Nigeria has appeared to backtrack on its Twitter ban, calling it “temporary” after diplomats condemned the move and activists said it was linked to government anger with the company after anti-police brutality protests swept the country last year using the hashtag “#EndSARS”.
Telecoms operators shut down Nigerians’ access to Twitter on Saturday on government orders after the company deleted a post by President Muhammadu Buhari for violating its abusive speech policies. Buhari’s post, which seemed to threaten to crack down on separatists in south-eastern 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 real-world violent consequences,” Garba Shehu, a spokesperson for Buhari, said. “All the while, the company has escaped accountability.”
The government, which has increasingly sought to regulate social media, has blamed surging violence in the south-east on the banned secessionist Indigenous People of Biafra group. Shehu said that Buhari’s since-deleted tweet had “merely reiterated that their force shall be met with force”.
“Major tech companies must be alive to their responsibilities,” 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, particularly when the former general ruled Nigeria as a military dictator in the early 1980s and press freedoms were curtailed.
Nigeria’s attorney-general Abubakar Malami said on Saturday he would prosecute violators of the Twitter ban. But on Sunday, many Nigerians circumvented the ban by using VPNs and posted messages with the hashtag #KeepItOn.
Local activists said the Twitter episode is just the latest example of creeping government authoritarianism. They linked it to the protests over police brutality last year, when Twitter chief executive Jack Dorsey tweeted his support using the hashtag #EndSARS.
“Since EndSARS, the government has been uncomfortable with Twitter so it’s all [come to a] head with the deletion of the President Buhari tweet,” said Idayat Hassan, director of the Abuja-based Centre for Democracy and Development. “This government doesn’t take kindly to criticism, nor does it understand the youth and the power of social media.”
The Twitter ban is “just part of the consistent attack on the civic space and Nigeria’s full descent into authoritarianism,” Hassan added.
The movement to EndSARS, which refers to Nigeria’s Special Anti-Robbery Squad, has largely been 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 leadership of the country felt disrespected by how young people showcased good governance in opposition to the bad leadership they have [shown] all these years,” Rinu Oduala, a 22-year-old activist, said.
Twitter is used by only a small percentage of Nigerians, but is popular among activists, journalists and politicians. The company said in a statement that it was “deeply concerned” by the ban and would “work to restore access for all those Nigerians who rely on Twitter”.
Diplomats from the EU, UK, Ireland, Norway and Canada criticised the move in a joint statement. The US embassy in Nigeria added that the ban “undermines Nigerians’ ability to exercise” freedom of expression and “sends a poor message to its citizens, investors and businesses”.
“The path to a more secure Nigeria lies in more, not less communication, alongside concerted efforts toward 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 telecoms operators including Airtel and MTN had 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 would not 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 power is always to be wielded harshly — we are here.”