“We will treat them in the language they understand.” This is the threatening Trumpist phrase that Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari included in a tweet that has unleashed a social and political storm that has ended with Twitter blocked and has served to confirm once again the tensions and the difficult coexistence between governments and the giants of the technology sector. The escalation has provoked both reactions from foreign diplomatic delegations and complaints of violation of fundamental rights.
On Tuesday, June 1, Muhammadu Buhari, the president of Nigeria, the most populous country in Africa and the continent’s most powerful economy, shared a message on Twitter. In reaction to attacks on electoral commission facilities in the southeast of the countryBuhari warned “those who are misbehaving”, recalled the losses of the Nigerian civil war and concluded with the disturbing sentence.
The president’s message prompted complaints from tweeters who saw language that pointed to violence between communities. The next day, Twitter suppressed the tweet for breaking the rules. And on Friday afternoon the Ministry of Information and Culture announced the “indefinite” blockade of the social network, due to the “persistent use of the platform for activities that are capable of undermining the prestige of Nigeria”, according to Minister Alhaji Lai Mohammed. Officially, Twitter has expressed concern.
The tweeting community reacted quickly. With the announcement of the suspension of Twitter, users disseminated information about the use of VPNs, a virtual private network that allows you to connect to external systems and increase privacy on the Internet by hiding the origin of the connection, so as to avoid local blocks . So on Saturday when the measure became effective, Canada or Germany they also became trends in Nigeria. They were the places users said they were tweeting from, in a mocking tone, through VPNs.
Thus it was possible that after the blockade the activity in the network was triggered. Various hashtags What #TwitterSuspendBuharisAccount, #TwitterBan, #TwitterBanNigeria or that of the global campaign against Internet blocks #KeepItOn they have been a trend successively. the claims they have not been without humor, as when some users were surprised that the Ministry of Information Twitter was used, precisely to announce the suspension of that same network.
Although beyond irony, the Twitter blockade in Nigeria has been presented as an extremely serious episode, above all because of the impact on respect for fundamental rights and the economic consequences. Idayat Hassan, director of Center for Democracy and Development (CDD) in West Africa based in the Nigerian capital, it warned that it is “another attack on civic space and a sample of Nigeria’s total descent into authoritarianism.” Hassan also clarified the role that Twitter plays for Nigerian civil society: “What the government is trying to do is take away the right to receive and impart information. If there is an effective tool in accountability in Nigeria today, it is Twitter. It is the platform that citizens use to ask the government for explanations. This silences everyone’s voice, from the middle class, the youth, the elites, women or the political parties ”.
For his part, ‘Gbenga Sesan, CEO of Paradigm Initiative Nigeria, a prestigious organization for the defense of digital rights, pointed out that “the impact of this measure on freedom of expression is evident, even for the government that restricts the platform, because it cannot contact the citizens who use it.” This activist gives an example of how the authorities were using this same channel: “The Nigerian Center for Disease Control shares daily advice and updates on Twitter, to help manage the pandemic in the country.”
Some diplomatic delegations have taken a strong position. The Swedish embassy was one of the first to react, recalling that “Nigerians have the constitutional right to exercise their freedom of expression and access to information” and calling for “safeguarding free and independent media and civic spaces for democratic voices.” Shortly thereafter, missions from Canada, the European Union, Ireland, the United Kingdom, and the United States issued a joint statement. International Amnesty also condemned the suspension of Twitterr. Julie Owono, director of the NGO Internet Sans Frontières, believes that the measure “constitutes a violation of international law” and, likewise, that “it is a absolutely disproportionate infringement of the right to freedom of expression ”. Only one voice has applauded Buhari’s move: former US President Donald Trump, suspended by Twitter since January.
In this tug of war, the Nigerian government has opted for a firmness that has led it to launch a complex threat: it will denounce all those users who continue to tweet after the blockade. “It’s very dangerous. It is part of a trend to criminalize those who try to circumvent censorship. The use of VPN or tools such as Tor is condemned or prohibited. These are not only tools to circumvent censorship, but many people use them to protect their privacy, ”warns Owono.
The truth is that since the last great wave of protests in Nigeria that occurred in October 2020. The authorities and Twitter seemed to have pending accounts. Some government circles have not forgotten the role that the social network played in the dissemination of complaints of police brutality, in the mobilization of citizens who took to the streets and in making the demands and violent repression of the demonstrations visible internationally. . In those days the social network distributed 148 million messages Only with the #EndSARS campaign tag in three weeks and in the days of most intense mobilization, 17 million tweets were shared through it hashtag.
In fact, the Nigerian authorities have been preparing the ground for years to approve a law of control of digital space and social media in particular, which civil society has strongly opposed as a tool to curtail freedoms. “With this ban,” warns Hassan, “we can be sure that the bill on social media will soon become a reality.” And to top it all, less than two months ago, Twitter decided to open its first African office in Ghana, Nigeria’s main regional competitor in technology leadership.
The economic consequences too have been widely warned. The Nigerian is probably the most active digital ecosystem in Africa and its contribution to the national economy has not stopped growing in recent years. Its dynamism has made it the leading African destination for international investment in innovative companies. According a report from the consulting firm PartechIn 2020, Nigeria attracted more than $ 300 million of this funding, one-fifth of what reached the entire continent. Several social actors have warned that this decision supposes a brake, for the technology sector and for the whole economy.
‘Gbenga Sesan recalls that’ Nigeria’s National Digital Economy Strategy (NDEPS) is designed to purportedly ‘enable Nigeria to harness digital technologies to become a major player in the global digital economy’, but this illegal crackdown on a digital technology it does the exact opposite. Investors prefer a predictable and conducive environment, so Nigeria is saying we don’t want investors. ” This activist also recalls the role that the digital sector has played in recent times.
The Global Observatory of Internet Disruptions, Netblocks, figure in $ 250,600 the economic impact of each hour of Twitter blocking in Nigeria, so that in four days, the losses already amount to more than 30 million dollars. And the bill keeps increasing.
As Julie Owono says, this measure is part of a global dynamic that marks the disagreement between the will to control the networks by some governments and the moderation of content by social media platforms. Without going further, in January Facebook blocked accounts of members of the Ugandan government for improper uses. The Ugandan government found the excuse to block social media during the elections. This disagreement “will be repeated more and more”, warns Owono.