On Friday, June 4, 2021, the Minister of Information and Culture, Lai Mohammed, announced in a statement made available on Twitter that the Federal Government had suspended the operations of Twitter in Nigeria indefinitely. The statement cited the use of Twitter for activities that threatened “Nigeria’s corporate existence” as the reason for the ban. The statement went further to announce that social media sites and streaming services would be licensed by the Federal Government.
This came days after Twitter deleted a tweet by President Muhammadu Buhari, which many people interpreted as threatening civil war-like violence in the South East. The tweet read: “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 was reported by users on Twitter and was subsequently deleted by the social media company.
In adherence to the Federal Government’s ban, from midnight on Saturday, June 5, mobile network operators began to block access to both the Twitter app and website. ALTON, the umbrella body of telecommunication operators in Nigeria, released a statement confirming that its members had blocked access to Twitter, following instructions received from the Nigerian Communications Commission (NCC), its industry regulator.
The legality of the Federal Government’s ban on Twitter is questionable as it can be said that the ban is an infringement of the right of Nigerians to freely express themselves and to freely operate (and use) “any medium for the dissemination of information, ideas and opinions” as provided under section 39 of the 1999 constitution (as amended).
Twitter has been a medium with which Nigerians have shared opinions, organized popular movements, and held the government to account—all attributes of a democratic society.
It is instructive to note that in banning the operations of Twitter, the Federal Government did not rely on any law that gives them such powers. This is because there are no such laws. Neither the Cybercrimes Act 2015 (that deals with the improper usage of digital communication) nor the Nigerian Communications Commission Act 2003 (under which the NCC draws its powers) provides for the shutting down of social media sites.
Expectedly, the move has drawn condemnation from civil society and the general public. SERAP, a human rights non-profit organisation, and the Nigerian Bar Association have both resolved to challenge the ban in court.
However, a challenge to the ban may be delayed due to the ongoing strike of the Judiciary Staff Union of Nigeria, which has prevented courts from sitting over the past several weeks.
It is hoped that the government listens to good counsel and reverses its undemocratic decision to stifle free speech, failing which the courts must uphold the constitutional rights of Nigerians.
Nigeria joins a disreputable list of select countries that have banned Twitter in their territories. These include China, Turkmenistan, Iran, and North Korea. These countries share a similar trait which is the lack of democratic freedoms. Nigeria cannot be allowed to go down this path. The ban must be lifted.
Olawale Atanda is a technology lawyer writing from Lagos. He can be reached at [email protected]