By Olu Fasan
LAI Mohammed, Nigeria’s Minister of Information and Culture, recently struck a triumphalist tone as he announced that the Federal Government would soon lift its ban on Twitter because the social media platform had agreed to stringent government controls. That defies conventional wisdom that, due to the disciplining forces of globalisation, governments tend to avoid taming the market. Yet, the Nigerian government is taking on Twitter, and thinks it’s winning. But it’s a Pyrrhic victory that will cost Nigeria hugely.
Before we come to that, let’s recall how things came to such a pass. It’s worth remembering that few governments in the world used Twitter more than President Muhammadu Buhari’s administration.
During the 2019 presidential election, Twitter was the platform used ad nauseam for Buhari’s second-term campaign propaganda: his media team inundated millions of people with tweets and retweets about his administration’s “infrastructure revolution” and other “achievements”. Truth is, Buhari and his government loved Twitter!
But things later went awry. First, the Federal Government blamed Twitter for fuelling the #EndSARS protests. Then, came Twitter’s decision to site its Africa headquarters in Ghana. That decision really irked the Buhari government, which believed Nigeria was the rightful place for the HQ. After all, Nigeria dwarfed Ghana both in population and the number of Twitter users. But Twitter said it chose Ghana because it is “a champion for democracy, a supporter of free speech, online freedom, and the Open Internet”. This suggested, rightly, that Nigeria lacked those attributes.
The last straw was Twitter’s decision on June 2 to delete President Buhari’s tweet. Buhari evoked the spectre of the Nigeria-Biafra War and threatened separatist agitators in the South-East with the alarming words: “We will treat them in the language they understand”. Twitter said the post violated its “abusive behaviour” policy and removed it. Buhari’s aides were incandescent with rage; on June 5, government banned Twitter from operating in Nigeria.
The ban provoked worldwide condemnation. The US and the EU condemned it in a joint statement; many other countries, including Britain, Canada and Sweden, criticised the Buhari government’s thin-skinned behaviour. To be sure, the ban was utterly irrational because, apart from being an attack on free speech, it undermined the economic welfare of Nigerians and the country as a whole.
The polling agency NOI Polls estimated that about 39.6 million Nigerians use Twitter, 20 per cent of them for business advertisement and 18 per cent to look for employment. Other estimates showed that Nigeria immediately lost N6bn from the Twitter ban.
Of course, Twitter is also widely used by academics and students to promote and follow research, as well as by the mainstream media to disseminate news. Surely, only an anti-intellectual government that belittles education and the diffusion of ideas would ban the use of Twitter. Alas, the Buhari government did!
Since the ban, the Federal Government said it was negotiating with Twitter the conditions for lifting it. And on August 12, the information minister announced the purported outcome of the negotiations. Speaking after a Federal Executive Council meeting, the minister told journalists that the Federal Government would soon lift the ban on Twitter as the social media giant had agreed to comply with the conditions imposed on it. Twitter did not confirm agreeing to any conditions beyond saying that it had talks with the government and “look forward to our services restored soon”.
But the conditions, if operational, would subject Twitter to stringent government controls. For instance, Twitter must: register as a company in Nigeria, with a Nigerian Office and staff of management cadre; register with relevant regulatory authorities, such as the Nigerian Broadcasting Commission, NBC; and agree to a charter of online conduct for content management, allowing government to decide which content is acceptable and which is not! This is a leaf straight from the draconian media bills!
Government invokes provisions of the Companies and Allied Matters Act of 2020 that require foreign companies intending to “carry on business in Nigeria” to be incorporated in this country. But Twitter is open service; although serving the entire world, it has just about 35 offices worldwide.
Under the Electronic Commerce Agreement, currently being negotiated at the World Trade Organisation, e-commerce businesses can transmit products and services digitally or electronically to a country without being incorporated there. It is inconceivable that CAMA 2020 is so backward-looking as to treat foreign online or digital businesses transmitting services electronically to Nigeria as “carrying out business in Nigeria” for the purposes of incorporation under section 78 of the Act.
Besides, if Twitter had not “insulted” Buhari by deleting his offensive tweet, the Federal Government wouldn’t have asked it to be incorporated in Nigeria. Indeed, after Twitter’s choice of Ghana as its Africa HQ, the Minister of Information merely regretted the decision, while adding: “I think Twitter has the prerogative and exclusive right as to where to site its headquarters”. At no point was any provision of CAMA 2020 invoked or the need for Twitter to meet any operating condition mentioned. Which makes the Federal Government’s conditions for lifting the Twitter ban an afterthought and a punitive measure.
But it’s self-defeating, in a globalised world, for an economically fragile country like Nigeria to treat global corporate giants like Twitter with hostility; that signals to foreign investors that the country is not open for business. Let’s face it, the world is shunning Nigeria; it’s not beating its path to Nigeria’s door!
Last week, a report by the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development, UNCTAD, showed that Nigeria only received $3bn out of the $75bn foreign direct investment that came to Africa between 2015 and 2019. That’s just four per cent! The same report said FDI flows to Nigeria decreased by 48.5 per cent in 2020, compared to 2019. Nigeria simply repels foreign investors.
But why? Well, Nigeria has poor investment climate and negative investment image. Sadly, government’s heavy-handed treatment of Twitter will inevitably worsen both.