Lagos, Nigeria – Emmanuel Alumona, a Lagos-based front-end developer, realized early Saturday that he couldn’t access Twitter on his phone.
A day earlier, the Nigerian government announced the indefinite suspension of Twitter’s operations in the country due to “the persistent use of the platform for activities that could undermine the existence of Nigerian businesses”.
The suspension in Africa’s most populous country came two days after the social media giant deleted a tweet from President Muhammadu Buhari’s account for violating its rules.
“I thought so [Twitter’s suspension] was a joke,” said Alumona, 24, who now uses Twitter through a VPN.
“I did not expect the government to sink so low. Twitter is like my diary. Whenever I want to check what’s happening in the country, I refresh my timeline. Unfortunately when I woke up on Saturday my homepage was not loading,” Alumona told Al Jazeera.
Banning Twitter – a platform that helped the ruling party win the 2015 presidential election – is part of the government’s plan to regulate social media.
In 2017, Nigeria’s Information Minister Lai Mohammed blamed “the headquarters for disinformation and fake news” on social media.
A National Information Council (NCI) was set up soon after and recommended that a council be created to regulate the use of social media.
– seek the lord first🇯🇲 (@MorrisBaker_) June 7, 2021
In 2019, the Minister of Information backed an anti-social media bill titled: Protections Against Lies and Manipulation on the Internet, sponsored by Senator Mohammed Sani Musa of the ruling APC party.
The government has also ordered internet services including WhatsApp, Zoom, Netflix, Skype to obtain licenses from the National Broadcasting Commission before operating in the country.
“Obviously, registration is a pretext for regulation,” Joachim MacEbong, a senior analyst at Lagos-based political risk analysis firm SBM Intelligence. told Al Jazeera.
“They show that they are ready to suppress democratic freedom. The next two years are going to be tough.
In 2015, President Buhari, who imprisoned hundreds of people after seizing power in a 1983 coup, used social media as part of a campaign strategy that cast him as a ” converted Democrat” in his fourth attempt at the presidency.
Buhari was overthrown in another coup in 1985 before being elected president in 2015.
Analysts say Buhari’s administration is reminiscent of his 1984 military rule. He imposed draconian legislation that allowed the government to jail any journalist or member of civil society found guilty of “embarrassing” the country’s military leader.
Under his administration, several journalists were imprisoned or charged with treason.
In 2021, Nigeria ranked 120 out of 180 countries in the Reporters Without Borders (RSF) World Press Freedom Index.
Nigeria has been celebrated as one of the few African countries attracting investment into its tech ecosystem, but was recently shunned when Twitter chose neighboring Ghana for its first African headquarters.
About 39 million Nigerians have a Twitter account, more than Ghana’s total population of 32 million.
Twitter’s decision to choose Ghana over Nigeria was evident in a statement in which the organization described Ghana “as a champion of democracy, a supporter of freedom of expression, online freedom and ‘open Internet’.
“It hasn’t even been two months since Twitter opened its Ghanaian headquarters and they were right,” MacEbong said.
“This ban will keep investors away. Global tech companies that want to have a presence in Africa are likely to look to a place like Ghana rather than a place like Nigeria.
Gbenga Sesan, executive director of Paradigm Initiative, a pan-African social enterprise working on inclusion and digital rights, agrees.
He says the suspension of Twitter sends the wrong signal to foreign investors, adding that small businesses using Twitter as a source of income in Nigeria will be affected.
“Nigerian businesses use digital media to reach their customers, expose their brands and communicate with various stakeholders. It will certainly be affected by this erratic decision,” Sesan told Al Jazeera.
Following Twitter’s suspension, users across the country, via VPNs, flooded the platform to express their anger and disappointment.
The Nigerian Attorney General’s Office has ordered immediate prosecution of Nigerians who try to circumvent the government ban on Twitter after the government suspended its operations.
Late Saturday, the diplomatic missions of the European Union, the United States, Canada, Ireland and the United Kingdom issued a joint statement condemning the Nigerian government’s decision.
Back in Lagos, Alumona, via her VPN, joined other Nigerians in tweeting using the hashtag #KeepitOn.
Despite using a VPN, Alumona is scared.
“The way things are going, I’m scared as a Nigerian because we don’t know what’s coming next,” he said.
“It will affect our ability to stand up for the truth and hold the government to account.”