We Have Work to Do Five Lessons for Pro-democracy Activists from the Twitter Ban

The Twitter ban only extends the long line of reasons to be pessimistic about the state of Nigeria. Despite the bleak outlook, we can draw five lessons from the Twitter ban for future political organizing. 

The Nigerian government is threatening to arrest its citizens, for tweeting. Two weeks ago, via Twitter, the Ministry of Information and Culture announced the ‘indefinite suspension’ of the social media platform. Attorney-General Abubakar Malami doubled down by announcing the next day that he intended to enforce the ban through the ‘immediate prosecution of offenders’.

How did we get here? Sunday, 30 May was Biafran Remembrance Day, a holiday—not recognized by the federal government but celebrated in various parts of the South East—that memorializes the casualties of the Biafran War. The day of remembrance has taken on greater significance recently, as secessionist groups have grown in popularity and revived calls for an independent Biafran state. The government has alleged that these groups have turned to violent tactics to further their cause, blaming a recent prison break in Owerri and the assassination of several police officers on the Eastern Security Network (ESN), a paramilitary unit of the Indigenous People of Biafra or ‘IPOB’. For its part, IPOB has denied these allegations through their official spokeswoman, insisting that ESN focuses on ‘fighting terrorists in the bush’. President Buhari, via his official Twitter account, issued a public statement: ‘Many of those misbehaving today are too young to be aware of the destruction and loss of lives that occurred during the Nigerian Civil War. Those of us in the fields for 30 months, who went through the war, will treat them in the language they understand.’ Twitter users interpreted the tweet as a veiled threat to revive the brutal tactics used by the Nigerian Army during the civil war. Several users reported the tweet to Twitter, and Twitter deleted it.

Subsequently, the government protested. Minister of information, Lai Mohammed, accused Twitter of bias, pointing to the platform’s failure to delete threatening tweets by Nnamdi Kanu, the IPOB’s leader. Mohammed also accused Twitter of having a ‘very suspect’ mission in Nigeria, likely referencing the platform’s use in facilitating #ENDSARS protests of 2020. Then, he announced the Twitter ban.

In many ways, the Twitter ban perfectly encapsulates the contradictions of the Buhari administration. This administration is acutely sensitive to public opinion, so much so that the gleeful response to Twitter’s decision angered them. And yet, the Buhari administration refuses to court public approval by enacting popular policies. They are reactionary enough to issue a heavy-handed response yet cannot create a ban that citizens will not easily avoid with Virtual Private Networks (VPNs). Now that the ban has proven unpopular, the government is attempting to backtrack, claiming that the policy is motivated by a desire to clamp down on violence caused by fake news and is temporary. But the Buhari administration’s ineffectual response to a rising tide of violence by herdsmen, a spate of child kidnappings, and increasingly graphic reports of sexual violence on women and girls disproves their case. In response to this tide of insecurity, the president has not even taken questions at a press conference. Where he saw fit to take decisive and swift action was in responding to an apparent snub—(while Facebook reached out to the government to provide an opportunity to edit this statement on its platform, Twitter moved immediately to delete it. In other words, this is policymaking by petty pageantry. It’s another unfortunate incident in a long line of reasons to be pessimistic about the state of the county: rising inflation, high unemployment, low growth, violent conflict on multiple fronts, government censorship, and a citizenry demobilized and depressed by the failure of last year’s protests to end SARS. Despite this bleak picture, we can draw five lessons from the Twitter ban for future political organizing.


First, the haphazard way the Buhari administration announced and explained the Twitter ban reinforces its lack of foresight and planning. The Attorney-General has declared that all violators of the ban will be prosecuted. By which law? The government has not announced any efforts to pass a statute that will criminalize the use of Twitter. Even if they wanted to, there is the small problem that this law would be unconstitutional: section 39(2) of the Nigerian Constitution declares that ‘[e]very person shall be entitled to own, establish and operate any medium for the dissemination of information, ideas and opinions.’ Let’s leave that aside. If using Twitter is a crime, what makes someone guilty? What is the punishment? Do we violate the law by owning a Twitter account, accessing the website, reading or interacting with tweets, or only by posting tweets of our own? How should we know which kinds of conduct are illegal?

