria, with President Muhammadu Buhari raising a team to negotiate with the United States-based company.

The team, comprising cabinet members, will be led by Minister of Information and Culture, Mr. Lai Mohammed.

According to a statement yesterday by the Special Assistant to the President (Media), Office of the Minister of Information and Culture, Mr. Segun Adeyemi, the Attorney-General of the Federation and the Minister of Justice, Mr. Abubakar Malami (SAN); the Minister of Communications and Digital Economy, Dr. Isa Pantami; the Minister of Foreign Affairs, Mr. Geoffrey Onyeama; the Minister of Works and Housing, Mr. Babatunde Fashola (SAN), and the Minister of State for Labour and Employment, Mr. Festus Keyamo (SAN), will join Mohammed in the talks.

The engagement followed a letter from Twitter informing the federal government of its readiness for talks following the suspension of its operations on June 5 for deleting the president's tweet, warning the Igbo of a potential repeat of the civil war that might result from the escalation in insurgency traced to the Indigenous Peoples of Biafra (IPOB).

Besides, the federal government accused Twitter of being part of a plot to destabilise Nigeria for allegedly funding and promoting last October's #EndSARS protests, that Buhari considered an agenda to oust him from power, and for condoning Indigenous People of Biafra (IPOB) Leader, Mr. Nnamdi Kanu, tweets inciting attacks on security personnel in the South-east.

Also yesterday, the federal government, again, defended the suspension of Twitter's operations in the country, saying it was done under the National Security Act, Terrorism Prevention Act, Cyber Space Act and Companies and Allied Matters Act (CAMA).

However, Twitter users got a legal cover to continue tweeting, despite the federal government's threat to prosecute violators of the ban on using the platform, as the ECOWAS Court of Justice in Abuja restrained the federal government from imposing sanctions, or doing anything whatsoever to arrest or prosecute any Nigerian and media houses using Twitter, pending the hearing and determination of a suit before it.

Again, FG Defends Suspension, Says Freedom of Expression Not Absolute

The federal government has again justified the suspension of the operations of Twitter in Nigeria, insisting that the freedom of expression is not absolute.

Mohammed, who appeared before the House of Representatives Joint Investigative Committee on Twitter Suspension, yesterday told the lawmakers that the federal government suspended the operations of micro-blogging platform, under the National Security Act, Terrorism Prevention Act, Cyber Space Act and Companies and Allied Matters Act (CAMA).

He referred to the provisions of Section 45 of the 1999 Constitution as altered, which he said left no one in doubt that the provisions of Section 39 of the constitution on freedom of expression was not absolute.

According to him, the right to free expression within the contemplation of Section 39 makes it a qualified right in light of the aforementioned Section 45, which allows restrictions of civil liberties in the public interest.

Relying on Section 45 (1) of the 1999 Constitution, he said: "45 (1) Nothing in Sections 37, 38, 39, 40 and 41 of this Constitution shall invalidate any law that is reasonably justifiable in a democratic society: (a) in the interest of defence, public safety, public order, public morality or public health or; (b), the purpose of protecting the rights and freedom of other person."

The minister also justified the Twitter ban by relying on Section 3 of the National Security Act.

He quoted the section as charging the State Security Service with the duty to preserve the nation's internal security and prevent and detect within its borders any crime against its internal security.

He stated that the ban of Twitter was pursuant to security reports of the SSS.

Mohammed added: "Furthermore, the right to freedom of expression on the Twitter platform is further qualified by Section 45 of the constitution in light of the provisions of Section 5(1) and (2) of the Terrorism Act of 2011. For clarity, the section reads:

"Any person who knowingly in any manner directly or indirectly solicits or renders support for the commission of an act of terrorism; or to a terrorist group, commits an offence under this Act and is liable on conviction to imprisonment for a term of not less than 20 years."

He interpreted the "support" in the sub-section 1 to include incitement to commit a terrorist act through the internet or any electronic means or through the use of printed materials or through the dissemination of terrorist information.

He added that Section 14(2)(b) of the Constitution provides that the security and welfare of the people shall be the primary purpose of the government.

