On Thursday, 3rd June, 2021, when the Minister for Information and Culture, Lai Mohammed, called Twitter ‘suspect’ due to the deletion of a controversial tweet of President Muhammadu Buhari, Nigerians knew that the government would get back at the microblogging social media platform. What most Nigerians, especially the youths who have taken Twitter as a handy tool to voice their opinions on various government policies did not envisaged was a total suspension of the site in the country. The action caught most Nigerians unaware like a huge blow from the blue when the Minister, in a statement issued on Friday, 4th, June, 2021, announced that the suspension is indefinite.
The Minister also directed that the National Broadcasting Commission (NBC) to commence the process of licensing all OTT and social media operations in Nigeria.
That the government would hammer social media platforms is to say the least, repressive and a clear departure from the spirit and intent of democracy, one Muhammadu Buhari’s government claims to protect. Although, the government had later come out to clarify that the suspension is only time bound, the singular action would go down in the history of our democracy as one of the darkest moments of freedom of speech.
While Nigerians were yet to recover from the shock, the Minister for Justice, Abubakar Malami, SAN, said the government would prosecute those visiting the site after the ban. We fear that the body language of the government shows it is allergic to criticism. It is only normal for those who voted a government to power to express their opinions on policies and actions of such government.
We appreciate the concern expressed by various Civil Society Organisations, constitutional lawyers and other countries that believe in the spirit of democracy. The Socio-Economic Rights and Accountability Project (SERAP), reacting to the suspension threatened to drag the government to court if the suspension was not rescinded within 48 hours. “The suspension of Twitter in Nigeria is a blatant violation of Nigerians’ rights to freedom of expression and access to information. The suspension has the character of collective punishment and is contrary to Nigeria’s international obligations. President Buhari must immediately rescind this unconstitutional suspension,” SERAP demanded.
The United States Mission Nigeria, also expressed worry that the suspension would have negative impact on foreign investments into the country. “The Government’s recent #Twitterban undermines Nigerians’ ability to exercise this fundamental freedom and sends a poor message to its citizens, investors and businesses. Banning social media and curbing every citizen’s ability to seek, receive, and impart information undermines fundamental freedoms. As President Biden has stated, our need for individual expression, open public conversation, and accountability has never been greater. The path to a more secure Nigeria lies in more, not less communication, alongside concerted efforts toward unity, peace, and prosperity,” the Mission said.
The US Mission Nigeria, also joined the Diplomatic Missions of Canada, the European Union (delegation to Nigeria), the Republic of Ireland, and the United Kingdom to release a statement expressing disappointment over the development. They expressed their strong support for “fundamental human right of free expression and access to information as a pillar of democracy in Nigeria as around the world and these rights apply online and offline.”
They further pointed out that banning systems of expression is not the answer as the measure inhibits access to information and commerce at a time Nigeria needs to foster inclusive dialogue and expression of opinions.
The Buhari-led government needs to be reminded Nigeria is a democratic state and the ultimate power rests with the people. The unfolding development belies any commitment to democratic norms.