The federal government has declared war on the people. It has done so to remind us all that, even if it can’t provide effective governance, it still has enormous power to terrorize us. And it’ll do so without apologies to no one.
The declaration of the war flowed directly from its obsession with social media platforms especially Twitter. The terrifying fact of its helplessness over how social media is driving the narrative about its performance has led it into a cul-de-sac in its desperate attempt to intimidate all its perceived enemies. It has designated Twitter as a prime enemy and located it in its crosshairs since April.
So when Twitter, last Wednesday, committed the ‘ultimate crime’ of taking down President Muhammadu Buhari’s tweet because it violated its policy of not condoning “abusive behavior” by any of its users, the government pounced.
Lai Mohammed, information and culture minister, gleefully announced two days after, that the operations of the micro-blogging platform had been indefinitely suspended in Nigeria. Totally oblivious of the telling paradox it reflected, the announcement was made on Twitter.
The reason he gave for what has been universally condemned as an irrational overkill, was that Twitter had been facilitating the spread of “misinformation and fake news” that threatened the country’s “corporate existence.” Juxtapose that with the uncontrolled entry into Nigeria of armed Fulani groups from everywhere in West Africa, who’re driving the now very lucrative criminal enterprise of kidnapping in the country and helping their local groups to fight their war for land grab. You can’t but conclude that the government is being disingenuous in a dangerous way.
The president’s tweet that drew Twitter’s ire had threatened those he called trouble makers and secessionists with an all-out war, vowing to deal with them “in the language they understand.” The threat was explicitly evocative of the violence of Nigeria’s civil war that claimed the lives of an estimated two million people and ended the putative Biafra Republic.
As he always does, Abubakar Malami, attorney-general and justice minister, invited himself to join the fray. And then promptly made the government look even more ridiculous. He threatened prosecution of anyone and organization that uses Twitter because it’s been banned in Nigeria.
Though it sounds ominous, the threat is indeed laughable. There’s no existing law that criminalizes the mere use of any social media platform. And since we’re not yet under a full-blown dictatorship, such law can’t be decreed into existence overnight.
Malami knows this. But he doesn’t care. All he wants is to satisfy his constant crave for self-promotion and jostling for positioning in the government. Why would only Mohammed take the credit for projection of government power, even if it’s boomeranged and invited nothing positive but outright condemnation?
Mohammed himself is a notorious grand master of exaggeration and fiendish peddler of misinformation. And he’s been obsessed with Twitter forever and endlessly trolling it.
When in April, the social media platform announced Ghana as its preferred location for its West Africa headquarters, Mohammed’s reaction was apoplectic. He panned it as being anti-Nigeria and accused it of supporting the ENDSARS protests that made the government very nervous. He dismissed Twitter’s embarrassing snub as good riddance.
The minister equally savaged the media for “misrepresenting” the situation in the country, which, he claimed without any evidence, influenced Twitter’s snub of Nigeria. He literally accused the media of being unpatriotic.
It’s ironic that the minister, who’s a consistent purveyor of misinformation, is accusing Twitter of facilitating the spread of “misinformation and fake news.” He was the first government official to claim in December 2015, that Boko Haram “has been technically defeated” even though he knew he was just telling a blatant lie.
Rather than examine the reasons why Nigeria lost out to Ghana in Twitter’s investment drive in the region, he opted to throw tantrums; grandstanding and dismissing the snub as an attempt by the social media platform to embarrass the country.
Actually, he meant the government, that’s desperate to attract any foreign investment it can get, was greatly embarrassed and blindsided by Twitter’s snub. If Twitter had chosen Nigeria, his reaction would’ve been different. Such a big win, in terms of foreign investment, would’ve been celebrated as an unimpeachable evidence that the country was in good shape and the government’s economic policies were credible.
Ghana has less than one quarter of Nigeria’s 40 million Twitter users and over 100 million who have access to the Internet. Yet the country wasn’t considered for that crucial investment because of one major reason: the prevailing insecurity and the air of uncertainty it engenders, as well as the government’s failure to contain it, if not stamp it out.
