By Adebayo Abubakar
The debate, as to whether or not, social media should be regulated in Nigeria, and around the world, has been on, for quite a while now.
This is not unconnected with the menace of fake news, tendencies for discriminatory, character assassination, and so on and so forth. There are many instances in which social media was used as a platform for mass mobilisation for civil disobedience. Recent history points to Yasmine revolution in Middle East and North Africa. Libya and Syria are yet to recover from the social upheaval.
So, no sitting President would sit down and watch it deployed to bring down his government, rightly or wrongly. It is on this note that the position of President Muhammedu Buhari is understandable.
Twitter was very instrumental to the relative success of recorded by #EndSARS which shook the very foundation of the Nigerian Statehood, in October last year.
Since then, there has been no love lost between the Federal Government and Twitter.
Matters got to a crescendo on Tuesday last week, when President Muhammadu Buhari issued a stern warning, about the deteriorating security situation in the South East, attacking INEC facilities and security posts. He said:
“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. Those of us in the fields for 30 months, who went through the war, will treat them in the language they understand.”
The statement was posted on his Twitter handle, @mbuhari.
The micro-blogging site wasted no time in deleting the post on the ground that; it contains element of threat of violence against a group; an act that infuriated the Federal Government to such an extent that, the Minister of information and Culture, Alhaji Lai Mohammed addressed a press conference wherein, he described the Twitter’s Mission (in Nigeria) as being very “suspect”.
He accused the Tech company of ignoring more inciting post from the leader of the Indigenous People of Biafra, IPOB, Mazi Nnamdi Kanu. That is true. Twitter never deleted any of Kanu’s posts, most of which is incendiary, capable of setting the country ablaze.
Eventually, the Federal Government on Friday, announced what it called an indefinite suspension of Twitter, through official twitter handle of the Federal Ministry of Information and Culture, @FMICNigeria.
In a matter of hours, Nigerians found out that, the social networking site was truly down. That marks the begining of a long-drawn battle, between the Federal Government of Nigeria and Twitter.
The suspension which generated mixed reactions among Nigerians, has now been changed from “indefinite” to “temporary”. Some expressed support for the Federal Government, while others condemn the action.
Let us now examine the issue from three different standpoints.
One: From the standpoint of Twitter, as a social networking site; they have what they call “Community Rules”. Any post that runs in violation of these rules, is pulled down. They range from discriminatory to, hate and inciting posts, capable of undermining public peace, or resulting in a crisis of genocidal scale.
A critical look at the antecedents of Twitter would reveal how partial the, insincere and selective it has been, in applying these rules. For instance, the world football-governing body, FIFA (Federation of International Football Association), EPL (English Premier League) and other organisations have stood up to the menace of “Racism”, with a view to stamping it out. But times without number, black footballers are being racially abused, or threatened with death, on twitter.
What does twitter do?
It looks away, claiming it has not been reported to have violated the so-called “Community Rules”.
Khalidou Coulibaly of SS Lazio of Italy, Raheem Sterling of Liverpool, Marcus Rashford and Rodrygo Fred, both of Manchester United, all of England, are some of the many high-profiled sporting personalities that have at one time or the other abused racially on twitter, without as little as a finger being raised by the Tech Giant.
Yes. Twitter is that, shamelessly biased!
To bring it closer home; the notoriety of Nnamdi Kanu for posting incendiary updates is well-documented. Updates that would be brazenly inciting his Igbo followers against other tribes in Nigeria. Just recently in an audio clip, he threatened to bring down Enugu, the capital of the old Eastern Nigeria and the capital of former Anambra State, and now Enugu State, for the singular “offence” of not obeying his “Sit-at-home” order, given to all Igbos, home and abroad to commemorate the fallen heroes of his dream country, “Biafra”.
This is in addition to the recent spate of attacks in the region, against government institution and security agents, by an illegal security outfit he runs, Eastern Security Network, ESN – militant wing of IPOB. Twitter has never deleted any of those post, until after the suspension by the Federal Government. It was reported that, about 70% of those posts has now been deleted.
So it is very hypocritical and shameful of Twitter to have deleted President Buhari’s tweet, leaving those of Kanu’s to stand, just the way it protects discriminatory and violence-inducing posts of racists in Europe and America.
The second standpoint is that; the contents of presidential warning, President Muhammadu Buhari, in which he made reference to the 1967-1970 civil war. That is the most unpresidential statement a president can utter at this material time, when emotions are running high, with the secessionist propaganda of Nnamdi Kanu, anchored around the argument that the Igbos are being victimised and not being given a fair deal, when it comes to sharing access to federal opportunities, especially, appointments and employment into the civil service.
The choice of words by President Buhari in the statement is as rash as some of the Government’s ill-thought out actions, like arresting and detaining him. Kanu was arrested on treason charges in Lagos, on 14 October 2015 and was detained for more than a year, despite various court orders that ruled for his release.
Until the ill-advised arrest, Kanu alongside his IPOB, was no more than an irritant to Ralph Uwazuruike- MASSOB (Movement for the Actualisation of Sovereign State of Biafra). He broke away from the latter, to form the former.
He was granted bail in April 2017 for health reasons, but skipped his bail after reportedly flouting all the conditions given to him by the court. That singular move by Buhari00 administration made him (Kanu) pass off as a victim of political oppression by a “dictatorial regime” in the eyes of the international community. The basis on which he, in addition to his British passport, is being granted asylum.
