By Gbenga Sesan
It is important to situate the debate around the Nigerian government’s suspension of Twitter within the context of ongoing conversations between many countries and social media platforms. The hot topic of social media regulation is understandable because of the twin issues of disinformation (“fake news”) and dangerous speech (“hate speech”) but to avoid creating more problems in the name of solving same, every sensible country where these regulation conversations are happening has benefited from parliamentary oversight, judicial interpretation and citizen participation. Nigeria took a radically different approach with the Buhari-led government’s reckless action on June 4, 2021, when it ordered telecommunications companies and Internet Service Providers to cut off access to Twitter in the country.
While much of the focus of the ongoing debate has been on Twitter and the Nigerian government, there is a third party we need to pay more attention to — citizens. As courts are now beginning to consider cases brought before them on the suspension of Twitter by the Nigerian government, we must be clear about this: citizens are not going to court to defend a company, they are asking courts to defend their human rights. Citizens are not in court to defend a company against their nation but to defend their fundamental right to speak, using any platform of their choice. Citizens are also in court to challenge an illegal “you are directed to” process that is used by governments to clamp down on dissenting voices.
Nigerian citizens, assisted by third sector organisations, are in court for three main reasons. First, it is wrong for the government to cut off the right of citizens to speak up using any platform of their choice. Second, if there is a valid concern, the process of addressing such must be subjected to judicial oversight and not just through a memo asking companies to default on their contract by cutting off access to services. Third, we must challenge the government’s attempt to retroactively use secondary legislation to clamp down on the institutions that support citizen voices.
The conversations between social media platforms and countries are not unique to Nigeria, and in addition to the role played by the judiciary, legislature, and media in various countries that are discussing social media regulation, input from citizens and third sector organisations form a major part of the debate. It is important to set this context because there is more to what is going on in Nigeria; it is not just about social media regulation but the continuation of a clampdown agenda. In 2013, Paradigm Initiative (PIN) sued the Nigerian government when it refused to respond to a Freedom of Information (FoI) request regarding an unlawful Internet surveillance contract. Since then, there have been many attempts to restrict the online civic space through problematic bills that focused on clamping down on citizens rights, such as the 2015 Frivolous Petitions Prohibitions Bill, 2019 Hate Speech Prohibition Bill, 2019 National Commission for the Prohibition of Hate Speeches Bill, and 2019 Protection from Internet Falsehood and Manipulations Bill.
Many of these bills were met with citizen pushback, as were the government’s attempts at backdoor legislation without judicial or parliamentary oversight. At the instance of overbearing ministers, the formerly independent Nigerian Communications Commission and the National Broadcasting Commission repeatedly exceed their regulatory oversight to clamp down on dissenting voices online. This act of targeting the online civic space does not come as a surprise given the role that the Internet, and social media in particular, has played in Nigeria since 2009. Thanks to growth in mobile Internet access, Nigeria added 33 million Internet users in 2009 alone, to achieve 16% Internet penetration, and it instantly became a tool in the hands of citizens who had a lot to say about governance or the lack of it.
Citizens used the Blackberry Messenger platform to speak up and organize protests in 2009 and 2010. Citizens developed a mobile application to monitor elections in 2011. Citizens used Twitter and Facebook, among other social media platforms, to join the #OccupyNigeria protests in 2012. This wasn’t only happening in Nigeria, by the way; in many African countries, online conversations led to offline action. From #YenAMarre in Guinea and Senegal in 2012, to #ÇaSuffit (“that’s enough”) and #LeBalaiCitoyen (“the citizen’s broom”) in Burkina Faso in 2014, Nigeria’s #BringBackOurGirls in 2014, #FeesMustFall in South Africa in 2015, and #GambiaHasDecided in 2016, citizens have used social media to hold governments accountable. This continues, as seen through recent citizen-led actions like #ZimbabweanLivesMatter, #CongoIsBleeding, #ShutItAllDownNamibia, #EndAnglophoneCrisis in Cameroon and #EndSARS in Nigeria. The clampdown agenda we are seeing in Nigeria and other African countries is focused on the Internet, and social media in particular, because that is the last standing civic space where citizens have found the opportunity to exercise their rights and fill gaps left by opportunistic opposition political parties.
Nigeria does not have a strong opposition culture because politicians simply use parties as election special purpose vehicles instead of building ideological structures, so the real opposition that can hold the feet of government to the fire is the citizenry, not politicians who are mostly concerned about the political platform that can help them win their next election. This is a reason the online civic space has been under attack by various governments and why attempts at restricting the use of social media are not really about social media regulation, in the sense of creating standards that will solve the problems of disinformation and dangerous speech, but about clamping down on dissenting voices.
Nigerians are the third party in this ongoing debate and when citizens defend their right to tweet, we should not get hung up on the metaphor but recognise that this is simply to defend the right to freedom of expression, regardless of platform. As this debate continues, the third sector has been supporting the third party, as many non-governmental organisations are registered by Nigerian law to do. The third sector is working with the third party to restore citizens’ rights to free speech, using any platform of their choice, and to make sure that the government does not use illegal processes to solve problems.
The twin problems of fake news and hate speech need to be solved, and even though government officials are some of the biggest perpetrators of disinformation and dangerous speech in Nigeria, citizens and civil society organisations have expressed willingness to work with government and other stakeholders to solve the problems while respecting the democratic rights of citizens. The third party, in the ongoing #TwitterBanInNigeria debate, and the third sector will continue to work together using the opportunity of this misstep by the government to right the wrongs and make sure that Nigeria remains a democratic country that respects citizen rights. This is why all arms of government — Executive, Judiciary and Legislature — must work with the third sector and the third party, in this ongoing debate, to resolve the issues, provide long-lasting solutions to the problems that we have all identified, and ensure that we don’t create a problem while trying to solve another.
‘Gbenga Sesan is the Executive Director of Paradigm Initiative, a pan-African social enterprise working on digital inclusion and digital rights through its offices in Cameroon, Kenya, Nigeria, Senegal, Zambia and Zimbabwe. He is also a Non-Resident Fellow at the Digital Civil Society Lab at Stanford University.