igeria’s decision to indefinitely prohibit Twitter could backfire on the government and cost the economy money in terms of new technology investments. On June 4, the Nigerian government shut down Twitter. Threats to “Nigeria’s business existence” were cited in the official news release as the only explanation.
While only a small percentage of Nigerians use Twitter, they are among the country’s most vocal and politically active citizens. In recent months, a large number of young people have utilized Twitter and other social media to organize anti-government protests. Nigeria is also one of the best-performing African countries when it comes to getting investments for technological start-ups. This status could be jeopardized by the prohibition.
On Tuesday, June 1, 2021, President Muhammadu Buhari (GCON), posted a purported controversial tweet which reflected the gory memories of the 1967 Civil War in Nigeria. In the post, Buhari appeared to threaten harsh punishment for purported recent attacks on government buildings and personnel by a South-Eastern secessionist organization. The remark was said to be in violation of Twitter’s guidelines on “abusive behavior.” Subsequently, on a swift reaction, Twitter deleted the post.
Those at the helm of governmental affairs were enraged by the action. Notably, Lai Mohammed, the Minister of Information and Culture, slammed “double standards” and complained that a separatist leader’s tweets had not been removed from Twitter. He also claimed Twitter backed the #EndSARS protest against Police brutality in 2020. The possibility that social media may help mobilize such a big, youth-led protest movement made the ruling class nervous. Officials may believe that enacting a ban will stifle a growing anti-insecurity movement.
Buhari’s post was also removed shortly after Twitter announced in April 2021 that it would open its first African office in Accra, not Lagos. Twitter claimed Ghana’s support for “free speech, online freedom, and the open internet” as the reason. Despite the fact that Nigeria has more Twitter users (40 million, according to one estimate) than Ghana, the decision was made.
The shutdown will be difficult to implement. It will almost certainly be unpopular. It might be disastrous for Nigeria’s frail democratic institutions and COVID-ravaged economy.
Traffic to the site was restricted on leading local mobile network providers like MTN, Airtel, Globacom, and 9mobile shortly after the ban went into force, while access was still feasible through select internet service providers. Also, Abubakar Malami, Nigeria’s Attorney General, has threatened to punish individuals who break the prohibition; the extent to which the restriction will prevent Nigerians from using the platform is, however, debatable. Punishing users would be a massive and expensive undertaking.
It is also possible that it will not be technologically doable. Within hours, internet searches for “VPNs” – virtual private networks, which allow users to hide their online identities and circumvent nation-specific restrictions – had exploded across the country. In the past few days, after the ban, loads of video tutorials showing the ins and outs of VPNs keep on flooding social media across board to the delight of those Nigerians who cannot withstand the ban on Twitter probably because their livelihood is tied to “tweeting” daily, weekly, and otherwise.
Nigerians also have a variety of other digital choices for sharing information and thoughts, ranging from the widely used WhatsApp to the Indian microblogging website Koo, which recently announced plans to expand into the country.
Without a doubt, VPNs would come at a high price if they were widely used. Poorer Nigerians are more inclined to use free VPNs rather than more secure paid VPNs. This puts them at risk of data theft and other types of hacking. Also, it is not a hidden fact that VPNs are known for causing a draggy and somewhat sluggish internet connectivity.
This, in addition to being an irritation, could have a considerable impact on economic output. Digital media has grown increasingly important to Nigeria’s economy and governance. Some others remarked on how ironic it was that the government announced its Twitter ban with a tweet. The Nigerian economy will lose nearly 2 Billion Naira ($6 million) per day of the Twitter block, according to NetBlocks, a website that follows internet regulation.
Information interchange, marketing, customer service, and remote labour are all made possible by digital media, especially during public health and safety catastrophes. Shutdowns can stifle business, reduce production, and result in the loss of jobs.
In the long run, the ban – even if it is just temporary – could jeopardize Nigeria’s capacity to attract investment in its otherwise promising digital economy. Investors can put their money in the stock market without fear of regulatory interruptions in the digital economy. To put it another way, Twitter’s choice of Ghana is just the beginning.
The suspension, as expected, sparked widespread outrage on the platform. However, Twitter users make up a small percentage of Nigeria’s population and are not indicative of the wider populace.
Nonetheless, Nigerians as a whole are unlikely to accept the ban without a protest. They, like most Africans, oppose government limitations on the media.
Nigeria’s action is part of a troubling trend in Africa, where governments are restricting the use of social media. So far this year, the use of digital media in elections in Niger, the Republic of Congo, and Uganda has been minimal. Senegal did the same during anti-government demonstrations.
Typically, these shutdowns as claimed are required to protect national security at sensitive periods. However, by restricting democratic freedoms of information, expression, and assembly, they clearly support entrenched interests.
The Buhari administration has turned a minor squabble into something far more serious with its ban. Shutdowns can have a substantial impact on economic and democratic progress, even if they are only temporary. Nigeria’s economic recovery is threatened by insecurity (financially and otherwise), ill-productivity and trade, and the damage of repute to its capacity to attract investment into its digital economy might be a vision far from realization.
On the political front, the government runs the risk of enraging the most vocal and involved sector of the population (the youth), with the ban likely to be opposed by even most non-users. Given these costs, it is doubtful that the government will make a success. In conclusion, this, in the long term, could represent a setback for the economy rather than Twitter.