Nigeria appears to be backing away from its Twitter ban, calling it “temporary” after diplomats condemned the move and activists said it was linked to the government’s anger with the company after protests against police brutality swept the country last year using the hashtag “#EndSARS” .
Telecom operators on Saturday cut Nigerians’ access to Twitter on government orders after the company removed a message from President Muhammadu Buhari for violating its abusive language policy. Buhari’s post, who appeared to threaten to crack down on separatists in southeastern Nigeria, was deleted on Wednesday.
“There has been a litany of problems with the social media platform in Nigeria, where misinformation and fake news spread through it have had violent real-world consequences,” said Garba Shehu, a spokesperson for Buhari. “All this time, the company has escaped liability.”
The government, which has increasingly sought to regulate social media, has attributed the increasing violence in the southeast to the outlawed separatist movement of Biafra’s indigenous people. Shehu said Buhari’s since-deleted tweet had “only reiterated that their violence will be met with violence”.
“Big tech companies need to take responsibility,” Shehu said, without specifying when Twitter’s “temporary suspension” would end.
The episode is just the latest example of growing tensions between social media companies and political leaders. Twitter suspended former US President Donald Trump in January and last week Facebook said it would keep Trump suspended for at least two years.
Buhari, 78, has long been accused of living in the past, especially when the former general ruled Nigeria as a military dictator in the early 1980s and press freedom was curtailed.
Nigeria’s Attorney General Abubakar Malami said on Saturday that he would prosecute violators of the Twitter ban. But on Sunday, many Nigerians circumvented the ban by using VPNs and posting with the hashtag #KeepItOn.
Local activists said the Twitter episode is just the latest example of creeping government authoritarianism. They linked it to protests over police brutality last year, when Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey tweeted his support using the hashtag #EndSARS.
“Since EndSARS, the government has been uncomfortable with Twitter, so that’s all” [come to a] head with the removal of the President Buhari tweet,” said Idayat Hassan, director of the Abuja-based Center for Democracy and Development. “This government is not friendly with criticism, nor does it understand youth and the power of social media.”
The Twitter ban is “only part of the consequent assault on public spaces and Nigeria’s complete descent into authoritarianism,” Hassan added.
The move to EndSARS, which refers to Nigeria’s Special Anti-Robbery Squad, has been largely dormant since a violent crackdown at the Lekki toll gate in Lagos last October when soldiers opened fire on peaceful protesters.
The Twitter ban is “about EndSARS where the country’s leaders felt disrespected for the way young people showed good governance as opposed to the bad leadership they have.” [shown] all these years,” said Rinu Oduala, a 22-year-old activist.
Twitter is used by only a small percentage of Nigerians, but it is popular among activists, journalists and politicians. The company said in a statement it was “deeply concerned” about the ban and would “work to restore access for all those Nigerians who depend on Twitter”.
Diplomats from the EU, the UK, Ireland, Norway and Canada criticized the move in a joint statement. The US embassy in Nigeria added that the ban “undermines Nigerians’ ability to exercise freedom of expression and that it “sends a bad signal to its citizens, investors and businesses”.
“The road to a safer Nigeria lies in more, not less communication, alongside joint efforts for unity, peace and prosperity,” the embassy said in a statement.
Ayisha Osori, head of the Open Society Initiative for West Africa, said it was “alarming” that telecom operators, including Airtel and MTN, also immediately enforced the policy without a court order. She said the ban reflected the way authority has long been exercised in the country.
“We wouldn’t be here if there was more than one way to be in power and have power over people” in Nigeria, she said. “But because in Nigeria there is always a hard way to deal with power, we are here.”