A man used his mobile phone to read headline news on Twitter inside an office in Lagos, Nigeria, Monday, June 7, 2021.

Nigeria's indefinite Twitter ban sounds the alarm on free speech

Nigerian writers Adaobi Tricia Nwaubani and Kọ́lá Túbọ̀sún weigh in on Nigeria's decision to indefinitely ban Twitter after the platform deleted a controversial tweet by the president.

The World

A man used his mobile phone to read headline news on Twitter inside an office in Lagos, Nigeria, June 7, 2021. Nigeria's government announced on Friday that it was suspending Twitter indefinitely in Africa's most populous nation, a day after the company deleted a controversial tweet President Muhammadu Buhari made about a secessionist movement.

Sunday Alamba/AP

Last Friday, the Nigerian government announced on Twitter that it had indefinitely suspended the platform.

The move came two days after Twitter deleted a controversial tweet that Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari made about a secessionist movement. 

In recent months, pro-Biafra separatists with the Indigenous Peoples of Biafra (IPOB) in southeastern Nigeria have been accused of attacking police and government buildings. In his tweet, Buhari vowed to “treat them in the language they understand.”

Twitter deleted Buhari’s post last Wednesday, calling it abusive.

Related: Twitter bans actor Kangana Ranaut for hate speech

Buhari's indefinite Twitter ban has raised concerns about free speech in Nigeria and also the perhaps outsized power of a US-based social media company to silence a Nigerian president. 

The World spoke with Nigerian writers Adaobi Tricia Nwaubani and Kọ́lá Túbọ̀sún about the Twitter scandal that has many talking online and offline about its implications. 

Túbọ̀sún, based in Lagos, said that the Twitter ban signals the government's slide into a dictatorship. 

"Not only were they trying to muzzle Twitter or prevent [people] from using it, they started talking about criminalizing the use of the platform..."

Kọ́lá Túbọ̀sún, writer, Lagos

"Not only were they trying to muzzle Twitter or prevent [people] from using it, they started talking about criminalizing the use of the platform, which has crossed from just a government regulation into actually the stifling of free speech and the freedom of the press," he said.

"They were compelling media houses to delete their Twitter handles. ... [This is] reminiscent of a time in the past when a president can just say something through a decree," noting that Buhari already has a reputation for shutting down dissent. 

Nwaubani, based in the capital of Abuja, said that Twitter's decision to delete Buhari's controversial tweet sets up an inconsistent double standard that's nearly impossible to regulate across the board.

Related: Twitter purges state-linked disinfo accounts; US sanctions ICC staff

"I'm not sure that I'm comfortable with some millennial, you know, swiveling on a chair in the Silicon Valley — seeing outrage from Nigerians, and he doesn't know how many Nigerians, he doesn't know what section [of Nigeria], he doesn't understand the context — and just comes and deletes the tweets of a president of an African country."

Adaobi Tricia Nwaubani, writer, Abuja

"As much as the tweet was ill-advised," she said, "I'm not sure that I'm comfortable with some millennial, you know, swiveling on a chair in the Silicon Valley — seeing outrage from Nigerians, and he doesn't know how many Nigerians, he doesn't know what section [of Nigeria], he doesn't understand the context — and just comes and deletes the tweets of a president of an African country. I think that was also ill-advised," she said. 

Nwaubani noted that the Biafran separatist group also has provocative tweets that remain online and so do other presidents and high-level leaders in Africa. 

"If you're going to [delete Buhari], then ... go to every president around Africa," she said. "You can't just single out the president of a country and just delete a conversation he's having with these people."

Túbọ̀sún's counterpoint: It's not about Africans versus non-Africans or Silicon Valley young people versus political heads — it's about rules and regulations for all. 

"What we should demand is that the rules be equally applied. ... The president is not above the law. If you're signed [on] to use the platform, you should definitely abide by the rules."

Kọ́lá Túbọ̀sún, writer, Lagos

"What we should demand is that the rules be equally applied," he said. "The president is not above the law. If you're signed [on] to use the platform, you should definitely abide by the rules."

Nwaubani said Buhari's Twitter ban is likely more to do with a bruised ego and protecting his strong-man image than anything else.

Túbọ̀sún hopes the lesson here is that no matter how bruised a president's ego, it's still the job of a democratically elected government to protect citizens' right to free speech. 

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But "Nigeria wouldn't grind to a halt if Twitter disappears," said Nwaubani, who noted that out of Nigeria's 200 million people, only about 16% use social media. 

Still, there are an estimated 40 million Twitter users in Nigeria, and many are now using virtual private networks to log onto the popular platform, despite warnings that they could face arrest. 

This article is written based on an interview and has been edited and condensed for clarity. AP contributed to this report.