Thursday, September 16, 2021

100 days after Twitter ban, uncertainty trails FG’s plan

• It’s Twitter that is delaying, says Presidency source
• Economy biggest casualty as losses hit N246b
• Social enterprise groups meet today to discuss the way forward
• Stakeholders appeal to govt to resolve issues, not kill online community

The promise by the Federal Government that the ban placed on the popular micro-blogging platform, Twitter, will be lifted soon appears to be fading away, as the suspension hits 100 days today.

The Federal Government had announced the suspension of Twitter operations in the country on June 4, after the social media giant deleted a post by President Muhammadu Buhari for “violation of the company’s abusive behaviour policy.”

By June 5, the suspension was effected by telecommunications companies as Nigerians woke up to a Twitter shutdown across all platforms.

Three months down the line, it appears no truce has been formally reached by the two parties or better still, they have been sluggish in agreeing on the way forward.

Though, on August 19, the Information and Culture Minister, Lai Mohammed, disclosed that from the 10 demands put forward to lift Twitter suspension, the social networking platform had acceded to seven.
   
Mohammed actually disclosed this in Washington DC during his engagement with various global media outlets, global think tanks, and influencers. He said his engagement was to put across the correct narratives about what is happening in Nigeria, showcase government achievements, and present challenges facing the country.

During his interactions with Reuters, Washington Post, and Bloomberg Quicktake, a live streaming news service, the minister said an amicable settlement of the ban was in sight.

“We believe that even the other three outstanding demands are not really about whether they agreed or not but about timing and scheduling. That is what gave me the confidence that we are getting nearer to an agreement,” he said.
The minister said among the demands made from Twitter was for the platform to register as a Nigerian company, pay taxes from revenue made from the country and ensure that harmful contents are regulated.

Though, he argued that the Twitter ban had been very effective in the country because they see less harmful and injurious content on social media.

But 25 days after the Minister disclosed the government’s readiness to lift the ban, Nigerians, who appeared to be anxious, have since been kept in the dark as there has been no further communication either from the government or the social media giant.

It, however, appears the administration is on course to continue the ban until the end of the year, despite signaling initially, that reversal was imminent.

But a source in the Presidency, who spoke confidentially, told The Guardian that the matter would be resolved anytime soonest.

The source said the FG wants to be double sure that Twitter would comply with the new terms and agreement, “some of which the Minister of Information and Culture, Alhaji Lai Mohammed, had enumerated weeks back.

“You know it is important to have these things in black and white so that parties involved in this matter would, going forward abide by the terms and conditions to avoid issues. I can assure you that any time soon, this ban will be lifted.

“Like the Minister had said, 70 per cent have been agreed to, but the remaining 30 per cent is also crucial. The 30 per cent include whether to set up an office in Nigeria this year or wait till 2022, or whether the office in Ghana can still serve Nigeria while we wait till next year and the issue of when there is an infraction, whom do you hold responsible. Those are the minor things remaining. The major ones have been addressed.

“So, right now, I will say they are closer to resolution today more than ever. If Twitter had cleared those doubts, the government is ready to lift the ban immediately. If Twitter continued to insist ‘we cannot set up an office in Nigeria this year because it was not part of our plan for 2021, we would have to wait till 2022, but while we are waiting, Ghana will oversee Nigeria,’ I don’t think the government will take that. But the truth be told, the ball is in Twitter’s court. The FG has said they will lift this ban if this is done. Twitter holds the aces right now!

“The Ghana hub serving Nigeria is their idea, but Nigeria’s own is that why not have a representative (an official) in the country that can account for your actions, even if you are not opening an office in Nigeria in 2021 but 2022. Twitter is yet to respond to that. If these knotty issues are resolved, I don’t see any reason why FG will not lift the ban immediately,” the source explained.

Efforts to get Twitter’s response at press time were not successful as there has not been official communication from the microblogging platform on the subject.

MEANWHILE, businesses, especially the Small and Medium-scale Enterprises (SMEs) and governments at different levels continue to bear the brunt of the suspension as the economy continues to take a hit.
According to NetBlocks, a watchdog organisation that monitors cybersecurity and governance of the Internet, each hour of the suspension costs Nigeria $250,000 (N102.5 million), bringing the daily loss to N2.46 billion. Invariably, it means in the last 100 days, the economy would have lost over N246 billion to the suspension.

Paradigm Initiative (PIN), a social enterprise, in conjunction with Enough is Enough Nigeria (EiE); Media Rights Agenda (MRA), and Socio-Economic Rights And Accountability Project (SERAP), will today organise a press conference in Lagos on the Twitter ban. They have jointly put the loss to the economy at about $360 million.

