By Chukwudi Gbadebo Njoku
Research Fellow, Building Blocks For Peace Foundation
The Nigerian government announced the ban on Twitter on the 4th of June, 2020 and in the early hours of June 5th, implemented the ban, restricting millions of Nigerians access to the social media platform. This was sequel to a tweet by the President of the country, Muhammadu Buhari, which was reported by many Nigerians as hateful and capable of inciting “genocidal” actions against the Igbo people since it referred to events that occurred during the unfortunate civil war of 1967 to 1970 that left more than one million people dead. The tweet sparked a movement on social media in support of Nigerians from the Igbo ethnic group. The President’s tweet read that “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” (Global Voices, 2021).
The President’s tweet was in response to the recent escalation of insecurity in Nigeria, with particular reference to the killing of security personnel and destruction of government property such as police stations, law courts and offices of the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) in Nigeria’s south east and south south regions. The violence against the police and other security agencies has led to the killing of at least 200 security operatives in the Niger Delta alone between January 2020 and March 2021 (Foundation for Partnership Initiatives in the Niger Delta – PIND, 2021). Also, amongst other arsons, more than 16 offices of the electoral commission were reportedly attacked and vandalized in the south east and south south region between January 2019 and December 2020 (PIND 2021). These attacks on government facilities and security operatives in the Niger Delta jeopardizes peace in the region and has dire socio-economic and political implications.
The issues of insecurity as well as the high-handedness of the government and its security agents have been at the forefront of social discourse in Nigeria. Twitter has become fertile ground for such public discourse over the last decade, especially in recent times, pre and post #EndSARS protest. Although Twitter in Nigeria presents double-edged sword for peace and development, it has defined and changed social and political interactions and communication and has been adopted by state and non-state actors. Its fundamental role in the society is globally acknowledged as it provides vital linkages between the government and the people (Gonina, Ngantem and Dapiya, 2020). The President, members of the government at the executive, legislative and judiciary, government ministries, departments and agencies all adopt social media, especially Twitter to disseminate information to the general public. This highlights Twitter’s relevance in linking the government and the governed. Twitter also alternatively supports investigating, alerting and reporting individuals, activities and practices of civil right suppression or those that can endanger the safety of the nation. It has also awakened citizen journalism and increased participation of the public in national affairs
A social media platform such as Twitter is thus useful for transforming societies, individuals and even governments. It can help spread peace, encouraging dialogue among people from different ethnic backgrounds and nationalities. It can also affect perception on ethnicity, change attitudes, and promote tolerance and mutual understanding. According to Peace Insight (2013), it can thereby be employed to bridge the divide between ethnic groups that wouldn’t otherwise communicate with one another. A ban on Twitter thus implies that the government would become incapable of communicating with its citizens through Twitter, while individuals and civil society organizations would be unable to leverage on the social media platforms to foster dialogues around peace and social cohesion at a time when such engagements are most needed.
Even more, the ban on Twitter means that businesses that are run or advertised through the platform are stifled. Twitter users in Nigeria made up mostly of young people who according to the Governor of Oyo State – Seyi Makinde have gone beyond using Twitter as a source of communication but as a source of livelihood irrespective of their political affiliations or religious leanings. Nigerian youths and organisations who may not have physical stores earn a living from being able to use the platform to give visibility to their products and services. The ban thus means that more youths who rely on Twitter for their businesses would become unemployed, thus increasing their tendencies to engage in crime and other clandestine activities.
In a nutshell, Twitter is a tool available for everyone; the government, conflicting parties and peace practitioners to engage in dialogue and peacebuilding efforts. It creates prospects for peace processes, such as support with data collection and analysis, strengthening peace messaging and diversifying dialogue (Conciliation Resources, 2020). It however comes with some risks. This is because conflicts are becoming more complex and difficult to resolve. Twitter may have added to this complication due to its ability to aggravate propaganda and hate speech.
The government rather than stifle the people’s voice on social, economic and political issues must learn how to leverage on Twitter to listen, dialogue, interact and disseminate un-inciteful information to the Nigerian people. Measures such as arresting and prosecuting Twitter users who have merely tweeted as proposed by the government (CNN, 2021) and attempts to pass bills that would prohibit the usage of social media in Nigeria would compromise freedom of speech and expression as guaranteed by several international frameworks, increase youth unemployment and foster resentment between the government and the masses, thereby compromising the purpose of democracy
CNN (2021). Nigerians can now be prosecuted for sending tweets following ban on Twitter. Retrieved June 2021 from https://edition.cnn.com/2021/06/05/africa/nigeria-prosecute-twitter-users-intl/index.html
Conciliation Resources (2020). The role of social media in early peacemaking: Help or hindrance? Retrieved June 2021 from https://www.c-r.org/accord/pioneering-peace-pathways/role-social-media-early-peacemaking-help-or-hindrance
Global Voices (2021). Nigerian government suspends Twitter after controversy over president’s deleted tweet threatening violence. Retrieved June 2021 from https://globalvoices.org/2021/06/04/nigerian-government-suspends-twitter-after-controversy-over-presidents-deleted-tweet-threatening-violence/
Gonina, S. S., Ngantem, L. M. & Dapiya, K. S. (2020). Defining Mass Media’s Threats to National Security. Canadian Social Science, 16 (5), 2020, 21-27.DOI:10.3968/11700
Peace Insight (2013). Harnessing the power of social media for conflict prevention. Retrieved June 2021 from https://www.peaceinsight.org/en/articles/social-media-conflict-prevention/?location=&theme=conflict-prevention-early-warning
PIND (2021). Niger Delta Weekly Update for May 23-29, 2021. Retrieved June 2021 from https://pindfoundation.org/niger-delta-weekly-update-may-23-29-2021/
PIND (2021). Niger Delta Weekly Conflict Update for April 25 – May 01, 2021. Retrieved June 2021 from https://pindfoundation.org/niger-delta-weekly-conflict-update-april-25-may-01-2021/