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‘We might choose to live as slaves’ – Nigeria’s social media clampdown raises human rights concern

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Buhari

Nigeria President Muhammadu Buhari. photo: TWITTER/FMICNIGERIA

Nigeria’s recent clampdown on Twitter operations is causing concerns over the country’s commitment to the protection of human rights offline and online.

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Many of these concerns on Nigeria’s quest to regulate Twitter and other social media platforms are hinged on citizen’s rights to freedom of expression as guaranteed in section 39 of the Nigerian constitution.

Twitter’s deletion of President Muhammadu Buhari’s tweet that referenced experiences of the Nigerian civil war – 1967 to 1969 – in early June prefaced the squabble that led to the Nigerian government’s decision to announce an indefinite ban on Twitter operations in the country. But the authorities have insisted the deletion was not the main reason Twitter was suspended in the country.

While over 170 Nigerian civil society organisations are in court to challenge the government’s decision, they express fears that the clampdown on Twitter might be a rehearsal to stifling the platforms that Nigerians use to freely express themselves – for social advocacies, demand accountability from the government and mobilisation – during the #EndSARS protest against police brutality in October 2020.

The Nigerian government has blamed Twitter for the violence that trailed the protests. But critics said the government has been less than truthful about its intentions.

“If the Nigerian government continues down this path, at some point we will have to choose between living like slaves in our own country or rebelling outright against the authority of government – neither of which is a palatable choice,” a Nigerian lawyer Ayo Sogunro told The Guardian in an emailed comment.

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#EndSARS protest against police brutality in October 2020

Sogunro’s comment syncs with those of millions of Nigerians whose voices have been stifled after the ban on Twitter took effect 24 hours after the government made the announcement.

Gbenga Sesan, executive director at Paradigm Initiative, likened the government’s ban on Twitter operations to a “backdoor regulation” of social media that will ground human rights in Nigeria to a “sorry state – where citizens may be forced to endure dictatorial acts”.

He said the ban was an illegal act that “could only go so far because our courts were not open” due to the judiciary workers’ strike at the time but “follows the trend of actions taken by this government so far.”

Nigeria is currently without a legal document that captures citizens’ protection when they exercise their right to freedom of expression on the internet and other digital platforms. The government’s ban of Twitter and threat to prosecute Twitter users who are using virtual private networks (VPN), Gbenga said, indicates the need for legislation in that regard.

“If the bill were already a law, Mr Lai Mohammed (Nigeria’s information and culture minister) would probably be paying some fines by now,” Sesan said.

President Muhammadu Buhari in March 2019 declined assent to the Digital Rights and Freedom Bill that proposed “to provide for the protection of the human rights online, to protect internet users in Nigeria from infringement of their fundamental freedom.”

The proposed legislation was also designed “to guarantee the application of human rights for users of digital platforms and/or digital media and for related matters”.

Declining presidential assent to the bill, Buhari said the proposed legislation covered too many technical subjects and “fails to address any of them extensively.”

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Buhari requested that “the scope of the bill should be limited to the protection of human rights within the digital environment to reduce the challenge of duplication and legislative conflict in the future.”

Sesan, however, said that a revised version of the bill is “still making its way through parliament” as “the current scenario presents an opportunity to use the provisions of the bill to answer the questions we have about rights and fair use of platforms.”

Lai Mohammed

Nigeria’s information and culture minister Lai Mohammed.

Days after the Twitter ban, the Nigerian government ordered all radio and television stations to “de-install” their Twitter accounts and barred them from using content from the platform as comments during their programmes. Major Nigerian stations have since complied with the order from the Nigeria Broadcasting Commission (NBC), a regulatory agency that could withdraw their operational licenses.

While broadcast stations have kowtowed to the order, leading newspapers in the country have dug in and continued to use the social media platform. Many citizens in the country have turned to virtual private network apps to circumvent the government’s action.

Sogunro says “such restrictions on any media – including websites – creates a chilling effect on public criticism and opposition to the government, thus contradicting the ideals of a democratic society” where governments are kept in check by public opinion and dissenting voices.

The UN Human Rights Council in July 2018 enacted a subsisting resolution that demands the promotion, protection and enjoyment of human rights on the Internet for citizens of all member countries. As a nation-member of the multiple international unions, Nigerians are (by these treaties) guaranteed the freedom of exercising their rights without fear or intimidation but their rights are being threatened according to Sogunro and Sesan.

Nigeria’s information and culture minister Lai Mohammed denies claims that citizen’s freedom of expression was threatened because of the Twitter ban and an order mandating social media platforms to be registered with the government.

Mohammed insisted that Nigeria will not allow Twitter’s “suspect role” in the country to “threaten our corporate existence”. But millions of Nigerians are not likely to stop tweeting even if the government insists that its stance on regulating platforms of free speech will not be reversed.

Sogunro advised Nigerians and CSOs to lobby for a legislative procedure to reverse the decision of the government but says if “lobbying continues to fail, then Nigerians have the final option of protesting or striking until the government rescinds its decision.”

He cited loopholes in the Nigerian constitution that renders citizens vulnerable to illegal arrests, extortion, and sometimes extrajudicial killing by security personnel for airing their views.

“The Nigerian Constitution gives with one hand and takes with another,” Sogunro said. “The right to expression is limited to the extent that a restriction on the right is reasonably justifiable in a democratic society in the interests of defence, public safety, public order, public morality or public health. This is why the Buhari government is trying to frame the ban as an issue of public safety.”


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