On the morning of June 5, 23-year-old Farida Garba* opened her Twitter app to discover that she, like 39 million other Nigerian Twitter users, was unable to access the platform.
“Tweets were no longer loading, and it took me an hour to figure 0ut what had happened,” Garba* — who opted to use this pseudonym for her personal safety — told BuzzFeed News.
Just the day before, Nigeria’s government had announced it would be suspending Twitter operations in the country, ironically through the Twitter account of the Federal Ministry of Information and Culture. On the day the ban went live, the Association of Licensed Telecommunications Operators of Nigeria, which represents all telecommunications companies and service providers in the country, confirmed that its members had received orders from the federal government to suspend the access of all network users to Twitter.
The government called the ban “temporary” but didn’t specify how long it would be in effect. Neither did Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari, who, when asked about the future of the ban in a rare interview, remained tight-lipped and said he would keep the timeline to himself.
To many, the announcement of the ban seemed to be in response to Twitter’s decision to delete a tweet made by Buhari, citing it as a violation of the app’s rules against “abusive behavior.” His account was also suspended for 12 hours.
The controversial tweet threatened to treat rebel groups assumed to be behind recent attacks on security agents in Southeastern Nigeria with force reminiscent of that during the Biafra–Nigerian Civil War from 1967 to 1970. Buhari’s message, a direct quote from a speech he had given, was met with criticism, with many raising alarm about the potential harm it could cause in a country that continues to grapple with ethnic rivalries and separatist tensions led by those looking to breakaway from Nigeria and restore an independent state of Biafra.
In response to the tweet being deleted, the minister of information and culture, Lai Mohammed, held a press conference in the capital, Abuja, calling Twitter’s activities in Nigeria “suspect” and accusing the platform of having an “agenda.”
Days later, the ban was announced and swiftly enacted without any deliberation from the legislative arm, leaving many Nigerians in disbelief.
Since then, only a few people have been able to access Twitter using virtual private networks to bypass the restriction. The government also stated that anyone circumventing the ban would be prosecuted.
In the West African country, social media has played an integral role in giving citizens the opportunity to voice their opinions and openly express their frustrations with the government outside of election cycles. In October 2020, the microblogging platform was crucial in sustaining the #EndSARS protests against police brutality, which lasted for more than two weeks before ending in a massacre of at least 12 people by military officers.
Before the #EndSARS movement’s brutal end, Twitter helped protesters organize, secure donations, allocate resources, and keep demonstrators on the ground and online in contact with one another. When the Central Bank of Nigeria, acting on federal orders, blocked donations to almost two dozen bank accounts linked to the protests, Twitter founder Jack Dorsey signaled his support for the demonstrations by tweeting that Nigerians should adopt bitcoin as an alternative.
Many Nigerians believe that the ban is also partially a retaliation against Dorsey’s actions during the fall protests.
“The protests began and gained considerable momentum thanks to social media,” 23-year-old journalist Eniafe Momodu told BuzzFeed News. “It was probably the first time a lot of the older generation of Nigerians, including most of our government officials, really understood the power and impact of social media.”
Even before #EndSARS, though, the Nigerian government, under the administration of Buhari, has been persistent in its attempts to establish social media restrictions. In 2019, the anti-social media bill, which sought to criminalize the use of social media in “peddling false or malicious information,” was proposed. The bill was opposed by members of the public, who launched petitions while calling it a bid to further police the population, and was eventually killed.
Before that, in 2015, another now-withdrawn piece of legislation named the Frivolous Petitions (Prohibitions) Bill was introduced less than a year after Buhari came into power. The proposed law threatened up to seven years in prison or a $25,000 fine for anyone found guilty of publishing “false information that could threaten the security of the country.”
The Twitter ban and threats to prosecute are illegal according to Nigeria’s constitution, the Universal Declaration on Human Rights, and the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights, human rights lawyer Ridwan Oke told BuzzFeed News.
“They all talk about the same thing, which is the right to freedom of expression. They are inalienable rights,” said Oke.
Several human rights organizations have spoken out against this ban, with the Socio-Economic Rights and Accountability Project taking the federal government to the Economic Community of West African States court, with 176 concerned Nigerians joining in to file the lawsuit.