The Twitter ban was announced at 4:53 p.m. on 04 June 2021. Since then, the following official government accounts have all tweeted: speaker of the House of Representatives, Femi Gbajabiamila (8:27 p.m., 04 June, 2021); minister of environment, Sharon Ikeazor (6:47 a.m., 05 June, 2021); minister of interior, Rauf Aregbesola (7:12 p.m., 04 June, 2021); and Governor Nasir el Rufai (9:37 a.m., 06 June, 2021). Does the attorney-general plan to investigate or, if appropriate, prosecute these officials? If so, then how? The Nigerian courts were on strike until Saturday 12 June and are reopening today, subject to a ‘temporary suspension’. The Judicial Services Union (JUSUN)  declared a strike because it alleged that the federal government dispenses funding to state governors rather than directly to the state judiciary, compromising the judiciary’s ability to enact impartial and independent justice.  The temporary suspension rests on a shaky foundation. The current agreement does not provide the full financial autonomy that JUSUN requests, but instead imposes a committee, with no fixed appointment structure or staffing, to monitor state-level executives’ use of funds. Given that uncertainty, it is likely that the strike will resume. In short, the attorney general has announced that he will prosecute people through an unknown law, for constitutionally protected activity, that senior government officials have engaged in, with an unspecified punishment, and, quite possibly, without the benefit of courts.

The government’s response is so inadequate as to be unserious: it offers not a substantive defence of the President’s comments but a deflection. It is almost certainly true that Twitter’s content moderation has been inconsistent in the past. That is a result of the platform’s design. Users flag tweets that they believe to violate community standards, and Twitter then investigates. The simplest explanation for the difference in treatment between the President and non-state actors who make violent threats is likely the correct one: users are much more likely to report violent threats by the president and commander-in-chief of an ostensibly constitutional democracy than by a self-described secessionist. The government appears not to understand the platform it seeks to regulate but is rushing to react with little thought to what comes next. While that may be disappointing, it also creates opportunity. It is easier to mobilize around the unprepared.  


Second, while little information has surfaced on the mechanics of the ban, the Association of Licensed Telecommunications Operators of Nigeria (ALTON) has confirmed that the leading telecoms networks cooperated with the government to achieve it. It remains to be seen whether our broadcasting networks will also comply by ‘uninstalling’ their accounts in response to the latest government directive. In that sense, media and communications companies are now playing a role similar to banks during the #ENDSARS protests. Banks blocked accounts, froze payments, and imposed arbitrary fines on customers who donated money to support the protests. The compliance of both sectors with illegal orders is probably a result of how heavily regulated both sectors are. Big businesses can have licenses revoked and fines imposed, so they are susceptible to political influence. It’s for this reason that Apple, citing privacy rights, refused to cooperate with the FBI to create a backdoor that circumvents the iPhone’s encryption but openly complies with draconian Chinese censorship requirements. In the US, businesses can collaborate to challenge unconstitutional government action through the courts and issue an injunction to prevent retaliatory measures by the government. For example, when Apple opposed the US government’s request to create a less secure iPhone, they were supported by amicus briefs from 32 other tech companies, including Amazon, Facebook, Google, Reddit, and Twitter. In China, Apple has no such strategic leverage, so it abandons civil liberties entirely. The blunt reality is that where big business is forced to choose between protecting profits or principle, the former wins.

To push back on this dynamic, activists should direct more attention and public pressure to the courts. The Buhari administration is in open violation of numerous court orders, but its poor record on the rule of law has prompted minimal public backlash. No doubt, this is partially motivated by the fact that high-profile victims of illegal government action are often unsympathetic figures. For example, one of the most flagrant violations of legal norms in the Buhari era was the government’s decision to raid the homes of senior members of the judiciary, including Justice Sylvester Ngwuta. The government claimed to have recovered $800,000 in cash and accused the judges of large-scale corruption. It is understandable then that there was not a groundswell of popular support in their defence. But the same lack of respect for the rule of law that manifests with regards to unpopular defendants like (allegedly) corrupt judges also manifests in incidents like the Twitter ban. New media organizations that specialize in explaining critical, but highly technical political or economic developments should try to ramp up their coverage of the courts. Lawyers should also try to simplify and depersonalize their discussion of important cases to clarify the connection between these high-profile abuses and the general culture of lawlessness. Non-lawyers can play their part by supporting the current JUSUN strike. If courts are reliant on the executive for appropriations, they can never serve as an effective check. We need a robust and independent judiciary.


