By Kọ́lá Túbọ̀sún
Nigeria has slipped back to dictatorship
It was already clear when dozens of protesters were shot in October 2020 for demanding a change to the behaviour of heavy-handed security agencies. But it has become even clearer. President Muhammadu Buhari, formerly the military dictator of the country from 1984-85, used threatening language on Twitter last week in response to agitations in the southeastern part of the country. The tweet in question, a threat to use “the language they will understand” against civilian protesters, was deleted shortly afterward by Twitter for violating its policies. Two days later, the government announced an indefinite ban on Twitter, because its actions in the country were “capable of undermining Nigeria’s corporate existence.” As of today, millions of citizens can only access the social media platform through VPNs.
The real reason for the ban, of course, is to silence a citizenry that found, through social media, an unfettered speech and a way to hold the leadership accountable through screenshots, quote tweets, replies, satire, mockery, and humour. This has not gone down well with their political leaders who consider it an affront to the old ways of ruling, as Minister of Information Lai Mohammed accidentally implied during the week. “Books and all forms of writing have always been objects of terror to those who seek to suppress truth,” as Wole Soyinka once wrote.
The surprising efficiency of the ban—most telecommunications providers quickly complied, even though the policy was not passed through legislation and could be subject to court litigation on the basis of free speech—illustrates the priorities of an administration that has spent the last couple of weeks weakly upbraiding kidnappers and bandits ravaging the country. As I write this, there’s news of another extrajudicial murder in a community in Oyo state. As with the other murders or kidnappings, the government will not respond with efficiency. It appears that only when it concerns silencing citizens’ rights to protest and demand better that the government gets its mojo. For everything else, we citizens are on our own.
But social media in Nigeria, especially for the young people who populate it, isn’t just about political expression. Many people use it to promote their business, sell their wares, express personal social or religious opinions, read and share the news, including of crimes in progress or road traffic, make friends, find mates, advocate for causes, including recently finding the culprit in a recent kidnapping, or just share news often not covered by mainstream media. Even government officials use it to offer opinions and weigh in on issues, and some of them complained in April when Twitter announced that its first office in West Africa would be in Ghana and not Nigeria.
So the ban has been met, naturally, with rebellion; with citizens rushing to find ways to bypass it and continue to hold the government accountable through the medium of 280 characters. In response, the attorney general of the federation instructed law enforcement officers to begin prosecuting people who “violate” the Twitter ban. It is still unclear how this violation will be measured, or under what laws the culprits will be punished. But it points to more disturbing days ahead.
We’ve been here before. This is not the first overwrought response to citizen agitation in Nigeria. Late last year, after the #EndSARS protests in October 2020, protesters were shot dead, and others were wounded, people’s names were placed on no-fly-lists, and many citizens were arrested on charges relating to “disturbance of the peace.” None of these comes from legislative action as the national assembly has become a limp appendage of the executive. Even the opposition party has remained quiet in the face of the many violations of human rights. So far, only one state governor has objected to the Twitter ban. And since the national judiciary is currently on an industrial strike, there is no government agency to turn to if things continue to get worse, as they certainly will.
People familiar with Buhari’s antecedents as a military dictator will also find these actions match his past draconian reputation, successfully disguised during the last two elections that brought and kept him in office. No longer encumbered by elections—he doesn’t have to run again—the next two years of Buhari’s rule will come with hardship, and tremendous damage to the rule of law. This, if the trend doesn’t lead to a total shutdown of the internet for the purpose of illegally extending his rule, will only have been the foreshadowing.
Americans will also be very familiar with this behaviour. Former U.S. President Donald Trump was suspended by Twitter and other social media platforms for his role in the January insurrection, and he hasn’t been let back in. In Buhari’s case, only one of his tweets was deleted—a transcript of an earlier remark he made seemingly threatening violence on citizens. Yet, in spite of Trump’s interest in muzzling social media after initial warnings, the American system thrived. Trump got a two-year ban.
*First published in Foreign Policy Magazine