Was FG’s Twitter Ban Worth It?

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Vanessa Obioha reports that the euphoric moment of Twitter unbanning was dewy and eroded by the suspicion that it was politically-motivated.

We move!
Those two words that symbolise the resilience and determination of Nigerian youths capture the mood of most Nigerians after the federal government announced the unbanning of Twitter on Wednesday, January 12. In a statement signed by the Chairman Technical Committee Nigeria-Twitter Engagement and Director-General National Information Technology Development Agency (NITDA), Kashifu Abdullahi, the suspension was lifted following the approval by President Muhammadu Buhari.

Coming seven months after the government suspended its activities in Nigeria following the deletion of the president’s tweet, the question on many lips on Thursday when services of the microblogging site were fully restored was if the ban was worth it.

Twitter, a social media site, is considered a powerful tool of political influence, both domestic and international, allowing citizens to interact with leaders and spark discussions on social and political issues. However, the freedom to express one’s opinion has led to bullying and the spreading of misinformation.

This worrisome trend deployed by purveyors of fake news and terrorism has resulted in many countries banning some social media sites like Twitter.
In some countries across the globe, restrictions are often placed on these apps. For instance, in Dubai, calls are prohibited on the instant messaging app, WhatsApp from Meta, formerly Facebook. In Iran and China, Telegram, a messaging app, is banned based on national security. Russia blocked access to Telegram in 2018 when it refused to give the Federal Security Service backdoor access to its encryption keys according to an online report.

Statista, the research organisation in a 2020 report revealed that over 60 countries have blocked or at least restricted access to social networks since 2015. Three percent of those countries in Asia, China, North Korea, Turkmenistan and Iran mainly restricted foreign social networks such as Twitter and Facebook.

African countries have equally blocked access to social media most frequently in the past five years, even if the restrictions are temporary. Take for instance, in the last Uganda elections, the Yoweri Museveni government restricted access to social media ahead of the presidential elections, citing Facebook’s blocking of accounts supporting his government. Other African countries that have blocked or restricted access to social media at one time or the other include Tanzania, Zimbabwe, Chad and Togo.

Therefore in the heat of the aftermath of the EndSARS protests and rising agitations by separatist groups, the ban was put to effect according to the Minister of Information and Culture, Lai Mohammed, at the time, due to the persistent use of the platform for activities that are capable of undermining Nigeria’s corporate existence.

While Twitter boasts over 300 million users globally, its population in Nigeria is still debatable. Data collected by Statista showed that out of the roughly 28 million Nigerians who used social media in the fourth quarter of 2020, 61.4 per cent used Twitter.
However, the ban on the service has economic implications as many Nigerians depended on the platform for livelihood.

Findings by NetBlocks Cost of Shutdown Tool showed that Nigeria lost N104.02 million ($250,600) every hour to the ban, bringing the daily losses to N2.46 billion and the total loss to N546.5 billion.
But notwithstanding, Nigerians turned to Virtual Private Network (VPN) to access the site despite a threat by Attorney-General Abubakar Malami to persecute those who violate the ban. For these Nigerians, the lifting of the ban meant little to them as they have always used the platform. However, it didn’t stop them from mocking those who supported the ban like the businessman Adamu Garba who floated his Crowwe app as an alternative for Twitter as well as the President’s foot soldiers. Hashtags such as #BacktoNigeria, #LaiMohammed, #AdamuGarba were among the popular trends on the site.

In order to have Twitter operate in Nigeria again, the American company had to agree to the terms and conditions set by the Federal Government which include having a legal entity in Nigeria registered with the Corporate Affairs Commission (CAC), comply with tax obligations, appoint a representative in Nigeria that will liaise with the authorities, enrol Nigeria on its Partner Support and Law Enforcement Portals, to act with a respectful acknowledgement of Nigerian laws, national culture and history, as well as working with the government to develop code of conduct in line with global best practices.

But Nigerians have queried the veracity of these terms. Perhaps, to erase doubts, Twitter, through a handle @policy acknowledged its readiness to work with the government in a tweet:
“We are pleased that Twitter has been restored for everyone in Nigeria. Our mission in Nigeria and around the world is to serve the public conversation. We are deeply committed to Nigeria, where Twitter is used by people for commerce, cultural engagement, and civic participation.”

Yet, doubts continue to swirl around the move with most people concluding that the timing of the unbanning is politically motivated. With the 2023 elections almost next door, political campaigns are expected to be in full swing this year. Thus, critics of President Buhari’s administration strongly believe that the ban was lifted to allow politicians to galvanise votes on the platform. However, loyalists to the government are quick to remind them that the majority of Twitter users in the country do not have voter cards and are only noisemakers on the platform.

Indeed, Twitter can be used effectively in the upcoming elections, that is if the right message is conveyed and supported by actionable steps. It will be a total loss for the younger generation clamouring for change not to fully participate in the elections by urging their peers to get their voter cards and go out to vote.
Whether the federal government achieved its aim through the ban or not, only time will ascertain.
Meanwhile, the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) Court is expected to deliver a judgment on the case filed by the Social Economic Rights and Accountability Project (SERAP) regarding the Twitter Ban next week. The outcome of that judgment will likewise paint another picture on the decision of the federal government.