FG versus Twitter: A union gone awry?

By Tunde Animasaun

The relationship turned row between the Federal Government of Nigeria and Twitter predates the recent ban. In fact, Twitter was one of the social media platforms that President Muhammadu Buhari deployed in 2015 and 2019 to clinch the number one job in the country. His Twitter handle had over four million followers and he was reputed to be the African President with the highest Twitter followership. It was the EndSARS protest that unsettled the applecart and since then, things have not been the same again.

Nigerian youths employed social media, especially Twitter to effectively mobilise themselves and the entire world against police brutality in Nigeria. The protest gained unprecedented traction coming on the heels of the killing of George Floyd, a black American by a Caucasian police officer. The aftermath was a bloody showdown at Lekki Tollgate, Lagos, where some protesters were allegedly shot in cold blood by men of the Nigerian Army. Beyond being used to mobilise, the Federal Government also alleged that Twitter was one of the sponsors of the protest. The human right backlash and negative media reportage suffered by the Nigerian government consequent upon the EndSARS protest did not go down well with President Muhammadu Buhari and his handlers. This fueled a renewed frenzy for social media muzzling by the agents of government.

The announcement, in April, of Ghana as the headquarters of Twitter’s operations in Africa was another major source of row between the two erstwhile friends. The Nigerian government, unconvinced by Twitter’s stated reasons for choosing Ghana as “a champion for democracy, a supporter of free speech, online freedom, and the Open Internet”, and believing that Nigeria, given its population and the volume of business the company does in the country, was most qualified to host the headquarters, said the decision was not a business one and blamed Nigerian saboteurs for it.

Minister of Information, Alhaji Lai Mohammed, responding to the question from the media, said: “The natural expectation is that Nigeria should have been the hub of Twitter in this part of Africa, given the fact that we have about 25 million Twitter users against 8 million in Ghana. Clearly, the decision was not a commercial and business one. But, I think Twitter has the prerogative and exclusive rights to decide where to site its headquarters.”

He said further: “This is what you get when you de-market your own country. The fine time especially for the media is to find fault in their own country, most times exaggerate the challenges the country is facing. And at no time was this better seen as during the EndSARS protest, where Nigerian journalists both traditional and new media were trying to outdo themselves in painting Nigeria as a hell, where nobody should live. They tried to vilify not just the government but the country. I thank God that the last US report vindicated the government that there was no corroboration to the claim that people were killed at Lekki Tollgate as against what majority of the media was championing.

“I think this will teach all of us a lesson that we have no country than Nigeria. We are not saying you should not criticise the government, but be fair and patriotic. When you destroy your own house, where are you going to live? You can imagine the job opportunities that Headquarters in Nigeria would have created; you can imagine the kind of visibility it would give Nigeria.”

“But we destroyed it. Don’t forget that it is what insiders do that outsiders would use to judge us. Nigerians should learn better to manage the image of the country,” he added.

The last straw that eventually snapped the now fragile twitter-FG relationship was the deletion of President Muhammadu Buhari’s tweet on the attack and destruction of government facilities in the South east. The tweet which said: “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”, was judged by Twitter as abusive.

According to a Twitter spokesperson, the tweet “was in violation of the Twitter Rules. The account owner will be required to delete the offensive tweet and spend 12 hours with their account in read-only mode”. The tweet which was posted on Tuesday June 1, 2021 was eventually deleted the following day due to outcry by Nigerians who felt outraged at the meaning and import of the tweet.

The deletion of the President’s tweet did not sit well with him and his handlers. The feeling is that he should be accorded the courtesy that the office demands. At the time of this righteous indignation, it didn’t occur to the Nigerian government that Twitter does not serve the Nigerian people alone; rather, it is a global platform that sets its rule to take care of the sensitivities of the various shades it serves. Also, they seem to have forgotten that in the recent past, Donald Trump, the former President of America, the most powerful nation on earth, had his handle deleted, a worse case than PMB’s, when he ran afoul of the rules of the global microblogging site.

These are similar actions that elicited very dissimilar reactions. While, irrespective of how and what Trump might have wanted, the handlers of the then American President managed the situation with as little friction as possible, it became an opportunity for the Nigerian government to show its proverbial “Federal Might’. The suspension of Twitter, temporary or not, and the veiled seditious accusation by the Federal government is already the subject of many write-ups and debates. However, the action may amount to cutting the nose to spite the face as Nigerian businesses and brands with huge online visibility are being negatively impacted by the ban, according to findings by MARKETING EDGE.

