Buhari and the Twitter story

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By Niyi Akinnaso

“When sorrows come, they come not in single spies, but in battalions” -Claudius, in Shakespeare’s Hamlet

Perhaps no statement could have captured the current Nigerian situation better than the above Shakespearean dictum. Virtually everything that could go wrong has gone wrong with Nigeria, earning the country negative assessments on all international indices. Only last week, John Campbell and Robert Rotberg piggybacked on these negative assessments to declare that Nigeria has failed or is on the brink of failure.

While responding to these assessments, by denying the negative label, the Nigerian government was caught again in yet another problem. In responding to escalating insecurity in the Southeast, President Muhammadu Buhari, in a tweet, invoked the civil war of 1967-70 as a benchmark for treating the IPOB separatist agitators in the region. Understandably, the reference to the civil war angered the people in the region, leading to angry protests by them.

Although the President was right that many of the separatist agitators were not born during the civil war, its use as a reference point for “treating” them was unpresidential. Indeed, the reference to the civil was unnecessary. Buhari cannot be excused by attributing the tweet to his social media handlers. They merely transcribed what the President said and put the text and the video on Twitter.

True, it is more or less second nature for the powerful in Nigeria to threaten subordinates and the less powerful, Buhari’s threatening tweet is utterly insensitive of the lingering scar of the civil war on the Igbo psyche. It also adds a painful gloss to their feeling of marginalization by the Buhari administration. Their protest against the tweet is clearly understandable.

Equally understandable is Twitter’s immediate decision to delete the tweet and the video for violating its “safety rules”, which frown at violence, threats, harassment, hateful conduct, and child sexual exploitation, among others.

Buhari’s tweet was not the first to be taken down by the platform for threatening others, or for abetting violence. Former US President Donald Trump’s tweet was not only deleted twice for this reason, his account was permanently suspended after the second deletion. Although he had lost reelection, he was still in office when all this happened.

It was not only physical violence that violated Twitter’s safety rules. Symbolic violence is also frowned upon. That’s why the tweets by President Jair Bolsonaro of Brazil, Nicola Maduro of Venezuela, and Iran’s leader, Ayatollah Khomeini, were also deleted, either for promoting ineffective drugs to cure COVID-19  (Bolsonaro and Maduro) or for denigrating vaccines that have been proven to be effective against the virus (Ayatollah). Twitter’s reading of their tweets led the platform authorities to believe that the unhelpful messages from these leaders could, and in fact did, put millions of people in danger as the coronavirus ravaged their countries.

Buhari’s reaction to the deletion of his tweet, by banning Twitter completely from Nigeria, is yet another instance of his slip into authoritarianism. The ignominious action puts him in the company of authoritarian leaders, who have taken the same action or built firewalls for surveilling users of digital media in their countries and even beyond. They include the leaders of China, Russia, North Korea, Turkey, Vietnam, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirate, and Iran. Notwithstanding the pretend elections in some of these countries, none of them is a democracy. Rather, they are the hotbed of digital authoritarianism.

No wonder then that leaders of major democracies have appealed to Buhari to lift the ban on Twitter. They see the platform as a vehicle for freedom of expression, which is central to the nurturing of democracies throughout the world. Neither these leaders nor Nigerians for that matter would like to see Buhari slip into the authoritarian days of military dictatorship when, as Head of State, he issued Decree No 4 to inoculate his government against the free press.

Also regrettable is the Nigerian government’s excuse for banning Twitter, when everyone knew that it was no more than a knee-jerk reaction to the deletion of the President’s tweet. Why not ban Twitter much earlier? Blaming the platform for “activities that are capable of undermining Nigeria’s corporate existence” flies foul. It is laughable in the face of persistent insecurity, political corruption, out-of-control borrowings, educational decline, and infrastructure decay. If all these problems were addressed, there would be little or no activity online for the government to complain about.

The difference between the “activities” on these platforms and the President’s action is that the President has all the power to muster followers and all security agencies to enforce his threat. The world witnessed the influence of presidential power in the United States in January 2021, when Trump’s followers stormed the US Capitol to prevent legislators from certifying the election that he had lost. However, because of the strength of American institutions, Trump’s tactic failed and the insurrectionists have been rounded up and charged.

The irony about Buhari’s Twitter ban is that it was his administration that actually popularised the platform in Nigeria in recent years just as Trump did in the United States. All members of Buhari’s cabinet have Twitter handles. So do Governors, Commissioners, and legislators in national and state assemblies. It had become the major platform for sharing information with the public and getting the people’s feedback. The Nigerian Center for Disease Control has been using it to great effect in providing updates about COVID-19. In this sense, Twitter is like a prescription drug, which has side effects. You continue to take it because it is beneficial to your recovery. You have to tolerate the side effects.

The bottomline really is that the Twitter story has created an unnecessary distraction, by allowing the government to focus on illegitimate agitators, who are advocating secession, at the expense of legitimate agitators, who are advocating restructuring. The separatists want change through violent means, while the restructurenists want change through constitutional means. Buhari’s tweet indicates that he wants to meet separatist agitators with violence but he cares less about the agitation for restructuring the country. Yet, one of the major goals of restructuring is to avoid continued separatist agitations.

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At the end of the day, Buhari’s Twitter ban is a serious mistake. If the goal is to prevent a certain group from using the platform for communication, it will move to another platform. In the meantime, Twitter’s useful service to his administration would have been lost. And the security problems will sadly persist.

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