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Twitter brouhaha

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Buhari. Photo/TWITTER/NIGERIAGOV

The Buhari-led Federal Government has lately been in the news for the wrong reasons—apart from for the predictable deadpan routine such as Professor Ben Ayade visiting to wave his new APC flag. Before him, the august visitor for whom the APC red carpet was spread was David Umahi, Governor of Ebonyi State. Ayade is a professor of medicine while Umahi is an engineer, both knowledgeable and highly esteemed in their respective fields. I can understand the run of the mill politicians; I can understand politicians who do not have definable means of livelihood… but for politics. From my observatory, both men have done well. I have watched videos of infrastructural developments in the two states. I have seen transformation here and there.

I was particularly fascinated by the defence armour Ayade ringed his state with in the war against COVID-19. If the pandemic later got to his state, it must have been when I stopped monitoring. His efforts were deliberate, flowing from deep knowledge. And go to Ebonyi where Umahi’s roads are paved and the streets of Abakaliki well lit. He fortified the accustomed Igbo business acumen with medium level empowerment programmes and engendered agricultural transformation, according to independent reports I have read and the video I have watched. You would have thought that with their education, their exposure and glittering performance testimonials they would stand by their convictions and prove that there could still be men of principle despite the rottenness, the exacerbated mess and fouled-up environment into which the country has been glaringly plunged in these recent years.

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Three weeks ago, the Southern Governors held a surprise meeting in Asaba where they passed a 10-point resolution which ventilated the concerns of the people of their states. The resolutions included placing ban on open grazing, restructuring so that more powers could be devolved to the states, the establishment of state police in view of the level of insecurity in the land and the fact that governors who are the chief security officers of their states are helpless in tackling it effectively. They also drew attention to the troubling lopsided appointments in critical areas of Nigerian governance to ensure equity and inclusiveness in order to strengthen the oneness of the country.

That in particular triggers distrust and is tearing the country apart engendered by this spectre of domination. What caught the ire of the Presidency was the ban on open grazing of cattle, echoing the sentiments of the attorney-general who only looked at one side of the organic law, and dismissed it as of “questionable legality”, a curb on free movement which is guaranteed by the constitution, a practice Nigerians at the receiving end describe as anachronistic. They say open grazing is already overtaken by demographic, physical and economic developments in the Southern and Middle Belt states. Besides, it has led to cows destroying farms and their armed herders killing and maiming unarmed farmers who lost their investments when they complained, apart from having the dignity of their women unconscionably violated. Animal husbandry is a private business as farming is, both deserving protection from governments. The Presidency’s preferred option is the rehabilitation of grazing reserves which it is financing and is taking off this month. The governors on the other hand would rather choose ranching quoting their people that cattle enterprise is private business and taking into account deep-rooted primordial concerns of their people on land and water ownership.

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The latest misstep is the ill-conceived fiat suspending Twitter site by the Federal Government. The suspension was sudden, giving scant regards to its effects on social, educational and economic engagements of the citizens and reputational implications for the country. About 33 million Nigerians are hooked on social media, with a majority finding Twitter platform easy and convenient to connect with their world. Many sleep and wake with it. Corporate chiefs use it to run their offices, so do city fathers to gather information and follow developments in their domains. Its users cut across all classes and government functionaries. Such is its utility that Buhari himself found it handy to communicate. It was in fact the use to which he had put his handle that triggered the action and reaction—action by Twitter and reaction by Buhari; the Ministry of Information; the Ministry of Communications and Digital Economy and the Nigerian Communication Commission (NCC) which ordered all broadcast organisations to take down their Twitter blogging sites. It is an abridgement of the rights of Nigerians to freedom of expression, freedom to access information and disseminate same.

Using Twitter handle, the President had 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.” Twitter thought the statement detracted from their rules and deleted the post. The statement also enraged Nigerians in large measure. The statement was coming for the second time; the first was when Buhari paid a courtesy visit on the Emir of Katsina in 2017. IPOB boys were just gathering strength and storm at the time. That the activities of the boys festered and things were going to get out of hand was as a result of poor human management on Buhari’s part. He believes more on iron hand and cracking down on issue of this nature than on dialogue. I did suggest at the time: Get a Christopher Kolade and Professor Pat Utomi to meet with the boys, Kolade whose wisdom would disarm and his sense of humour would melt a stone. Utomi would rub in scholarship, history and warmth to reassure the young men. Kolade and Utomi would then lead them to Aso Rock with Professor Ben Nwabueze as their attorney and father figure.

