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Nigeria and Twitter – Part 2

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Furthermore, in seeking to over-regulate the media, the executive arm of government is indirectly straying into the province of the judicial arm of government, in seeking to impose fines, shut down media houses or restrict access to the internet, without a court order to that effect. First, section 22 of the 1999 Constitution imposes a mandatory obligation upon the press and mass media to hold the government accountable to the people. How can this be done in an atmosphere where the media is gagged and strangled? Second, section 39 (1) of the Constitution grants direct, express and explicit freedom of expression, including the freedom to receive, disseminate and impart ideas and information without interference, the emphasis being on the words ‘without interference’, which simply means without disturbance, without any hindrance or obstruction. Third, it is totally wrong and unlawful for the executive arm to always seek to take over, whittle down or undermine the constitutional responsibilities of the other arms of government, especially the judiciary. 

One should also be concerned about the economic impact of the suspension of Twitter on Nigeria. It is said that there are not less than forty million users of Twitter in Nigeria, accounting for about 25.52% or about ¼ of the 100 internet users across the nation. How will these citizens not be affected by the apparent denial or restriction of their constitutional right to freedom of expression? So far, it is reported that Nigeria has lost about N7.5B in just three days and stands to lose about N65B in thirty days, if the ban persists. Surely, the government could not have deliberately set out to violate the right granted by the Constitution to its citizens, as Twitter users cut across families, political parties, religion and even tribes.

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It has also been stated that a number of young Nigerians and entrepreneurs deploy Twitter to promote their businesses and brands. The government is daily talking about promoting the ease of doing business, with the E-Commerce economy now said to be in the average of $12B. In a country where many sectors have been adversely affected by the global coronavirus pandemic, where the deteriorating security situation has led to the closure of many businesses and vocations, social media offers a veritable platform for the actualization of business plans, especially for the youth cadre. This should form a major consideration in the minds of those in authority, as when two elephants fight, the grass always takes the brunt.

The worrisome aspect of this whole matter is the threat by the Honourable Attorney-General of the Federation, to prosecute anyone found violating the policy of the government on the suspension of Twitter. I believe even as I write this now, there is still no law in force in Nigeria, making the use of Twitter an offence. It is thus doubtful therefore, if the threat of prosecution is to be based upon the declarations of the Honourable Minister of Information alone or the arbitrary disconnection of Twitter users by the telecommunication companies, all of which must have subscribed their customers to unlimited internet usage. Section 36 (12) of the Constitution provides that “a person shall not be convicted of a criminal offence unless that offence is defined and the penalty therefore is prescribed in a written law; and in this subsection, a written law refers to an Act of the National Assembly or a Law of a State, and subsidiary legislation or instrument under the provisions of a law.” 

This protection granted by the Constitution was tested in the 1962 case of Aoko v Fagbemi, the defendant was arrested and charged to court for adultery in that she was cohabiting with a man who was not her lawful husband. She pleaded guilty and was summarily sentenced. On appeal, Chief Rotimi Williams, SAN, contended that the court had no jurisdiction to try her for an offence that was not defined and punished by law. The appeal was allowed. I do not think it is proper for anyone to threaten citizens with prosecution for statements made by government officials. Things cannot get that bad for our democratic country.

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My take on all these is that both parties should have exercised some restraint in the actions that they have taken. Twitter being a private organization that the President willingly subscribed to, he is bound by the Rules set up by the owners of the business and should not deploy his official position in aid of a personal grievance. On the other hand, Twitter should learn to give room for first offenders, by creating the template for warnings and such other sanctions that would not lead to outright punishment. It is the first time that the President has had this challenge and he should have been given an opportunity to remedy the alleged breach of the Rules of engagement. I do not agree however, that our beloved nation Nigeria should be ranked amongst countries like China, North Korea and other totalitarian regimes that have the infamous record of banning, suspending or hindering social media. I urge the President to direct the reinstatement of Twitter in Nigeria whilst Twitter should take a second look at its policies and Rules to give room for engagement when perceived violations occur.

The statement by the President, re-igniting the echoes of the civil war was bad enough; to then proceed to post it on social media and insist that it should be kept as such, is most provocative and unexpected of the father of any nation. We cannot in good conscience compare the President with Mr. Nnamdi Kanu or any other individual, in deciding the enormity or weight to ascribe to posts to be retained on social media. Indeed, there have been very positive sides to social media, especially in aiding criminal investigations, in gathering intelligence and in tracking criminals and their sponsors. If we proceed on account of individual biases to block the channels that these platforms provide, we may end up cutting our nose to spite our face. Suspending Twitter on this occasion, is definitely an overkill. 
Concluded.
Adegboruwa is a Senior Advocate of Nigeria SAN.

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