He has then remained in exile, fueling civil unrest in parts of “Ala Igbo” (Igbo land), which has metamorphosed into a sort of existential threat to the sovereign being of Nigeria as a nation.
This was how President Buhari created a monster out of a hitherto inconsequential activist – Chief Ralph Uwazuruike of MASSOB, was the most prominent, with a more civil approach to the agitation.
Had Buhari been very circumspect in his choice of language such that it does not reference the civil war, I do not think, Twitter would have irresponsibly deleted the tweet, on the hypocritical ground of it having violated the “Community Rules”.
Nobel Laureate, Prof. Wole Soyinka, according to a report in “The Punch” newspaper, says “the President, Muhammadu Buhari keeps calm whenever there are attacks in Benue State but is quick to evoke memories of the civil war whenever the South-East is involved”. This is very unfortunate.
Nevertheless, the Federal Government has every right to flex its muscle of sovereignty, by banning twitter from the Nigerian cyberspace. But the federal government hardly realises that, Nigeria as a sovereign nation, needs the presence of Twitter in our cyberspace to drive our economy, more than twitter needs us to remain afloat.
This is not underestimating the strength of the about 40 million twitterati in Nigeria.
Nigeria is chronically, a “Borrowing Nation”. We are looking at borrowing, to finance the 2021 budget that is deficit; and access to some of the credit facilities are tied to issue of human rights, chief among which is the right to freedom of expression. This is a big minus in that regard.
If one looks at it, superficially, one would want to ask; why was the president not allowed to express himself through the instrumentality of the deleted post? Much as there is a need for the President to issue a statement on the challenges bedevilling the nation at the moment, he needs to be guided by the diplomatic demands of the institution of the “Office of the Nigerian President”.
The president should not have stooped so low. But unfortunately, some people on Facebook are busy comparing Kanu and President Buhari.
Are their respective offices equal? I don’t think the president needed to come to the level of Kanu.
I expect him to respond militarily, not verbally. Militarily in the sense that, forces should have been deployed to the region, before the situation, got out of hand.
Now that Twitter is on suspension, we begin to count our losses, just as the company too will begin to learn its lessons. Nigerian economy has no doubt taken a hit, no matter how little, just like Twitter would have taken a blow through lack of access to its site by over 40 million Nigerians who are the largest in Africa.
The decision just went on to vindicate Twitter over its choice of Ghana as its regional headquarters in Africa, on the ground that, there is more freedom of expression in Ghana than in Nigeria.
But if the Federal Government feels that National security, which is of utmost importance is under threat, and acts accordingly, there is nothing anybody can do about it.
The diplomatic cost of the Federal Government’s decision has started manifesting, as UK, US EU , Canadian, and Irish Governments have strongly condemned the act of the Federal Government, in the aftermath of the crackdown on twitter.
Meanwhile, these are some of the major players in the circle of international relations and diplomacy. They lay emphasis on the need to safeguard freedom of expression and freedom of access to information and to share same, which is a critical ingredient of a stable and vibrant democracy, anywhere in the world.
Do not get it twisted, freedom without limitation is as good as “no freedom”. Therefore, there is the need to regulate, but how best to regulate still remains a subject of debate across the world. It is not funny, finding Nigeria in the league of pariah nations like North Korea, Iran, China and Turkmenistan who have banned some social media.
On the economic implication for Nigeria; I wonder the perspective from which, the Minister Communication and Digital Economy, Dr. Isa Pantami views it. I wouldn’t know what he thinks about how this affects his mandate and vision for the Ministry, but I know for sure, it is a massive setback, considering what the President told us, when he changed the nomenclature of the Ministry to “Communication and Digital Economy. He said he wants to use ICT, to drive the country’s economy. So it beats my imagination, as to what he would be thinking at the meeting, where the decision ban Twitter was taken.
In actual sense, a lot of businesses, depend on Twitter for survival, as it remains one of the easiest ways to reach out to a large number of potential customers.
So, in this era of dwindling oil revenue, what now becomes of their contribution to the nation’s GDP, especially now that the government depends so heavily on tax?
Then the third standpoint:
Some section of the Nigerian Netizens who style themselves “Buharists”, are seen, gloating on Facebook, the emergence of the military side of Baba.
One, they forget that, it is an assault on one of the most fundamental human rights that once their “Bàbà” is out of office, they would one day, need it to criticise the government.
As they celebrate the ban on Twitter, they forget that, those who have been denied access to Twitter, more likely than not, have a Facebook account. They could transfer their adbocacies to Facebook, thereby, endangering the platform. They would now, be left with traditional media, where they continue their supports for their heroes.
Two, they fail to interrogate Baba’s choice of words, and therefore saw nothing wrong in referencing the civil war, while addressing issues affecting the South East.
Meanwhile, Bàbà has refuse to speak the civil war language to the serial killers in Benue, Zamfara, Sokoto, Kaduna, Katsina (his home State), Kebbi, Niger, Nasarawa states as well as the entire North East.
So, between the crass unpresidential statement of Mr. President, reckless irresponsible biases of Twitter towards antisocial posts, and wild jubilation of an uncritical mass called “Buharists”, who are celebrating the funeral of their own fundamental human rights, it is going to be a lose-lose situation, for Nigeria, Twitter and the uncritical mass. Twitter must understand that, diplomacy is a tool that opens a door with a lost key; not arrogance, especially when you are dealing with a “born again democrat”, like Buhari. I’ll leave you with the parable, that never changes its spots, regardless of the volume of rainfall.
Adebayo Abubakar Writes from Ilorin.