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How Nigeria succeeded in clipping Twitter's wings

Image source, Getty Images

Twitter has agreed to a raft of conditions to end a seven-month ban in Nigeria, in what feels like a big win for President Muhammadu Buhari’s administration in its efforts to regulate the internet, some analysts say.

Nigeria – Africa’s most populous country – now joins the likes of India, Indonesia and Turkey, which tightly regulate social media companies. This is something other African governments are likely to take note of, as they try to prevent the use of social media for mobilising opposition groups.

Some of the conditions accepted by Twitter have raised concerns about its future operations in Nigeria.

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“It is definitely concerning that Twitter may have capitulated to an arrangement that would allow Nigeria to pressure it into decisions it would not otherwise make,” David Greene, director at US NGO Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), told the BBC.

He said Twitter should have agreed to obey local laws only if they upheld human rights. The agreement gave the government the advantage in enforcing take-down orders and data demands against the company, Mr Greene added.

Turnaround after Nigeria snub

Human rights groups say President Buhari’s administration has a history of abusing the rule of law and freedom of speech, with a number of journalists and activists locked up for criticising the government.

Now there are concerns that there will be an increase in crackdowns on social media users and more tweets will be flagged and pulled down by Twitter.

A protester holds a placard in front of Nigeria's National Assembly during a protest on the Hate Speech Bill and Social Media Bill in Abuja, on November 27, 2019

Image source, AFP

Twitter has refused to comment on the agreement it made with Nigeria, leaving many frustrated.

The company only tweeted that it was “pleased” to be “restored” and “deeply committed to Nigeria”.

However, the BBC understands that the company agreed to the conditions stated by the government before its service was restored.

It feels like a huge turnaround for a company that announced last year that it was opening its Africa headquarters in Ghana, citing it as “a champion for democracy, supporter of free speech, online freedom, and the Open Internet”.

Many considered that decision to be a snub to Nigeria, Africa’s biggest economy.

Now though, Twitter has become one of the first digital companies to be brought to heel under a new digital tax law passed in 2020.

Earlier this month, Finance Minister Zainab Ahmed said that non-resident companies providing digital services would be required to pay 6% tax on their turnover from this year in order to boost public revenue at a time of “emerging fiscal constraints”.

Twitter has agreed to pay tax in Nigeria, and establish a legal entity in the country, although it is not clear if that means it will open an office or merely register an intermediary.

“The difference might be significant with respect to how much pressure Nigeria will be able to exert against Twitter going forward, and Twitter’s ability to resist future disproportionate or arbitrary demands from Nigeria,” said Mr Greene.

Young Nigerians, especially the digitally savvy, adore Twitter. It is more than a platform, serving as a one-stop shop for everything – from job openings, to a missing persons portal, and a civic space to hold public officials to account.

A policeman arresting a protestor during a demonstration against the re-opening of the Lekki toll plaza in Lagos

Image source, Getty Images

Twitter made its biggest political impact during the #EndSars demonstrations in 2020 when it became the platform of choice for young demonstrators who forced the president to abolish the Special Anti-Robbery Squad (Sars), a police unit that was notorious for its brutality.

The #EndSars protests morphed into calls for an end to bad governance in Nigeria and President Buhari has said that the protesters wanted to remove him from office.

The government blames Twitter for fanning the protests and holds its former boss, Jack Dorsey, who showed support for the protesters, responsible for the destruction that ensued after the demonstrations were hijacked by criminals.

Government supporters celebrate

In many ways, Twitter’s travails in Nigeria felt like a personal battle between Mr Dorsey and Mr Buhari, culminating in the president’s tweet being deleted last June.

The tweet referenced the 1967-70 Biafran civil war and warned that “those misbehaving today” would be dealt with in “the language they will understand”.

In the wake of Twitter’s climbdown, it is hard to see how protests such as the #EndSars demonstrations can be organised on the platform without it being accused of violating local laws such as “inciting violence”.

Some of the destroyed property at different police stations across the state during the Inspector General Police visit to Lagos on November 3, 2020

Image source, Getty Images

But Gbenga Sesan of Nigerian digital rights group Paradigm Initiative believes it was actually the government which lost out during the seven-month ban as it could not get its message out.

“The real winners are Twitter and the Nigerian people, the government are the biggest losers,” he said.

His organisation is part of a consortium challenging the ban and Mr Sesan believes the government rushed to announce the lifting of the Twitter ban to save face as a ruling is expected this week by a court of the regional body Ecowas.

“Shame on him [President Buhari] because this is a legacy thing, first shutdown in Nigeria,” he said.

But supporters of the government are celebrating its victory and saying that the authorities forced Twitter to bend over.

Many of them felt that deleting the president’s tweet was the height of political interference by a private firm and they fully supported the ban.

The company is now being mocked for accepting the government’s conditions and returning in time for next year’s general elections.

Election campaigns in Nigeria are among the most expensive in the world. Presidential candidates can spend up to 15 billion naira ($36m; £26m) on campaigns and social media adverts account for an increasingly large part of the budget.

It is the sort of windfall that Twitter, a company that wants to grow its revenues in Africa, would not want to miss out on, government supporters say.

Although the return of Twitter in time for the polls also suits Nigerian politicians from all parties.

More about Twitter and Nigeria:

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