Mohammed stated that from the purview of the Companies and Allied Matters Act, 2020, as it regulates the operations of a foreign company in Nigeria, Twitter is not licensed to do business in the country.

According to him, having failed to register as a separate entity in Nigeria, as required by Section 78 (1) of CAMA Act 2020, Twitter cannot do business in the country or exercise any powers of a registered company.

Mohammed said the operations of Twitter in the Nigerian social space was not legally permissible when it was used in airing information that endangered the lives and security of the majority of Nigerians.

He said the principles of the law were clear on the exercise of personal human rights in the face of national security threats affecting the larger citizens.

The minister added that provisions in Articles 24, 25 of the African Union on Cyber Security and Personal Protection, Article 19 (2) and (3) of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights as well as Section 1,2, 3 and 4 of the Cyber Crimes Prevention Act provide the requisite legal backing for the federal government to regulate and protect the country's cyberspace, including social media such as Twitter, Facebook and Instagram as well as applications, internet platforms, and cloud computing platforms.

"Following the above, the Federal Government of Nigeria is further empowered to take all reasonable steps to defend its cyberspace where it perceives or finds that a cybercrime is threatened to be committed, has been committed, or is being committed on and through its cyberspace," he added.

The minister, however, dismissed claims that the operations of Twitter were suspended because it pulled down Buhari's tweet.

He said: "I want to make two clarifications. The first is that we did not ban Twitter; we simply suspended indefinitely the activities of Twitter. The second is that we did not suspend the activities of Twitter because they deleted Mr. President's tweet. Not at all. We are very unambiguous on why we suspended Twitter."

Asked if the federal government took into consideration Nigerians doing business on Twitter, the minister stated that it is because there is a country called Nigeria that people can do business on any platform.

Asked why the federal government waited for the president's tweet to be deleted before the suspension even though the government knew all along that IPOB has been using the Twitter platform, Mohammed spoke of the federal government's efforts to rid Nigeria of fake news and disinformation, which started in 2017.

He said: "When we organised a national council on information in Jos, Plateau State, to address the issue of fake news and disinformation, there we said that the next war would be caused by fake news.

How prophetic we were! In 2018, we started an advocacy programme whereby we went from one media house to the other, seeking their support in weeding out fake news. Some supported us, some did not. When we were convinced that they were not going to listen, we said that we were going to regulate social media. We wrote to the NUJ; we wrote to the Guild of Editors. They snubbed us."

ECOWAS Court Stops FG from Prosecuting Twitter Users

Meanwhile, the ECOWAS Court of Justice in Abuja has restrained the federal government from imposing sanctions, or doing anything whatsoever to arrest or prosecute any Nigerian and media houses using Twitter, pending the hearing and determination of a suit before it.

The court gave the order after hearing arguments from solicitor to Socio-Economic Rights and Accountability Project (SERAP), Mr. Femi Falana (SAN), and lawyer to the government, Mr. Maimuna Shiru, following a suit filed on June 8 against the government by SERAP and 176 concerned Nigerians.

The court said: "The court has listened very well to the objection by Nigeria. The court has this to say. Any interference with Twitter is viewed as interference with human rights, and that will violate human rights. Therefore, this court has jurisdiction to hear the case. The court also hereby orders that the application be heard expeditiously. The Nigerian government must take immediate steps to implement the order."

Reacting to the ruling, Falana said the intervention of the ECOWAS Court was a timely relief for Nigerians using Twitter who had been threatened with prosecution.

He said: "Contrary to the assurance credited to the Attorney-General of the Federation and Minister of Justice Mr. Abubakar Malami (SAN), that violators of Twitter would not be prosecuted, the federal government filed processes in the ECOWAS Court threatening to prosecute Nigerians using Twitter for violating the suspension under the provisions of the Penal Code relating to sedition.

"It is extremely embarrassing that the federal government could threaten to jail Nigerians for sedition, which was annulled by the Court of Appeal in 1983, in the case of Arthur Nwankwo vs The State."

The substantive suit has been adjourned till July 6 for hearing.

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