The social media company, with 353 million monthly, about 4.2 billion annual users worldwide and a market valuation of about $47 billion, made a calculated decision that’s in its best interest. That’s in spite of the attraction of the economic benefits of Nigeria’s huge market. Obviously, its staff, foreign and local, would be much safer in Ghana than Nigeria, given the country’s epidemic of kidnapping for humongous ransom. And the poor state of its economic and social infrastructure couldn’t have recommended Nigeria as a viable option for the investment.
The ban of Twitter and the threat to prosecute those who defy the ban, are poorly disguised attempts to stultify free speech and curtail Nigerians’ access to popular social media platforms where they ventilate their frustrations and grievances about the government and the country.
For a government whose reputation is already in tatters, the optics of banning Twitter and declaring war on the people, who’ve been traumatized by the deleterious effects of its incompetence and archaic policies, is arguably very bad. But the government doesn’t care about bad optics. It’s more interested in flexing its muscles against the wrong targets and exhibiting its increasingly autocratic tendencies. Otherwise it wouldn’t have kicked off a needless storm over Twitter’s action against the president.
Twitter and Facebook even deplatformed President Donald Trump whose tweets and posts violated their policies of not accommodating those promoting violence in any form. And many social media users are routinely suspended from the platforms and even banned. Reacting angrily and punishing Nigerians by banning Twitter will only further dent the country’s poor image globally.
Trying to prevent Nigerians from using Twitter just shows that the government doesn’t understand the futility of its reaction to Buhari’s Twitter takedown. Millions of Nigerians, particularly the young generations, are internet-savvy and can easily find other ways of accessing Twitter outside of the local mobile phone companies that have been browbeaten to disable the platform from their networks. And they are already using virtual private networks, available for free download on the Internet, to connect to Twitter.
It’s clear, except to Malami, that his threat to prosecute those who defy the ban is extremely ludicrous. For how many people would his office be able to prosecute? And where are the legal resources to pursue the government’s vendetta against the people?
As Professor Wole Soyinka reminded the president in his reaction to the Twitter ban, Buhari’s threat to the agitators for secession and other trouble makers in the south, ought to have been issued much earlier to violent Fulani militias and herders who have been pillaging communities and killing people all across the country. The bandits and violent cattle herders are being appeased again and again, while other trouble makers are being threatened with all the government’s might.
Any government that still has some semblance of legitimacy, should be worried about the growing danger of insecurity in the country. Therefore, no one can really fault the government for its concern about the agenda of the agitators, as some of them, like IPOB, have become violent and are indiscriminately attacking public buildings, institutions and innocent people. But what people fault is the government’s selective reactions to the different rogue groups. While some are threatened, others are appeased and their violent actions rationalized even by the president himself and other top government officials.
In case he’s forgotten, Buhari had asked President Goodluck Jonathan to resign in 2013 for his administration’s difficulty in stemming the menace of insecurity that was then majorly fueled by Boko Haram terrorism. After six years in command, his score on the management of the same problem is abysmally worse than his predecessor’s.
Insecurity has metastasized from Boko Haram terrorism to violent herdsmen’s war on farming communities, mass banditry, kidnapping of especially school children, separatist militias like IPOB and sundry groups of rogue actors daily challenging the government’s legitimacy and exposing its impotence.
Throwing tantrums by banning Twitter and shrinking the space for Nigerians to express themselves won’t and can’t change that reality. Twitter and other social media platforms aren’t responsible for the country’s present abject condition. It’s solely and squarely the responsibility of the president and his thoroughly hapless government.
So kicking off a storm over Twitter’s enforcement of its own rules and declaring war on the people can only place the country in the unenviable company of Myanmar and other notorious autocracies. The people can’t be cowed anymore by a government that has failed them so miserably.
Like Twitter, the least the government should do is summon the will to restore law and order in all the theaters of war in the country by applying the same rules of engagement with all the rogue groups. The same ultimatum he’s served IPOB and other secession agitators should be extended to Boko Haram and Fulani militias. That’s the only way the president can avoid the mockery and contempt of the public.