Nigeria’s most vulnerable and marginalised groups are set to be the biggest victims of the country's unprecedented Twitter ban.
Activists have told VICE World News that for many young people across the country, Twitter represents much more than a social media app, occupying a space as Nigeria’s only working emergency line and its most effective avenue for organising movements for social progress.
All this could change, however, after the Nigerian government announced on Friday an indefinite ban on Twitter just days after it removed a tweet from President Muhammadu Buhari in which the former military dictator appeared to threaten violence against separatist protesters in the southeast of the country.
Buhari’s tweet, which was removed for violating Twitter’s “abusive behaviour” policy, was part of a broader statement made in response to attacks by gunmen on the offices of the Independent Nigerian Electoral Commission (INEC).
“Many of those misbehaving today are too young to be aware of the destruction and loss of lives that occurred during the Nigerian Civil War,” Buhari tweeted. "Those of us in the fields for 30 months, who went through the war, will treat them in the language they understand.”
Over the weekend, some mobile networks moved to block access to the social media site, while Nigeria’s Attorney General, Abubakar Malami, called for the “immediate prosecution of offenders of the Federal Government’s ban on Twitter operations in Nigeria.” The government is yet to actually pass a law banning Twitter, making it unclear under what authority anyone could be prosecuted for tweeting.
While this incident marks the first time the Nigerian government has successfully restricted or regulated access to the internet, attempts to regulate social media go back to 2015 when the previous administration proposed a bill that prescribed jail time and an N100,000 (£170) fine for social media users found to be guilty of pushing what the government considered to be false or malicious information
The bill was eventually withdrawn due to widespread criticism. In 2019, the proposed “Protection from Internet Falsehood and Manipulation Bill” would have allowed the Nigerian government to cut off internet access or block specific social media platforms to combat whatever the Buhari administration considered to be disinformation. The bill was eventually withdrawn due to public backlash.
Conversations surrounding limiting access to social media resurfaced the following year in October 2020 following the role Twitter played in helping organise the #ENDSARS protests — a nationwide movement against police brutality and government corruption.
As well as for #ENDSARS, Twitter has played a major role in protest movements across the country in recent years. For example, Nigerian women have repeatedly used Twitter to organise and raise awareness of sexual violence. In 2019, protests broke out across the country when Busola Dakolo, a celebrity photographer and wife of singer Timi Dakolo, accused Biodun Fatoyinbo, the head pastor of one of Nigeria's largest Pentecostal churches, the Commonwealth of Zion Assembly (Coza), of raping her when she was a teenager. Social media – Twitter in particular – served as a launching pad for the street protests.
Those from marginalised groups have come to depend on the solidarity of online communities in mobilising and organising for change. This is especially true of Nigeria's queer community who often do not feel politically represented in the country, and so have had to turn to Twitter to find community, support and, in many cases, funds to leave abusive situations and even to report cases of homophobic attacks.
‘‘Queer Nigerians have been able to find safety nets in other queer Nigerians and organisations, both locally and internationally,” Ozzy Etomi, a writer and one of the founding members of the Feminist Coalition, a women’s right group, told VICE World News. “Feminists have been able to build communities to rally around women’s rights issues and learn from other communities around the world. Twitter has opened up a world of opportunity and it will be detrimental to close those doors back up. Social media has become a very necessary revolutionary tool and that is why this twitter ban is scarier than just restricting access to a microblogging site: Information is power, and in Nigeria, Twitter has served as one of our greatest resources for disseminating information.’’
While the 2015 Same-Sex Marriage Prohibition Act criminalises broad swathes of queer life in Nigeria – such as marriages, partnerships and sex – it goes a step further by making it illegal to form pro-LGBTQ associations. To help circumvent this, queer rights activists in Nigeria have grown to favour digital advocacy which allows them to do the work and connect with the community without physically congregating in one place, which could leave them in danger of being physically attacked.
For queer rights activists like Matthew Blaise, Twitter has been foundational to their activism. It is typically where movements and protests are first born and find momentum. It is how people like Blaise can help raise funds to provide other disadvantaged queer people resources like rent and safe houses for the homeless.
‘‘This platform also serves the purpose of driving social change and bringing visibility to the plights of queer people in Nigeria,” Blaise says. “With time, Twitter has become that place where one could start a campaign for social change and create visibility towards the issues of LGBTQ+ people here. For example, #EndHomophobiaInNigeria, which was a campaign against homophobia, was started on Twitter. The issue of discrimination and homophobia at the #Endsars protest made it to light because of Twitter. Twitter serves a very important purpose of creating visibility and social awareness.’’
Nigerian queer writer Collins Badewa shares the same perspective. ‘‘No one speaks or advocates for marginalised groups except members of said marginalised groups,” he tells VICE World News. “Thanks to social media, discussions have been had. Not so many changes have been made but the discussion is happening. Take LGBTQ+ people for example, regardless of their location in Nigeria, they’ve been able to create an effective online community. In some way, this community has educated certain people about queer rights. This same community on social media has provided aid and support to many other queer and trans people who need it. The kind of support the government isn’t willing to provide.’’
As an emergency line, Twitter has often been used to notify Nigerians on the app about crime hot spots and help connect people unlawfully arrested with free legal support — especially for communities that cannot turn to traditional government institutions for help.
‘‘The Nigerian government banning Twitter in Nigeria means that the voices of the minority that have used this Twitter to find a somewhat levelling ground will be left to face a society that is actively trying to silence and oppress them,’’ Ebele Molua, a women’s right activist tells VICE World News. ‘‘Twitter created easier access to international bodies that would help demand for the non-violation of our rights and with this Twitter ban, marginalised groups could struggle to find that support. We would struggle to find opportunities that would typically not be open to us because our society deems women and the queer community as less than.’’
While the Nigerian government restricting access to the internet isn’t a good sign for the general direction of the country, it raises very immediate concerns for marginalised communities.
“Twitter helps with the amplification of queer voices and crowdfunding which has saved the lives of so many queer people,” Blaise adds. “This ban will affect the LGBTQ+ community very badly because Twitter aids in organising, mutual aid, mobilisation, finding a family for queer people and more. The Nigerian government banning Twitter will disrupt how queer people seek self-sustainability, justice, and safe spaces.”