By Innocent Odoh
The Nigerian Government has stuck to its guns in the face of intense pressure mounted by Western nations demanding the reversal of the suspension of Twitter imposed over a week ago, following the alleged use of the microblogging site to incite threat to the corporate existence of Nigeria.
The United States is leading the pressure on President Muhammadu Buhari –led Federal Government to lift the ban, arguing that it violated freedom of expression. But rather than buckle under pressure, the Nigerian government has unleashed conditions on Twitter and other social media platforms operating in the country, insisting that they must be properly registered with the country’s Corporate Affairs Commission (CAC) and pay taxes before they will be allowed to operate.
Minister of Information and Culture Lai Mohammed, who announced the ban on Friday June 4, told reporters on Wednesday June 8, that the ban can only be lifted when Twitter submits to local licensing, registration and conditions even as he rejected the criticism that the ban violated freedom of expression.
The Nigerian Government’s indefinite suspension of the operations of Twitter in Nigeria followed the deletion of President Muhammadu Buhari’s alleged inciting tweets against insurrectionists in South Eastern part of the country where the Indigenous People of Biafra (IPOB) led by Nnamdi Kanu, is instigating secessionist activities.
The US government has remained consistent in its criticism of the ban and for the third time within one week, issued a statement on Thursday June 9 to express concerns that the Nigerian National Broadcasting Commission ordered all television and radio broadcasters to cease using Twitter.
US State Department spokesman, Ned Price in a statement said “Unduly restricting the ability of Nigerians to report, gather, and disseminate opinions and information has no place in a democracy. Freedom of expression and access to information both online and offline are foundational to prosperous and secure democratic societies.”
This was preceded by another statement by the Administrator of United States Aid For International Development (USAID), Samantha Power and the United Nations also denouncing the ban and demanding immediate reversal.
The controversy over the ban elicited very sharp and perhaps desperate reactions from other countries led by the US such as Canada, European Union, United Kingdom and Republic of Ireland, which issued a joint statement on Saturday, June 5 to express their disappointment over the suspension.
The statement said, “the diplomatic missions of Canada, the European Union (Delegation to Nigeria), the Republic of Ireland, the United Kingdom and the United States of America convey our disappointment over the Government of Nigeria’s announcement suspending #Twitter and proposing registration requirements for other social media.
“We strongly support the fundamental human right of free expression and access to information as a pillar of democracy in Nigeria as around the world and these rights apply online as well as offline. Banning systems of expression is not the answer.”
The statement said further that “these measures inhibit access to information and commerce at precisely the moment when Nigeria needs to foster inclusive dialogue and expression of opinions, as well as share vital information in this time of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The ambassadors of these nations were later summoned by the Minister of Foreign Affairs, Geoffrey Onyeama, on Monday June 6, to explain the allegedly brazen criticism of a government policy. Led by the US Ambassador to Nigeria, Mary Beth Leonard, the envoys remained firm in their position that the ban violated freedom of expression even as they pledged to work with Nigeria to resolve the problem.
Some Nigerian experts have also suggested that the matter be handled with care even as they warned against the meddlesomeness of the Western Powers on what is “purely the sovereign right of Nigeria to decide.”
Speaking to LEADERSHIP over weekend, Dr. Tunji John Asaolu, Nigerian Representative at the African Union Economy, Social and Cultural Council, said the anger of Nigeria with Twitter might have stemmed from the facts that among other things, Twitter located its African Headquarters in Ghana instead of Nigeria that has about 40 million subscribers more than the population of Ghana which has 32 million people.
He said “Nigeria is a sovereign state and has the right to take certain decisions and nothing stops it from taking such a decision if it deems it fit.
“So, the Nigerian government’s decision to ask Twitter to register with the CAC so that they pay taxes is in order because they cannot be making money in Nigeria and put their headquarters elsewhere.”
He however, advised that the matter should be handled diplomatically through negotiation as the impact is already biting on the youth and others who use the platform for their businesses.
Contributing, a diplomat from one of the African missions in Nigeria, said though Twitter is a platform to promote social democracy, the ban will not necessarily cause any diplomatic row between Nigeria and the other countries opposed to it as that does not affect the countries directly.
“Twitter is a platform for strengthening social democracy. That is why there is this widespread condemnation. But it has not reached a point where people may fear diplomatic row because it does not affect the nations directly. Nigeria is a sovereign state that has the right to take whatever decision over its citizens,” he said.
It has been over one week of controversy and all registered telecom networks have pulled Twitter down from their systems. However, the economic toll is beginning to mount as losses are already being recorded in billions of naira and the attendant unemployment.
But will the Nigerian government succumb to pressure without conditions? The answer to this lies within the bowels of time especially in the coming days.