Nigeria’s Twitter Ban Hurts
Nigerians use humour to interrogate and process oppression and tyranny. This gift remains the sole asset that hasn’t been snatched from us, and so, on June 4th, when Nigerian officials announced intentions to institute a nationwide Twitter ban, we called their bluff. The threat seemed implausible, even for a country like ours. In keeping with our comedic customs, many of us spent the night making and sharing memes about the government’s claim. Our posts illustrated the absurdity of the idea and we laughed over it, of course, on Twitter.
I fell asleep that Friday and awoke before the sun had risen on Saturday. I used the restroom but when I returned to bed, sleep eluded me. I reached for my phone and accessed Twitter. The app opened but no matter how many times I refreshed, content failed to materialize.
Tweets aren’t loading right now.
I closed the app again, switched off my data connection and then restarted it, trying once again to open the app. These steps were an attempt to force Twitter to work.
Dismissing the situation as an internet connectivity problem, I checked WhatsApp. The night before, I’d shared a funny tweet with my friend. I now saw her reply: “wait. is Twitter down? Hauwa I can’t open this!”
No internet glitch had happened on my end. Instead, the authorities had executed their threat. As this reality sunk in, feelings of dread consumed me. The telecom blockage served as a bold display of tyranny, a scary attempt at silencing a whole people. The suspension also seemed part of a tit-for-tat. Earlier that week, Twitter had determined that an abusive tweet made by President Muhuammadu Buhari violated the platform’s rules. Twitter then removed the tweet. In response to the deletion of the President’s words, the government deleted the app.
Like many policies and decisions implemented by this administration, the suspension will adversely affect Nigeria’s economy. It will also harm the country’s prospects for tech advancement and international collaboration. Activist movements will face disruption.
Disregard for such consequences is characteristic of this administration.
How the Ban Hurts Activist Movements
2019 saw a surge in conversations about sexual violence in northern Nigeria. These exchanges prompted community development worker and writer Fakhrriyyah Hashim to localize the global #MeToo movement by coining a new hashtag, #ArewaMeToo. Arewa is “a local [Hausa] term for the northern part of Nigeria” and within 48 hours of the hashtag’s development and deployment, sexual violence in the region had become a high-trending Twitter topic. Thousands of people used #ArewaMeToo to share their experiences of harm at the hands of caregivers, especially during childhood, and this social media moment broke new ground. The testimonies emerged from a demographic that had been described as silent and conservative. #ArewaMeToo subverts these stereotypes.
The overwhelming volume of responses to the hashtag broke my heart and I began to consider the voices being excluded from the digital conversation. People without access to social media had no platform to share their testimonies. This concern inspired several of us to mobilize and form a team in my town, Minna. Together, we took the hashtag to the streets, secondary schools, rural communities and Islamic schools. We led peaceful protests and sensitization and awareness exercises.
The movement began to translate offline on a wider scale, providing help to victims of sexual violence. Maryam Awaisu and Fakhrriyyah Hashim were our conveners. The team gained several sub-teams in states across Nigeria, such as Borno, Niger, Kaduna, Kano, Sokoto, and Bauchi. So far, the movement has been instrumental in actualizing the implementation of the Violence Against Persons Prohibition (VAPP) Act in Bauchi state. The Act criminalizes all forms of violence against women and widens the definition of rape to encompass several violations, an improvement to prior iterations of the law which recognized rape only where there is penile penetration.
#ArewaMeToo follows a tradition of recent digital activism in Nigeria. In 2018, feminists organized the Market March, a protest against the sexual harassment of women in market places. Support for the anti-harassment campaign began the same way it did for the EndSARS movement, through a hashtag, #MarketMarch2018. In 2017, #EndSARS was used in protest of police brutality and it proved powerful, inspiring the biggest round of protests Nigeria has ever seen, with Nigerians calling for abolition of the Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS), a “security agency” that had been terrorizing, extorting and killing citizens for years. EndSARS culminated with a nationwide wave of daily protests that lasted for two weeks. On October 20th, security forces fired live rounds into a crowd of protesters, thus stopping the movement.
In a world where digital activism seems the surest way to galvanize social change and spur transformation offline, the Twitter suspension means that social movements will stall and wither. Many of us feel disempowered by the ban, just as we did on the night that security forces opened fire during the #EndSARS protests. The ban, like those shootings, is a form of silencing.
How the Ban Hurts the Economy
In 2020, Nigeria had 99.05 million internet users. Of this demographic, 40 million use Twitter, a vast population which includes activists, social media influencers, and freelancers who rely on the app to connect them with calls for pitches.
Because the Naira consistently depreciates, the cost of producing or importing goods continues to rise. To prevent the loss of revenue, firms are unloading their financial burdens onto consumers by raising prices. As a result, Nigeria’s inflation rate continues to increase exponentially. Last year, it was 13.25%. This year, it is 15.97%. Increased unemployment also renders more and more of the population unable to sustain themselves. Ominously, people are finding it harder and harder to afford food. All of this calamity is happening in a country grappling with increased kidnappings and terrorism.
How the Ban Hurts the Tech Industry
By creating an authoritarian climate, the ban inhibits international collaborations with tech industries. Investors are likely to find the dictatorial environment unpredictable and unwelcoming. Technological innovations will be stifled, placing a further strain on the economy.
The government’s ban on cryptocurrency transactions further clouds Nigeria’s future. The cryptocurrency ban indicates a hostility towards new technology and investors may respond by taking their capital elsewhere.
“You see how this Twitter ban very boldly paints Buhari’s admin as hostile towards progressive technology? It has a very direct line to the future of tech in the country,” my friend who works with one of the country’s top tech companies ranted to me a day after the Twitter ban.
“Everyone from people who built businesses on Twitter’s APIs, to local companies trying to raise funding, must now contend with the badge of ‘don’t give me your money; [if you do] my government will turn it to ash.’”
Four weeks have passed since the ban began and the suspension has forced Nigerians to rely on Virtual Private Networks. These networks are not a sustainable alternative. Nigerian Twitter vendors have had their online target audiences displaced because we must disguise our country of residence, using a different one through VPNs. As a result many tweets remain hidden or end up on a different country’s search list, thereby lessening their domestic visibility. VPNs are also costly. Users must pay subscription fees to be able to use them safely. Sometimes, I forget to turn the VPN on before opening my Twitter, and I see Tweets aren’t loading right now. I panic, thinking perhaps VPNs are no longer working. Then I check and find that it is in fact, off. I exhale, very tiredly, and turn it back on. I should not have to do this.
Hauwa Shaffii Nuhu is an essayist in Nigeria, with work published on Popula, African Arguments, Minority Africa, Muslim Girl, The Republic and elsewhere. She’s a 2018 writer-in-residence at the Ebedi Writers Residency.