The move to block Twitter has received support from former US president Donald Trump, who suggested that he should have done the same thing while he was in office and accused social media platforms of “not allowing free and open speech.”
It would be hard to quantify how much this ban is affecting the millions of people who consider Twitter to be a major resource. Nigerians we spoke to have shared that they are feeling upset, anxious, or afraid, and most say they are still in disbelief.
“When the ban was announced, I felt scared, like something bad was going to happen and we would not be able to reach out for help,” Olapeju Jolaoso, a 28-year-old business owner, told BuzzFeed News. “My first customers were off Twitter. Now I am just scared to tweet from my business account; I am scared that they will harass me. It's scarier because you can’t predict their next line of actions,” she continued.
Adding to her frustration is the fact that Jolaoso, who had a network of vendors on Twitter, has had to move her online business operations to other apps like Telegram and Facebook.
But Twitter’s advantages also rest on the safety and community it provides for women and queer folks — both heavily marginalized groups in the country. Somi, a Nigerian nonbinary, trans woman, considers this ban to be a huge detriment.
“Twitter is a place I turned to find friends and community,” said the 19-year-old, who is currently crowdfunding for their medical transition. “To look for advice and encouragement without judgment from the outside world. It was here I [used my voice] and I got all the help I needed.”
For 21-year-old queer liberation activist and writer Ani Kayode Somtochukwu, the potential impact on LGBTQ Nigerians who see social media apps like Twitter to escape is huge.
“For us, social media is not just about convenience in organizing — it is also about safety. We cannot legally gather without being targeted by the law,” he said.
In Nigeria displays of affection with members of the same sex is an offense that carries a 10-year jail term.
Somtochukwu also said that if the ban continues, LGBTQ Nigerians will suffer.
“It will mean the loss of community, the loss of access to sometimes life-saving information, loss of access to help in times of need,” he said.
For Nigerian women, Twitter has been helpful in the fight against inequality and the rising violence perpetrated against them. Campaigns like the Yaba Market March, which sought to fight the culture of groping and sexual harassment, have found their lives on Twitter.
“This has become a space for shared opportunities, a place to call against the violation of our rights, to provide emotional support, etc.,” explained PR consultant and activist Ebele Molua. “We struggle to find an outlet to sustain ourselves in a society that doesn’t care about the human rights and the progressiveness of marginalized groups.”
Experts suggest that Nigeria stands to lose a lot with this ban. According to NetBlocks’ Cost of Shutdown Tool, Nigeria loses just over $6 million every day that Twitter remains inaccessible. The ramifications also include damage to the nation’s reputation as a democracy, said Adeboye Adegoke, a senior program manager at Paradigm Initiative, which advocates for digital inclusion and digital rights in Africa.
“The incumbent government in Nigeria already proved many times that it does not believe in democratic ideals,” said Adegoke. “Moves like this dissuade investors. So there’s definitely that impact on FDI (foreign direct investment) that I hope we can find a way to measure so we can factually tell what has been lost potentially.”
For many Nigerians, there doesn’t seem to be an end in sight.
“I don't think the ban will be reversed soon,” Cheta Nwanze, one of Nigeria’s political thought leaders and a lead at SBM Intelligence, told BuzzFeed News.
“This particular government has a track record of doubling down on bad ideas …I sincerely hope I'm wrong, but I see this ban lasting until the election season.”
As it stands, young Nigerians are conflicted on the way forward. Some of the sources we spoke to have no idea what comes next and are simply choosing to wait out the ban. “I am very scared about a protest because these people have killed us before, [and] they will likely do it again,” said Garba.
Others, however, were looking forward to heading back to the streets for protests such as those that took place on June 12 to coincide with Nigeria’s Democracy Day. The demonstrations, which were held in different parts of the country, were largely peaceful but were met with a heavy Nigerian police force presence. Officers didn’t hesitate to use force and violence, teargassing some while arresting others.
Molua said she doesn’t believe “Nigerians can be patient much longer.”
“October woke something up in us, inasmuch as it shook us to our core,” she said. “It showed us that we can have a voice and demand better from our leaders if we went as one voice, and I hope that [can] indeed bring us victory eventually.” ●