The Lagos Chamber of Commerce and Industry (LCCI) decried the situation, noting that the suspension of Twitter operations in Nigeria would cause a lot of collateral damage. Its Director-General, Dr. Muda Yusuf said many businesses, especially small-medium enterprises (SMEs), leverage the micro-blogging social media platform for marketing and other promotional activities. The implication of the suspension, he said, is that this group of businesses are being deprived of the use of the platform and substantial income.

In response to our WhatsApp message, he said: “The Twitter saga raises a major issue of proportionality on both sides of the divide. We should worry about the collateral damage to businesses that could result from the Twitter ban. Many businesses, especially SMEs, leverage this digital platform for marketing and other promotional activities. The implications is that this group of businesses are being deprived of the use of the platform. Some even have ongoing contractual obligations in this regard. The outright ban was disproportionate, having regards to the wider implications for numerous small businesses that derive significant value from the use of this digital platform. My view is that other channels of seeking redress should have been explored.

“But there is a flip side. The reality is that the platform could also be used as a tool for the dissemination of information that could be harmful to society. This imposes a major responsibility on Twitter to ensure effective self-regulation. The saga also underscores the need by Twitter to have a deeper contextual understanding and insight of tweets before drawing conclusions. Such contextualisation would enrich its judgment and enhance its credibility.”

The Vice President and Director of Governance Studies and founding Director of the Centre for Technology Innovation at Brookings, Darrell West in one of his reports analysed how 81 short-term shutdowns of the internet in 19 countries between July 2015 and June 2016 cost at least $2.4bn in GDP globally.

Furthermore, tech and economic experts who spoke  with MARKETING EDGE said the real impact of the Twitter suspension would be to the millions of SMEs that rely on having access to Twitter on a daily basis to reach out to markets they wouldn’t be able to reach using other platforms.

This decision by the government, experts warned, would bite harder on Nigeria’s start-up scene, which has experienced tremendous growth in a short time, with $3, 77.4m raised in 2019 and $120.6m in 2020 due to the coronavirus pandemic. This suspension puts this growth in jeopardy as the businesses of most start-ups depend, in some part, on social media. Applications built using Twitter APIs are also affected.

Netblocks estimates that Nigeria loses about N48.6 billion per day in economic value relating to the global digital economy if social media is shut down for a day.

Looking at the ban from the marketing communications perspective, Steve Babaeko, President, Association of Advertising Agencies of Nigeria (AAAN), cautioned: “We need to realise it is not only our government that’s battling with the democratisation of information and speech that social media platforms like Twitter provide to citizens. Most democratic countries have been able to manage the situation via constructive engagement as opposed to the big-stick-wielding dictatorship countries.

“A sizable portion of the youth population earn their livelihood off Twitter; some simply by being attack dogs or mouthpiece for politicians and the government. Clearly, income for those youths will be lost no thanks to the ban. A chunk of media spend happens on Twitter, the media agencies and digital agencies will also lose money.”

He continued: “Let me appeal to the government to rescind this ban immediately. Unemployment among the youth segment currently stands at about 35%, depending on which state of the Federation you are looking at; the Crypto and Twitter ban will only exacerbate the unemployment situation. Idle hands, they say, are the Devil’s tools.”

Former President of Association of Telecommunications Companies of Nigeria (ATCON), Engr Olusola Teniola, told Daily Trust that in reality, the socio-economic loss of the suspension to Nigeria would be significantly far more than the losses that the telecom companies might bear in terms of lost data consumption associated with providing access to Twitter.

“The Nigerian federal government is the greater loser in all this as companies and startups that employ the youth and others in selling and buying over this platform generate potential tax revenue for the government and it is this employment that the government seeks to build on by migrating the Nigerian economy to a digital economy,” he said.

It will be right to assume that the government is aware of the different opinions, concerns and fears expressed by people all over the world. It can also be rightly assumed that they are aware this course of action might not be the best. Why then have they stuck to their guns?

This is why a school of thought who sees the whole banning saga as a smokescreen may begin to make sense. The real target of the government seems to be the youths who, using the social media and their crypto wealth, organised a protest that brought the government its greatest opprobrium.  Hence the banning of first, crypto currency and now Twitter is to emasculate them especially from turning the recent June 12 Democracy Day to another opportunity to protest against societal ills.

The tweet of Steve Babaeko, which stated thus: “The cure for a severe headache just can’t be the severance of the head” is an instructive call to reason for the Nigerian government. The fact that some government functionaries were still on Twitter two days after the ban and the massive circumventing of the ban by Nigerians signalled a crack in governance and the people’s distrust and lack of trust in the government. This apparent disconnect between the government and the people cannot be fixed by wielding the big stick or being vindictive. After all, no meaningful vindication can ever emerge from vindictiveness.


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