Port Harcourt — The Nigerian government deserves a good place in the Guinness Book of Records for scoring an own goal that has exposed it to defiance and ridicule at home, and knocks and telling-offs abroad. You may have heard what led to where we are – President Muhammadu Buhari, voicing his frustration at the spate of insecurity in the country, especially strident separatist calls, tweeted on June 1 that those beating the drums of war knew nothing about the vagaries of conflict. And so people like him who witnessed firsthand the horrors of the 1967 – 70 Nigerian civil war will speak to the perpetrators of violence “in the language they will understand.” Some people took this as a veiled weaponising of legitimate calls for self-determination, and reported it to the Twitter authorities who deleted the President’s tweet for “violating standards.” The Nigerian government cried foul, accusing Twitter of “double standards” for allowing posts by separatists on their platform, and yet mustering their censure cudgel against a government fighting to combat the same ills they helped to propagate. On June 5, the government banned Twitter for “the persistent use of the platform for activities capable of undermining Nigeria’s corporate existence,” and threatened to sue violators.
The ban immediately alienated some 40 million Nigerians, the number of people who own twitter accounts in Africa’s largest tech hub. Nigerians creatively use VPN (Virtual Private Network) to give the impression that they are accessing the internet from a location in another country. The economic cost has been huge. As internet service providers blocked access to the internet, it was reported that Nigeria lost over N6 billion in economic revenue in the first three days of the shutdown. This was the estimation of Netblock, a data-driven web application that evaluates the economic cost of Internet outages. On the political front, observers took the ban to mean a wider crackdown on free media, and this at a time the organisation Reporters Without Borders, ranked Nigeria 120th out of 180 countries in its World Press Freedom Index in 2021. In taking this action, Nigeria now joins an inglorious club of countries like Iran, North Korea, China and Turkmenistan.
As you can imagine, the fallout on the international scene was also immediate as the diplomatic missions of the European Union, United States, Canada, Ireland and the United Kingdom jointly condemned the Nigerian government’s decision. In the midst of the bad coverage, Nigeria could manage crumbs of comfort from the support of former American president Donald Trump who asked derisively, “Who are they (Twitter) to dictate good and evil, if they themselves are evil?” The “evil” Mr. Trump had in mind is an apparent reference to the ban Twitter imposed on him after the US Capitol riot on January 6, which was only recently extended by two years.
Strangely, I personally find nothing wrong in President Buhari’s tweet. For all his sins, the president has the duty to warn the citizens of future dangers by reminding us of the past. It is trite to state that we have been treated to a cacophony of calls for secession, rebellion and violence by groups and individuals that are completely clueless on the complexity of the challenges facing Nigeria. They specialise in sending statements to media houses and spewing out calls for violence on the internet. And Twitter, in the name of free speech, is a veritable platform for fake news and hate speech. It is instructive that Twitter took down a tweet by the leader of the Indigenous People of Biafra (IPOB) Nnamdi Kanu, in which he ordered the killing of all security personnel posted to the South East. The man is ensconced with his family in the United Kingdom from where he preaches his sermon of death and false dreams. He twitted an instruction to his followers to kill security forces in the South East on June 1, but Twitter only deleted it 24 hours after the Nigerian government announced the ban. It is also instructive that Facebook removed the page of the IPOB leader on February 2, 2021 for “violating its rules on harm and hate speech.” So perhaps, there is some merit in the argument of the Nigerian government that Twitter and other social media had become ready tools in the hands of trouble makers. The government is reportedly discussing with the Twitter authorities on the way forward, and it is hoped that the outcome will be worth the cost of the ban.
All said and done, the Twitter brouhaha is a distraction we cannot afford at this time. The other day I went to buy a 500gm pack of spaghetti and nearly lost my breath when the seller said the price had gone up from N150 to N300. I could afford the 100% increase, but the scenario is a hefty rise in the cost of foodstuffs and everything else in Nigeria. This is mainly due to reduced food production because of the covid-18 pandemic, flooding and insecurity. Then on June 5, the world woke up to news of a terror attack in the village of Yagha in Burkina Faso in which 160 people were killed. This has been described as the worst attack in the northern Sahel region in decades. In case you missed it, the Sahel straddles Burkina Faso, Mali and Niger, where despite the presence of thousands of U.N. peacekeepers, terrorists linked to al Qaeda and Islamic State West Africa Province (Iswap) have increased their operations since 2021. Do you remember Iswap? They recently announced the death of the Boko Haram leader, Abubakar Shekau, who they said detonated a suicide vest when their (Iswap) fighters closed in on him. If the death of Shekau is true, it will be the climax of a deadly rivalry between the two terror groups. So here is the point I’ve been trying to make. With food prices going up exponentially, Iswap becoming more deadly in Nigeria’s neighbours and conquering Boko Haram, we should not waste our time and energy on Twitter troubles.