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#EndSARS protest
via Unsplash

Nigeria’s Twitter ban is a worrying step back to a dark past

Social media has galvanised some of Nigeria’s most modern youth movements like #EndSARS – but the country’s history of censorship, crackdowns, and civil war loom large

On June 4, President Muhammadu Buhari of Nigeria banned the use of Twitter in the country, for what he claims is “the persistent use of the platform for activities that are capable of undermining Nigeria’s corporate existence”. The former military dictator took the decision after a tweet of his was removed by the platform.

“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,” the now-deleted tweet read, referencing the country’s Biafran War of 1967-70, in which three million people, mostly of Igbo origin, died. “Those of us in the fields for 30 months, who went through the war, will treat them in the language they understand.”

The message about “misbehaving” was aimed at members of the separatist organisation Indigenous People of Biafra (IPOB) and the Igbo population who, in remembrance of their dead, had stayed at home on May 31 to observe the 54th anniversary of the declaration of Biafra.

In a move that further sparked freedom of speech concerns, the government asked all social media platforms and online broadcasting service providers operating in Nigeria to apply for a broadcast licence. Shortly after, it ordered federal prosecutors to arrest and prosecute any users of the Twitter app.

The ban, widely condemned by citizens and international commentators as an attack on human rights, is an unprecedented move in a country whose democracy is still unstable, 22 years after military rule. For many Nigerians, it is a grim reminder of a past we barely escaped.

In 1994, the year I was born, Nigeria was ruled by General Sani Abacha, a brutish kleptocrat who has gone down as one of the worst villains in our history. He seized power from a three-month-old interim civilian government and, for five years, sought to drown Nigeria in darkness. His corruption, unparalleled, took on a myth of its own. His enemies were anyone who said “no”. He executed and imprisoned activists, journalists, lawyers, civil society leaders, and shut down press freedom. Nigeria survived only because he died – from a reported heart attack or poisoning.

The man that Abacha ousted from interim office was Ernest Shonekan, and the man that replaced Shonekan was General Ibrahim Badamosi Babangida. The man that Babangida and Abacha unseated was Major General Muhammadu Buhari, who at 41 was already the country’s oldest military ruler. In 2003, 2007, and 2011, Buhari, now a retired general and respected in the north of the country, ran for president. He is Fulani, and, the first two times, his running mates were Igbo, the country’s third largest ethnic group. Each of those times Buhari ran for president, most people from the southeast, the homeland of the Igbo, voted against his ticket. 

In 2015, Buhari returned, running with a Yoruba man as he did in 2011, Yemi Osinbajo, and, even as most southeasterners voted against him once more, he beat the incumbent Goodluck Jonathan, a former university lecturer whose minority ethnicity, Ogbia (often misrepresented as Ijaw), was as much ammunition against him as was the massive corruption in his administration and his lack of convincing leadership.

”My generation’s ability to organise on Twitter has become a threat” – Otosirieze

Buhari won on a platform of “change”, but in his first four years turned Nigeria into a cesspit of political and economic woes, extending his legacy of recessions. He was, curiously, reelected in 2019. A year later, young Nigerians were on the streets for #EndSARS, a turning point for a movement that started on Twitter. All we wanted was for the government to end the Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS) unit, and to be held accountable. What we got were threats, harassment, and violence, a massacre: live bullets at Lekki. My generation’s ability to organise on Twitter has become a threat.

Without Twitter, #EndSARS might not have happened so quickly. The hashtag started on the platform years ago, and in the heat of the protests, an emoji was created in support, and Twitter’s founder Jack Dorsey helped to raise funds. Without #EndSARS, Buhari’s government would not have been pushed so quickly to reveal its true nature with the world watching.

Support for the IPOB was already on the rise before Buhari took office, but it was his exclusionary comments about the southeastern region that won the movement an even bigger following. Buhari has since enforced heavy military presence in the region. Between 2015 and 2017, notably in the cities of Aba, Umuahia, and Onitsha, they have killed young Igbo men, often without explanation or consequences. 

For most Igbo people, Buhari’s genocidal tweet was a shocking moment in their relationship with Nigeria as a country. The president was now threatening a region with violence, raging against people for remembering their history. Somehow, 51 years after the end of that unresolved war, 23 years after the death of Abacha, our lives are again in the hands of a dictator.

In his six years so far as president, Buhari has singlehandedly dipped us back into some of the worst moments, politically and economically, in our history – all moments that he, as a former soldier and head of state, played a role in creating or maintaining. Through his words, actions, and non-governance, he has created a darkly disturbing atmosphere of insecurity, of fear, of casual talk of “another war”.

In turning up the heat and clamping down on criticism, it must be noted that Buhari, a man who has praised Abacha, has had help from some of the traditional media which repeated propaganda against #EndSARS protesters by calling us “hoodlums,” against IPOB and Shiite protesters, and enabling the conditions that excused the military to shoot unarmed civilians in each instance. He has had help from some writers, journalists, and social media influencers who chose patronage over truth, money over human lives, and even took active steps to silence dissent among colleagues. In today’s Nigeria, stating the facts has become a game of calculated risk. News site People’s Gazette was blocked by the government for reporting facts. Journalists are endangered.

In true Nigerian fashion, most people – enraged as they are – have simply adapted and switched to virtual private networks (VPNs), causing the hashtags #NigeriaTwitterBan and #KeepItOn to trend. Businesses have been affected, with reports that the country lost over N2 billion (almost $5 million) within the first 24 hours of the ban. For young people, it is yet another reminder that the presidency does not care, that they must, as usual, strive on their own.

The Socio-Economic Rights and Accountability Project and 176 Nigerians filed for an interim injunction against the implementation of the ban at the ECOWAS court of justice in Abuja, the national capital. Meanwhile, Donald Trump, whose trafficking in hate speech also earned him a Twitter ban, has praised Buhari’s actions.

In the weeks since the ban, the number of VPN Twitter users has been on the rise, and hot topics on Nigerian Twitter often rank at number one, even in other countries. Nigeria’s attorney-general Abubakar Malami, who inadvertently revealed that he logged into Twitter after the ban and was roundly criticised, has since denied ordering arrests of Twitter users. A new app, Crowwe, promoted by government loyalists, was removed from the Android Play Store by Google for presumably violating its policy. In the past week, Buhari has done live interviews with Arise TV and NTA, criticising #EndSARS while speaking about how his administration has benefitted the economy.

Nigeria is returning back to the Abacha era, and this feels like the first step – after the failed Anti-social Media Bill of 2019 that attempted to criminalise the use of the social media in peddling false or malicious information – in crushing our freedom of expression. As a writer who has pushed back against government censorship and has been worried about his security for over a year now, I believe that their aim is to shut down the internet. If this happens, if Nigeria is isolated from the rest of the world, there is no predicting what might happen to everyone in the country who has ever said “no” out loud.

Otosirieze is a writer, culture journalist, and curator. He is editor-in-chief of Open Country Mag, a multiplatform space covering African literature, and received the inaugural The Future Awards Africa Prize for Literature in 2019