Third, and relatedly, we should develop tools for pressuring the government outside of its formal regulatory control. For example, during the #ENDSARS protests, Bitcoin allowed protestors to circumvent illegal financial restrictions. Twitter will likely continue to be an effective communications platform because it has no physical presence in Nigeria and will locate its Africa headquarters in Ghana. Twitter can push back on government censorship. But the Federal Ministry of Information and Culture announced not just a Twitter ban but efforts to force social media platforms to register with the government. Presumably, the point of this is to subject the platforms to government regulation and empower censorship. Activists need to prepare in the short term to resist this retooled version of the Social Media Bill. In the longer term, tech-inclined activists should invest in efforts to decentralize access to the internet and circumvent a tactic that the Nigerian government has long threatened but never used: a total internet shutdown.

Another way of pressuring the government from the outside is to mobilize the diaspora to use the international sanctions regime. To be clear, generalized sanctions on Nigeria would be disastrous and cruel. Limiting access to imports would create shortages of basic foodstuffs and medicine and make little impact on our leadership. But the US, Canada, and the UK all have versions of the Magnitsky Act. This statute that permits targeted sanctions on foreign government officials who engage in serious human rights abuses. Local activists should work with partners in the diaspora to document human rights abuses on the ground and trace any foreign assets held by individuals in government. When they have identified appropriate candidates, they should seek to impose travel restrictions, visa bans, and freezes on assets.


Fourth, when young Nigerians complain about the state of our politics, the typical response is ‘go and collect your PVC.’ In theory, elections help to create accountability by putting effective candidates in power and disciplining non-performing politicians by removing them from office. But voting alone does not expand our universe of potential candidates. At best, elections allow us to select between established politicians who already command the support of one of the two major political parties that has a realistic chance of capturing the presidency. Both, to put it mildly, have their own sordid histories. The ‘PVC’ response also says little about how to hold elected officials accountable during the period they are in office, especially when the incumbency advantage is so pronounced. Activists should not abandon the electoral space. But they should seek to recognize the limits of electoral politics and avoid allowing it to crowd out other kinds of political organizing. Heated rhetoric from the 2015 election caused some overly credulous observers to imagine that the task of reforming Nigeria was as simple as replacing President Jonathan with President Buhari and grossly underrated the risks to our democracy. We should learn from their mistakes. Vote in 2023 for whoever you think is best. But recognize that the difference between your candidate and the alternative is likely smaller than you think. When you vote, you are not selecting a personal saviour. You are choosing your preferred political opponent. 

Outside of election years, your PVC could be a valuable tool in disciplining the legislature. Section 69 of the Constitution provides the right to recall any Senator or member of the House of Representatives. To organize a recall election is no easy feat; it requires a petition with the signatures of 50.1 per cent of registered voters in that constituency. The last two attempts were in 2005, to recall the speaker of the Plateau State legislature, and in 2018, to recall Kogi State Senator Dino Melaye. Both were unsuccessful at unseating the target, but they drew a lot of publicity and forced both legislators to spend valuable resources defending their record. In states like Lagos, where voter turnout rates are shockingly low, efforts to mobilize existing voters and register new ones could facilitate successful recalls. Activists should consider developing litmus tests and recalling any legislator who fails to meet them. For example, they might try to recall any legislator who does not pledge to vote against the Social Media Bill or vote for a bill to disarm and demobilize SARS. Pick a critical issue in your state and start organizing.


Fifth, we need to build mass organizations that are accountable, transparent, and politically effective year-round. We cannot rely on transient responses to social media-driven outrage, but Nigeria does not provide many other models. Unions are probably the most successful at extracting concessions from the government, especially during the 2012 fuel subsidy protests. Unfortunately, they’re also top-heavy and plagued by internal squabbling and corruption, making it easy to break union strikes by buying off senior union leadership. Some NGOs do well in informing the public of government abuses but do not seek to build political power to challenge them. Others do meaningful work in providing direct support to the population but raise most of their funding from foreign foundations and are not accountable to any domestic constituency. Finally, umbrella organizations like the Feminist Coalition commendably sprang into action during #ENDSARS but have not sought to widen their cadre of members.

The ideal mass organization would govern itself democratically and recruit formal, dues-paying members who commit to regular political action.  These organizations need not and probably should not function as political parties. There are high barriers to electoral politics and little value in installing politicians who can then ignore their promises. Instead, we need organizations focused on building power to hold politicians accountable and extract policy concessions. They could try the recall strategy, phone-banking campaigns to push or oppose legislation, voter registration drives, candidate endorsements, know-your-rights training, political education, protests, strikes, and economic boycotts. 2023 is coming; we have work to do

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