Buhari vs. Twitter: So long, so sad

Eze Onyekpere

The ban, last weekend, on the operations of the microblogging and social media platform, Twitter, by the Federal Government raises very fundamental issues for Nigeria’s democracy, rule of law, economy, and social life. Twitter has over the years become a veritable part of Nigeria’s social life, especially among the youths. It has facilitated the right to freedom of expression by enabling Nigerians to express themselves freely as well as promoted livelihoods through job creation and enabling environment for businesses to prosper. This discourse seeks to analyse the implications of the enforcement of the Twitter ban on the rights and welfare of Nigerians.
First, the immediate circumstance leading to the Twitter ban was the deletion of a post by the President, Major General Muhammadu Buhari (retd), which Twitter adjudged offensive to its rules. Buhari and his team found the action unacceptable and decided that they had had enough of what they considered to be discriminatory treatment and Twitter’s affront to national security. The remote cause is the fact that the Buhari regime had for some time now been seeking to regulate, or put more appropriately, to gag, the social media. A previous attempt through introducing a bill in the National Assembly was met with stiff citizen resistance leading to the bill being withdrawn. Thus, this ban is about the ego of the President as well as latching on to an inordinate opportunity to realise a long-held illegitimate objective.
Section 39 of the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria 1999 entitles every person to freedom of expression, including freedom to hold opinions and to receive and impart ideas and information without interference. The exercise of this right necessarily includes the means of receiving and imparting ideas and this where Twitter as a medium becomes important. Twitter as a company does not charge a fee for a user to be able to send and receive messages. It is only the cost of data for Internet connectivity which is required to use Twitter and many other social media services. In human rights jurisprudence, there are three layers of governmental obligations; to respect, to protect and to fulfil. The obligation to respect is a negative obligation which demands that government refrains from interfering with already accrued rights and the means of realising rights. The ban on Twitter is a violation of the obligation to respect. It can be imagined what a government that interferes to restrict rights that it is not required to provide any resources for their enjoyment would do if it had to spend a naira to protect the rights.
The second aspect of the ban is the threat by the Minister of Justice and Attorney General to prosecute any person who finds a way to use Twitter within Nigeria. The Attorney-General has left instructions in this regard to the Ministry of Justice, but every reasonable person is confounded as to the basis of this order because there is no extant law which criminalises the use of social media services in Nigeria. Again, the fundamental rights chapter of the Constitution comes to the rescue. Section 38 (8) states that no person shall be held to be guilty of a criminal offence on account of any act or omission that did not, at the time it took place, constitute such an offence. The Constitution further states that a person shall not be convicted of a criminal offence unless that offence is defined and the penalty therefore is prescribed in a written law, and in this subsection, a written law refers to an Act of the National Assembly or a Law of a State, any subsidiary legislation or instrument under the provisions of a law. When an Attorney-General, who is by law under obligation to defend the public interest, considers his duty as denigrating the rights of citizens, then the system is in big trouble. This is the same Attorney-General who was said to have written a memorandum to Buhari recommending the suspension of the Fundamental Rights Chapter of the Constitution, an allegation he denied. But the turn of events is simply moving in that direction.
On the other side, Twitter provides opportunities for marketing and reach out for many small and medium-sized businesses especially those managed by young Nigerians. The medium is quite popular with the young and young at heart. This raises the question as to whether the regime is at war with its young population. Why is the Buhari regime banning the platform that engages the young and makes them happy at a time of great insecurity, economic depression and increasing unemployment?  Is the government able to quantify the pain or pleasure that is resulting from its Twitter ban?  So many questions for an unthinking government.  Twitter provides an enabling environment for employment creation and livelihood opportunities for millions of young Nigerians. Even though it will be difficult to put a figure on Twitter’s contribution to the economy, it will be in hundreds of billions every year. The ban will negatively impact on the bottom line of telecommunications companies whose data powers the social media platform and this will impact on government revenue through reduced corporate income tax, Value Added Tax, etc. Also, the profits of enterprises who have found Twitter a veritable advertising market reach option will take a hit.
At a time like this, Nigeria should be in search of investors, foreign and local as well as the goodwill of the international community to navigate out of its security and economic challenges. We need inflows of foreign investments that will build up our economy. The insecurity challenge has reached phenomenal and unprecedented levels leading to many countries issuing travel advisories warning their citizens to be wary of visiting Nigeria. This Twitter ban is like digging deeper in a situation when we need to invest in climbing out of a hole.
It speaks volumes that apart from China, the other countries in this social media-banning league are virtually regarded as outlaws in the international community. Is this where Nigeria wants to be classified? When Twitter chose to locate its African headquarters in Ghana, Nigerians queried the rationale of this considering our large market. In retrospect, it is obvious they made a wise decision considering that their offices would have been besieged by security forces by now following the ill-advised ban, who would be there to enforce the shutdown. Investors operate a close relationship and with this situation, who will bring his money into a country where whims and caprices can be translated into law; where tyranny and ego trips determine national policies?

It is now evident that the bulk of the Buhari regime is made up of men and women who cannot manage their egos, whims, and caprices. They unleash crudity into the policy space, threaten to enforce it under the pain of punishment even if they have no legal powers to do so. Is this the change promised by the ruling All Progressives Congress? Where is the Vice President, a Senior Advocate of Nigeria, Professor of law and formerly, a notable advocate for human rights and fundamental freedoms?

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