Case Number 04062021: Twitter vs. Nigeria

(From the blog: ‘My Nigerian Dream’)
By: Ayobami Akinyode OLUNLOYO

If this incredulous situation went to court, I guess the case name might sound something like the title of this piece. Ha! But guess what? Nigerian courts are currently on strike, so no chance of that. When we sit idly by, while our courts are not sitting, then we can be certain that something is seriously wrong. The Judicial Staff Union of Nigeria (JUSUN) has been on strike since April 6, 2021. That level of irrelevance combined with a paradigm of ruling rather than leading may well provide the causal links necessary to understand how and why we would suspend Twitter’s operations in Nigeria – on…wait for it…Twitter no less! Personally, I’m no fan of big tech over/misstepping, but what signal is this move sending across the world?

Initially, it wasn’t clear what it meant to “…suspend Twitter operations”. Was it to stop in-country activities? Or would the platform itself cease to function on users’ devices? Well, now we know better. The knee-jerk nature of the suspension bypasses the need to provide a clear basis for its own existence. It rather seems like an ego bruise that led to a disproportionate response. Borrowing from warfare, the Doctrine of Proportionality says that, ‘a state is legally allowed to unilaterally defend itself and right a wrong provided the response is proportional to the injury suffered. The response must also be immediate and necessary, refrain from targeting civilians, and require only enough force to reinstate the status quo ante’. I will now induct you (yes, you reading!) into the jury for this case; what say you – proportional response or not? As you decide, it would help to consider whether or not ‘civilians’ were caught in the crossfire.

I love history, particularly of World War II, so please permit me to use this as a parallel to the ongoing face-off between Twitter and Nigeria. This is NOT a comparison of the actors, but rather of the nature of the escalation of events. After World War I, there was the Treaty of Versailles in 1919, which Germany found utterly egregious. 20 years later, Germany invaded Poland and flagging-off WWII. Then the Axis powers including Italy and Japan dig in ahead of the Allies – UK, France, et al. Other countries form allegiances, some stay neutral. However, after the Allies wobble a bit, America enters the war, and the Allied Forces go on to win, again, just as they did in WWI. That’s 2-0 to the Allies and if it were best of 3, thankfully for the sake of world peace, there is no need for a third match!

Twitter deletes a ‘presidential tweet’ for violating its policies; Abuja moves to suspend Twitter. Aptly put, Matthew T. Page tweets: “Shutting down Twitter is something dictators do, if I’m not mistaken” and compares Nigeria with Iran and South Korea. Is this our cohort now? Facebook also steps into the arena by deleting a ‘presidential post’. Who owns Instagram? And WhatsApp? Facebook! So if it comes to it, their allegiances are clear. How will other social media platforms align? Your guess is as good as mine. Big-tech may well be rivals and competitors, but where their interests align, I suspect it’s like NATO’s principle of ‘collective defense’ – an attack on one is an attack on all. So, is Nigeria on course for a Trump-like persona non grata status with the social media giants? We’ve seen what social media can do through the Arab Spring. Moreover, bear in mind though, that just as the Allies had the moral high ground in WWII, so now does Twitter have the market; Nigerians want to be on Twitter and they are already finding ways to keep tweeting.

More strategically, what does all this mean for Nigeria? Specifically, what does it mean for Nigerian businesses? On the global Ease of Doing Business Index, Nigeria currently ranks 131 out of 190 countries, which is sadly beneath its potential. As a strategy professional, I did a quick P-E-S-T-E-R (Political-Economic-Social-Technological-Environmental-Regulatory) mental analysis and concluded that the only dimension that the #TwitterBan may have ignored is the ‘Environmental’. I can literally posit how the ban can regress the nation’s standing on all the others, and I’m sure you can too if you consider it for a moment, so I won’t bore you with that. Needless to say that Nigeria as a nation just became a lot riskier to foreign investors as an investment destination. Between the policy inconsistency, lack of legal recourse, and apparent arbitrary nature of decision-making, the likely outcome is unfortunately capital repulsion, which will ultimately undermine FDI (Foreign Direct Investment) and consequently GDP (Gross Domestic Product).

The ongoing saga, in which the baby is thrown out with the bathwater, therefore, appears to be resulting in self-harm. There are Nigerian businesses that advertise and survive on Twitter; it is a news and entertainment source to millions, and even public sector ministries, departments, and parastatals including the Presidency, military, and the Information ministry use it as a mouthpiece to inform citizens of their good deeds including suspending social media platforms. By the way, that reminds me of President Trump sacking appointees on Twitter, perhaps wherever he is, learning that Nigeria ‘sacked’ Twitter on Twitter, he might say: touché. Nigeria is neither the first nor the only country to be in a running battle with Twitter; India and China would have lots to share about their experiences, for any juror who may find a reference useful. Even as the Wiki page titled “Censorship of Twitter” has already been updated with a Nigeria entry, the question that remains is will Nigeria walk back its decision, and if so, how can we do so and still save face? Twitter, on the other hand, stands accused of “the persistent use of the platform for activities that are capable of undermining Nigeria’s (the plaintiff) corporate existence”. So, as a member of the jury, how do you find for the defendant? Guilty or Not Guilty?

Admittedly, in this piece, I ask more questions than I give answers, but hopefully, it encourages us all to seek consensus on the answer to one of the greatest questions of our time – the right to free speech. For now, it appears that while freedom of speech is still a fundamental right (at least constitutionally), there is no guarantee of freedom, AFTER the speech! However, at a time when our national headlines are too often being hijacked by violence, let us focus on the fact that PEACE is an endowment that God left with us, to share with one another as a gift.

Image of author of the article~ Ayobami Akinyode OLUNLOYO is a passionate Nigerian and African, political enthusiast, and accomplished professional. He holds an MBA with Distinction from the University of Cambridge, UK, and was recognized amongst the 100 Best & Brightest Executive MBAs globally in 2020. He is currently a member of the pioneer cohort of the new unconventional School of Politics, Policy, and Governance (SPPG), run by the #FixPolitics Initiative.

Instagram: @ayobami.olunloyo

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