The presidency says the ban on Twitter in Nigeria is not just a retaliatory reaction to the social media platform’s recent deletion of a controversial tweet posted by President Muhammadu Buhari.
It also says Twitter’s suspension is “temporary”. The information minister, Lai Mohammed, had announced the ban as indefinite on Friday.
The suspension “was a censoring of the company that had all the while escaped accountability for spreading misinformation and fake news,” a presidential spokesperson, Garba Shehu, stated in a statement late Saturday.
“The temporary suspension of Twitter is not just a response to the removal of the President’s post. 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. All the while, the company has escaped accountability.
“Nevertheless, the removal of President Buhari’s tweet was disappointing. The censoring seemed based on a misunderstanding of the challenges Nigeria faces today,” the statement read in part.
It was the presidency’s first reaction to the suspension of Twitter operations in Nigeria, an act that has drawn outrage locally and internationally since it was announced on Friday.
On Saturday, more Nigerians, activists, lawyers, local and international bodies, reacted in anger after the Attorney-General of the Federation and Minister of Justice, Abubakar Malami, ordered the arrest and prosecution of Nigerians still using Twitter in defiance to the ban.
Mr Malami’s combative statement appeared to be a reaction to the noticeable defiance to the ban by Nigerian Twitter users who remain active on the social media platform using various Virtual Private Network (VPN) applications.
PREMIUM TIMES had reported that the ban on Twitter was announced by the information minister two days after Twitter deleted a controversial post by Mr Buhari.
“Those of us in the fields for 30 months, who went through the war, will treat them in the language they understand,” Mr Buhari had posted on Tuesday.
Twitter deleted the post on Thursday, saying it violated its rules even as many Nigerians viewed it as a veiled threat of violence against the Igbo ethnic group.
‘Not a knee-jack reaction’
Insisting that the ban on Twitter was not just a reaction to the deletion of Mr Buhari’s tweet, Mr Shehu said tech companies could not be allowed to continue “to facilitate the spread of religious, racist, xenophobic and false messages capable of inciting whole communities against each other, leading to loss of many lives.”
He said Mr Buhari had been warning against social media’s “disruptive and divisive influences”, adding that the ban on Twitter was therefore not a knee-jack reaction to the deletion of his post.
“Major tech companies must be alive to their responsibilities. They cannot be allowed to continue to facilitate the spread of religious, racist, xenophobic and false messages capable of inciting whole communities against each other, leading to loss of many lives. This could tear some countries apart.
“President Buhari has therefore been warning against social media’s disruptive and divisive influences and the government’s action is not a knee-jerk reaction to Twitter’s preposterous deletion of his tweet which should have been read in full,” Mr Shehu stated.
‘President’s statement not a threat’
In the president’s defence, Mr Shehu said his tweet was a “statement of fact and not a threat”.
He added that the tweet “was not a promotion of hate, but a pledge to uphold citizens’ right to freedom from harm”.
In reference to violent activities in the South-east region, Mr Shehu said the government could not be expected to capitulate to terrorists.
“The tweet was not a threat, but a statement of fact. A terrorist organisation (IPOB) poses a significant threat to the safety and security of Nigerian citizens.
“When the President said that they will be treated ‘in a language they understand,’ he merely reiterated that their force shall be met with force. It is a basic principle of security services response world over.
“This is not promotion of hate, but a pledge to uphold citizens’ right to freedom from harm. The government cannot be expected to capitulate to terrorists.”
“IPOB is proscribed under Nigerian law. Its members murder innocent Nigerians. They kill policemen and set government property on fire. Now, they have amassed a substantial stockpile of weapons and bombs across the country.
“Twitter does not seem to appreciate the national trauma of our country’s civil war. This government shall not allow a recurrence of that tragedy,” he stated.
Shrinking civic space under Buhari
Many Nigerians outraged by the ban on Twitter view it as an attack of the citizens’ rights to freedom of expression, and a step closer to the actualisation of the long-existing plan by the Buhari-led administration to impose strict regulations on social media in the country.
The social media has proved to be an effective platform for holding Nigerian leaders accountable, in an era when government is quick to deploy state forces to disperse physical protests.
Soldiers, acting on the instruction of the government, shot at a protesting crowd of youths during the October 2020 #EndSARS protests at Lekki Tollgate in Lagos. A yet-to-be-ascertained number of protesters were either killed or brutally wounded in the attack.
Attacks, dispersal, arrest and detention of peaceful protesters have become a recurring feature in the Buhari administration, bringing back the memory of the horror of his stint as a dictator between 1984 and 1985. The period was known for vicious attack on free press and rights violations in Nigeria