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The Suspension of Twitter Operations in Nigeria: Beyond Free Speech

July 28, 2021

By Betha Igbinosun

This blog post was submitted as a contribution to the Tabula project, an international and comparative research collaboration carried out over the summer of 2021.

On June 4, 2021, the Federal Republic of Nigeria indefinitely suspended the operations of Twitter in Nigeria, with access to the social networking site now restricted within the country. Paradoxically, the announcement was disseminated through a thread of tweets issued by the Federal Ministry of Information & Culture, with the reason for the suspension given as the “persistent use of the platform for activities that are capable of undermining Nigeria’s corporate existence.”

The suspension came two days after the social networking company deleted a tweet by Nigeria’s President Muhammadu Buhari for violating its terms of use. The tweet drew a connection between the extant instability in many parts of the country and Nigeria’s 1967–70 civil war, threatening to deal with secessionist activities in the southeastern part of Nigeria in a manner akin to the violence inflicted upon the region during the war. In the now-deleted tweet, the president stated, “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 tweet generated immediate public outrage, with many viewing the president’s words as a threat of genocide against the Igbo ethnic group found primarily in Nigeria’s southeast, prompting the deletion of the tweet for violation of Twitter’s “abusive behavior” policy and the suspension of the president’s Twitter account for 12 hours.

In a series of tweet responses, the president of the Nigerian Bar Association noted with great concern the “extraordinary” decision of the federal government to suspend the operations of Twitter in Nigeria and, by extension, the “right of Nigerians to freely express their constitutionally guaranteed opinions through that medium.” It expressed the absence of any constitutional or legal authority on the part of the federal government to carry out such a suspension in the context of a constitutional democracy, and it referenced the adverse impact of the decision on investor confidence at a time when the country’s economy was undeniably struggling.

The actions of the Nigerian federal government come on the heels of several attempts to regulate the use of social media within the country, including the imposition of licensing obligations on social media platforms and online broadcasting service providers within the country, as well as the proposal of several social media regulation bills by the country’s legislative arm. In 2019, for example, the Protection from Internet Falsehoods and Manipulation Bill 2019was introduced, aiming to prohibit the transmission of statements deemed likely to “diminish public confidence in the performance of any duty or function [of the] Government” or be prejudicial to “the security of Nigeria” and “the friendly relations of Nigeria with other countries” and proposing fines and/or prison terms for violation. The bill would also authorize law enforcement agencies to order internet service providers to disable internet and social media access without recourse to a court order.

Nigeria is a democratic state, with the right to freedom of expression firmly established in the country’s 1999 Constitution, specifically section 39(1), which provides that “every person shall be entitled to freedom of expression, including freedom to hold opinions and to receive and impart ideas and information without interference.” Although this right is not absolute, none of the relevant exceptions or limitations—for example, public safety, or the protection of the rights and freedom of other persons—come into play with respect to the suspension.

On June 8, 2021, the Socio-Economic Rights and Accountability Project (SERAP), a Nigeria-based civil society organization, together with several individuals, filed a lawsuit before the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) Community Court of Justice in Abuja, Nigeria, arguing the arbitrary nature of the Twitter suspension and stating that the “suspension and threat of prosecution by the Federal Government constitute a fundamental breach of the country’s international human rights obligations including under Article 9 of the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights and Article 19 of International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.” Several other lawsuits were filed regarding the suspension, and on July 10, 2021, the Community Court of Justice issued an order consolidating the various lawsuits. The court subsequently adjourned until September 29, 2021, to enable the parties prepare for trial.

While the outcome of the lawsuit is awaited, it is important to highlight that free speech is not the only thing affected by the suspension. NOI polls for 2019 indicate that about 22 million Nigerians have a Twitter account, and for many, Twitter has become more than a social networking site, with scores of individuals and businesses relying on the platform to advertise and promote their services, attract investment, circulate job openings, locate missing people, and even crowdfund for sick loved ones and other needs. Many Nigerians, ranging from social media influencers to content creators and others, have built careers using social networking platforms like Twitter, and the suspension poses a threat to their livelihoods. As of July 28, 2021, Nigeria is indicated to have lost about $243 million since the suspension has been in place, with projections showing the potential of the suspension to further weaken the country’s economy and amplify extant high unemployment levels.

The suspension also carries with it public health and data security implications. For example, the Twitter account of the Nigeria Centre for Disease Control was a major medium through which COVID-19 infection rates were communicated to many Nigerians, but no tweets have been issued from the account since the suspension. Many have turned to Virtual Private Networks (VPNs) to circumvent the ban. However, the widespread use of VPNs raises data security concerns, especially as most Nigerians are likely to utilize free versions of VPNs, which makes them vulnerable to data theft and other forms of hacking, as opposed to more secure fee-based VPNs.

Nigeria is on its way to becoming Africa’s largest tech hub, with international investors becoming increasingly attracted to Nigeria’s promising digital economy. For example, Flutterwave, a leading Nigerian fintech company, recently received $170 million from international investors after a Series C round and is currently valued at over $1 billion. Investors, however, are averse to regulatory disruptions and volatile environments. In April 2021, Twitter set up operations in Ghana, and the statement announcing the decision cited Ghana as a “supporter of free speech, online freedom, and the Open Internet.”

Beyond an infringement of constitutional rights, the policies of the Nigerian government threaten to steer prospective investors toward other stable economies and hinder the ability of the country to attract much-needed foreign investment, making a reevaluation of the Twitter suspension imperative.