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The discussion begins, I did suggest, with the President saying, ringing it with some humour to cool tempers and get the boys to settle: Young man,’’ referring to Nnamdi Kanu, “What do you want?” He could proceed by saying, “Before we go further, you, Nnamdi and I must engage in a boxing duel. Whoever knocks the other’s teeth wins?” There would be laughter and Nnamdi would realise that so this stiff man seen from afar is a human being, approachable and friendly after all. The serious discussion that was to follow would then end with the President asking Nnamdi to give him a paper on his vision of Nigeria, and promising him and his team that there would be another meeting. They would rise and there would be the shaking of hands, jokes and laughter and more laughter, and they would disperse. That is if I were President Buhari. Alas, politics is not my path!

While ruminating on the Twitter imbroglio, I stumbled on the robust submission by a legal luminary whose thoughts could be illuminating and profoundly educative. He is former President of the Nigerian Bar Association, Joseph Daudu whose position on the establishment of state police this column has quoted repeatedly. State police is for law and order, he said, evincing the greatness of simplicity and its victory for all times. That for this column says it all. On the suspension of Twitter he said in a thoughtful, informed and fascinating submission to THISDAY newspaper that every Nigerian who operates a Twitter account does so in his own name, including President Buhari, even if the underlying objective is to promote the objectives and aspirations of his constituency, business outfit or even office.” He said although President Buhari is an eminent personality, “he is an individual customer of Twitter with no greater rights than the other millions of persons who have also subscribed to Twitter and agreed to their rules and conditions. Twitter perceived that Buhari broke its rules and applying one of the sanctions open to it removed the offending tweet. Whether the account was blocked or suspended is really not the issue at this point in time.

What is important is that our President was accordingly sanctioned for breaking the rules of an outfit he freely subscribed to. Put in very basic terms, Twitter is an information disseminating club for like-minded people who have agreed to be bound by its rules. Once Twitter throws a person out of its clubhouse, that person is presumed to be in breach of its Rules. If Buhari was aggrieved with the decision of the Twitter management that suspended his personal account, a number of remedies are open to the President to seek redress including leaving the said platform.”

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Daudu said “the action taken by Twitter management is not an action against Nigeria’s political, diplomatic or other state interest.” He went on to say that Buhari lacked the power to use state apparatus and institutions to hit or get back at Twitter, which is what he has done in retaliation by banning them from Nigeria using state institutions such as the NBC and the NCC to deprive all Nigerians from their access to Twitter. He remarked that with the action by Buhari millions of Nigerians had been denied their constitutional right to access information, impart knowledge, associate with persons of like minds on a local and even national level. Mr. Daudu said tax payers are paying for the running of these institutions and not the President. The institutions are not his personal property. It is clear that Buhari’s personal rights are not superior to those of other Nigerians who carry out polite, legitimate business on Twitter.” The national newspaper reported Daudu as saying that President Buhari used the power of office to supplant Nigerians’ right to freedom of information and association as guaranteed by a plethora of legislations, basically Chapter 4 of the 1999 Constitution (as amended), African Charter of Human and Peoples Rights and the United Nations Charter on Human Rights.’’

Daudu said Buhari was not helpless; rather than suspending Twitter operations in Nigeria, he should have sought redress in court or through arbitration and damages for any wrong that might have been done to him. Blaming the President’s hawkish action on his militant and excitable lieutenants and assistants that surround him, Daudu urged the President “to treat Nigerians more as human beings with rights. We mean no harm. We just want to be governed properly and peacefully with access to all rights given freely to us by the 1999 Constitution.”

Buhari and his handlers ought to be worried that prominent and international apolitical figures such as Pastor Enoch Adeboye, the General Overseer of the Redeemed Christian Church of God and Pastor William Kumuyi of Deeper Life Bible Church could openly defy the order of the Administration they bend over backwards to encourage and in which they have a foothold. Both clergy men said their tweets are in line with the United Nations’ Declaration on Human Rights.

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Adeboye said: “The Redeemed Christian Church of God is domiciled in more than 170 Nations and Territories. The tweets here are in accordance to Article 19 of the UN universal declaration of Human rights.” Pastor Kumuyi stated the stance f his church as follows: “In view of the Twitter ban in Nigeria, please, note that the content shared on this handle is targeted at a global audience in more than five continents and over 100 Nations and we share the content from any of these locations.”

These are not flippant and reckless personalities. If they and Nasir el Rufai Governor of Kaduna State, an ardent ally of Buhari, could defy the Federal Government ban on Twitter because it was going to disrupt their local and international obligations— without warning, it calls for sober reflection and donning in a cloak of humility. The lesson in all of this is that President Buhari should consult much more widely, beyond his narrow circles of advisers and apologists on major steps that may have far reaching implications. He ought to see that the vaunted Buhari magic is ebbing away and the idolized myth is unraveling.

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