Populist leaders like Donald Trump (US) and Viktor Orbán (Hungary) are known to lash out against the power of social media, but no one has really come to blows like Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari.
This Friday (18), it will be two weeks since the African leader decided to ban the use of Twitter, an unprecedented measure, at least in countries considered to be democracies, although imperfect.
The brutality of the decision, which deprived an estimated 20 million Nigerians of using the social network, has fueled a civil society seeking to curb Buhari’s authoritarian impulses.
Last week, a group of entities filed a lawsuit with the Economic Community of West African States, a regional body of which Nigeria is a member.
They are asking for an interim ruling to overturn the ban and protect users from prosecution and imprisonment, as the presidential decree threatens.
The court’s decision has been set for June 22, but there is no certainty that the Nigerian government will follow through on its eventual decision to release Twitter.
The decision to suspend the social network was taken after a June 1 tweet from Buhari was deleted by the platform.
The current president referred to the Biafra War (1967-70), which left around 1 million dead in the country, and during which he fought. Threatening separatist groups, Buhari said that “those of us who were at war would address them in the language they understand.”
Twitter deleted the text, citing its policies against abusive content, which led to retaliation from the government. Information Minister Lai Mohammed said the move was due to “the continued use of the platform for activities that could undermine Nigeria’s existence.”
Since then, only a few users connected to VPN services, which provide access to private servers outside the country, have been able to access the network, but risking sanctions from the government.
“This move to ban Twitter, harming millions of people, is obviously unusual, but it should come as no surprise after the recent history of the Nigerian government, which is still seeking to regulate and crack down on free speech. “said Kolawole Oluwadare, MP. -director of Serap, a Nigerian human rights NGO leading the trial.
420 Nigerian entities or figures also joined in the judicial attempt to overturn the decision.
One of the best known is Aisha Yesufu, founder of the Bring Back Our Girls movement, created in 2014 to call for the release of girls kidnapped by the radical Islamic movement Boko Haram, an episode that had major international repercussions.
“There has been a lot of resistance from civil society, both NGOs and individuals, forming coalitions and working together to resist this attack on freedom of expression. It’s something that affects everyone. Certainly, opposition to this measure is the majority opinion in the country, ”says Oluwadare.
One point that arouses particular outrage, he says, is that even Trump did not attempt such a measure. The former US president praised the attitude of the Nigerian government and called on other countries to do the same.
The decision of Buhari, a retired army general, has raised questions about his commitment to democracy. In 1983, he was one of the leaders of a military coup in this African country, and he ruled until 1985.
In 2015, declaring himself a convert to democracy, he was elected president, securing a second term in 2019. Recently, however, his autocratic attitudes have drawn attention.
Last year, the government violently cracked down on protests calling for an end to police brutality. Buhari also mentioned the intention to pass a law controlling the work of NGOs.
“Banning Twitter is part of a larger pattern of authoritarian behavior in Nigeria. And this is taking place against a backdrop of economic problems, increasing poverty and insecurity, ”said Matthew Page, researcher specializing in Nigeria at Chatham House, a British think tank.
After 15 years of growth at rates above 5% due to the oil boom, its main export product, the Nigerian economy has stagnated since 2015, alternating small bursts of growth and contractions.
This generates discontent in the country of 220 million inhabitants and a lack of jobs, especially among young people. Nigeria also suffers from Islamic terrorism and the action of various separatist groups.
Despite this, the country has an emerging middle class and a thriving financial sector, in cities like Lagos and Port Harcout, in addition to the capital, Abuja. Although numerically in the minority, it is the influential sectors that use Twitter the most and want the ban.
According to Page, the ban on using the social network has an impact not only on civil liberties, but also on the economy.
“There is economic damage in a country with chronic unemployment and infrastructure problems. Nigeria has always been a tough place to invest, but this environment only gets worse when you add the crackdown on freedom and government interference in a business activity, like that of a tech company, ”he says. .
The analyst says it is likely that at some point the Nigerian government will drop the ban on Twitter, but instead want to adopt content control measures, as authoritarian countries are already doing.
Buhari’s term ends in 2023 and he cannot be re-elected. Twitter is expected to be an important tool for the opposition in the next election campaign.
The key to restoring freedom of expression at least in part, Page says, is the mobilization of civil society, since institutions such as parliament and the judiciary are subservient to the executive.
“Civil society is not indestructible, but it remains the most solid pillar of Nigerian democracy. There needs to be more pressure from Nigerians in general, as well as parts of the elite and the international community, ”the analyst said.