There are about five lawsuits in Nigeria and the ECOWAS courts on the Twitter ban. Recall that EiE, PIN, and MRA have filed a lawsuit against MTN, Airtel, Globacom, and 9Mobile for the court to declare the blockage of Twitter access as unlawful, unconstitutional, and against the rights to freedom of expression.

These social enterprise groups are also seeking an injunction restraining the telecommunication firms from blocking or interfering with Twitter and any other social media platform.
PRESIDENT, National Association of Telecoms Subscribers of Nigeria (NATCOMs), Chief Deolu Ogunbanjo, has appealed to the FG to resolve the matter in another two weeks, on the basis that subscribers are suffering, especially those who run businesses online.

“Many small businesses have collapsed and there are huge job losses after 100 days. We appeal to the government to have a rethink. With the COVID-19 Delta variant now escalating in the country, the government should not deprive people of access to social media, especially those who get their daily information from the platform. Some peoples’ lives are practically online, so, the government should not kill that space. We appeal to them to bring Twitter back as fast as possible so that the economy can bounce back as well.”
   
From his perspective, the Nigeria Coordinator, Alliance for Affordable Internet (A4AI), Olusola Teniola, said with three months gone, it appears the society as a whole has moved on from the FG’s ban on Twitter.

Teniola said the majority of users have found a way around the ban and adapted to the new norm that alternative ways exist in the way to reach their loved ones or engage in business.

Toeing the line of thought of Ogunbanjo, the A4AI boss said the economy has been the biggest casualty.

“There was definitely an opportunity for businesses to grow in terms of jobs being provided on the back of Twitter’s advertising and revenue-generating model (digital marketing). The ban meant job losses across every sector utilising Twitter,” he stated.

On recent claims that there was the partial lifting of the ban, which allowed some users to use the platform through their desktops, Teniola explained that Twitter can still be accessed via virtual private networks (VPN) until FG informs the MNOs to allow access via their Internet gateways and firewalls.

According to him, the lifting of the ban will more than likely happen ‘quietly’ so as not to provide any party with a sense of victory.

“FG owes it to Nigerians and in particularly affected businesses an explanation and a roadmap of the changes agreed with Twitter so that a reoccurrence of this can be avoided and impact to livelihoods minimised. We need to learn from this episode and embrace the digital economy, not fear it,” he stated.

As useful as VPN is, it has not been able to bring everyone back to Twitter, and many who defy the ban using the alternative platform application to access the microblogging site have expressed their frustrations.

In compliance with the ban, virtually all federal and state government officials and agencies have stopped disseminating information through Twitter. Big corporate organisations like banks and network providers, among other businesses, have stopped tweeting, shutting down their major customer service channels.

Broadcasting stations have also cut off from their audiences of millions of people on Twitter in fear of retribution from the government, which has taken media censorship to a new height recently.

Uncomfortable with using VPNs because of fear of cyber-security threats, or the limited engagements occasioned by the ban on the platform, many Nigerians have been forced to abandon Twitter entirely.

Idayat Hassan, director of Centre for Democracy and Development, and Kehinde A. Togun, Senior Director for Policy and Government Relations at Humanity United, said instead of dissipating energy on hounding Twitter to their demands, the government should focus on more pressing matters that are actually impacting on citizens.

“More than 700 children have been kidnapped by extremists since December 2020, and the government has been unsuccessful in finding most of them. Rather than guarding against unprecedented levels of insecurity, the Presidency chose to spar with a social media company.

“Nigeria continues to teeter on the path to failed statehood as all regions suffer from internal conflicts. At no time since the civil war in the 1960s has the country faced so much conflict concurrently. The Northeast continues to struggle with decades-long insurgency; there’s an upsurge of banditry in the Northwest; in the Southeast, Biafran separatists are fighting for secession; and in the Southwest, clashes between herders and farmers continue to stoke tensions and the clamour for the Yoruba nation is becoming more prominent.

“Following the administration’s logic, these crises are not threatening the corporate existence of Nigeria. The culprit is Twitter, the platform citizens use to vent their frustrations, network, run their businesses, and find jobs. It’s unclear if President Buhari considered the socioeconomic impact of his Twitter ban on the teaming Nigerian population that depends on the platform for its livelihood. It seems what mattered was his embarrassment, so all Nigerians had to pay.

“Lifting the Twitter ban would be welcome news. Instead of focusing on restricting citizens’ ability to express discontent, the President might begin listening to citizens’ valid concerns and then roll up his sleeves to address these pressing problems,” they wrote in a statement.

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