I’m not happy to say what I’m about to say, but I just have to say it. I know there are lots of people who would take exception to me describing public actions by the Nigerian government and/or the government officials themselves as dumb and dumber. While I respect such people’s choice of what is polite language in public space, I do not share their reservations. When the government of your beloved county is hell-bent on disgracing your country at home and in the comity of nations, you have no choice but to call it what it is. That is the definition of patriotism. And, to me, when talking patriotism, there can be no pussyfooting around the matter. When those in charge of the government of your country at the highest level make it their mission to churn out wicked, demeaning and anti-people’s policies to serve their own selfish ends or salve their puny egos, I think that is dumb and it’s dumber when they persist with these policies after being publicly exposed. Unfortunately, that is where we are. I don’t know about anyone else, but my belly roils in disgust as I watch our government make a sorry mess of the country over this Twitter brouhaha.
What a lot of people may not know is that with the decision to suspend Twitter on Friday, June 4 2021 and all they’ve been up to since then, the government has crossed the Rubicon. They have finally tossed Nigeria into the column of rogue states, an autocracy now formally accepted to be so tagged by the rest of the civilized world. From 1999 till this moment, the world has endured us as a pretend democracy, herding us within the acceptable lines once in a while that we stray too far, acting in the hope that we will get better at democracy with time. But now, President Muhammadu Buhari has removed his mask and the world now sees his roguish face. They see that here is a man who inherited a vibrant democracy now openly stealing the people’s freedoms. Nigerians and the world aren’t going to let him get away with it, he should be told.
Okay, Twitter removed a post by the president threatening genocide. And, yes, that is a big deal - not the removal of the post, but the post itself. After all, it’s not every day you get the president of the most populous Black nation on earth threatening a section of his country’s citizenry with genocide for whatever perceived crime. But, Nigerians know that the man sitting as president in Aso Rock isn’t the most elegant of thinkers or speakers; they know he is an old school soldier who still glorifies in the ignoble role he and his colleagues played in the Nigerian Civil War in the name of keeping the country united. They just wish he wouldn’t continue publicly embarrassing himself by continuing to pound his chest in celebration of this; they just wish he wouldn’t continue threatening Nigerians or a section of Nigerians with such a fate as his own solution to what is essentially political dissent.
So, after many Nigerians called him out for the tasteless comment and asked Twitter to delete it, and Twitter did, the least most reasonable people expect from him is to be a little contrite, no matter how he and his spin doctors present this in words. For instance, in my view, all he and his posse needed to do was make a statement explaining that they understand why Twitter would remove the post, pointing out that the context of the post is not genocide or a threat of war, but a warning to those directly and indirectly clamouring for it. They’d say something like it was the intention of the president to further explain his thoughts on the concerned comment in a little more detail, but this became impossible with the deletion of the post and the suspension of the account. They’d promise to do a better job of it in the future and apologize for the misunderstanding. The president would then promise Nigerians that he’ll continue to serve them humbly, he’d enjoin every citizen to preach peace and dialogue and end with something like: “I trust that Nigeria and Nigerians will strongly work together to pull through these hard times to the Glory of God and our nation.”
But what did they do instead? They dredged up a presidential hurt congealed in pettiness and inflicted his insulting petulance on the world! Alright, I know that what I’m proposing they should have said initially is like whistling in the wind because that could only have been possible if indeed it was a genuine mistake or misinterpretation. It wasn’t. They acted precisely the way they acted because the president is exactly a genocidal fellow pretending to be a democrat. And like any leader with that mentality, digging themselves further into a pit is their default response to an initial blunder. So, no, there was no chance they were going to act like reasonable people with a reasonable response, I admit.
When things like this happen, I always think of the thousands employed in government as advisers, special advisers, consultants and the rest. The reason I do this is because in a democracy, these people are the ones supposed to shine the light for the administration. Yes, we may have the most clueless person as president, but if those employed as advisers and consultants are doing their job, the damage would be considerably limited. They act to mitigate the worst impulses of their untutored political bosses. This is because the veneer of presidents, prime ministers, governors and ministers have to be supported or covered by real resource people, people who know their stuff. These are the people who work tirelessly to cover up the rumps of governments, so they look and sound respectable. They are the people who do the work behind the scenes and all their political bosses have to do is manage them to produce at their best while they publicly claim the credit as political leaders. That is why in Britain, the most intelligent people in the country are in Whitehall, not in the House of Commons or Downing Street or even in the private sector. These people oil the wheel of government and make it effectively go round. For centuries, British governments, no matter their political or partisan shade, have been scouring the best universities for the best students, luring them into public service as the engines of the public service sector. The reason for their success is not rocket science. Merit and excellence are the bedrocks of governance, even if the people vote in a buffoon as Prime Minister.
Well, in Nigeria, we have turned that wisdom upside down. The dumb, the dumber and the dumbest occupy advisory and consultancy roles in government and no one actually listens to them because we’re talking jobs for the boys. The elected are corrupt cokeheads and their advisers are corrupt pinheads and brainless cows – a perfect cocktail from hell. That is why we get things like this Twitter decision.
So, what did they do after Twitter removed the president’s irresponsible tweet? I partly imagine it went something like this:
They got themselves together and thought apparently deeply about what to do. What to do, what to do, what to do. Right, got it, they said and then they went to work:
First, we will not ban Twitter. We will only say we have “temporarily suspended” them. When the Boy Wonder delivering this advice noticed the quizzical looks and the bent heads of those at the table with him, he added: “Yes, that is a better way, remember, we are a democracy. The language of permanent ban is the language of autocracy. Remember, the world would react, but we don’t want them thinking we are North Korea or Turkmenistan. The language of temporary suspension is mild and democratic, but it serves our purpose since, as you know, the ‘temporary suspension’ is indefinite!” Everybody clapped and patted Boy Wonder on the back!
Another Boy Wonder picked up from there:
“You know, the world will ask for a reason. We will just say the platform is being used for activities undermining our corporate existence as a nation.” Another round of quizzical looks and bent heads and second Boy Wonder added: “Yes, that way, we link the ban with national security, which is something we have the mandate to act on, even in this emergency manner.” They clapped and clapped, they patted him on the back; he nodded gratefully, adjusted his Coke-bottle glasses and handed over to the Attorney General.
The lawman beamed with pretentious intelligence, cleared his throat and declared: “After the Honourable Minister of Information releases the statement declaring the temporary suspension, I shall take to the stage to let them know we are damn serious about this by threatening to prosecute anyone who breaches the ban.” Another round of quizzical looks and bent heads. Then a tiny voice from the back said: “But it’s not a ban. It’s temporary suspension.” A visibly angry Attorney General turned to him. “This is the problem with you I-too-know kids of nowadays. You think you would be sitting here as Special Adviser if not for your dad who had served us since 1966 till date? Listen, it’s a temporary suspension alright, but the law is the law! Prosecution will ensure that what we have publicly declared as ‘temporary suspension’ is permanent.”
Another I-too-know asked: “But under what law are you going to prosecute people?”
Again, the Attorney General turned with disdain to the fellow. He roared: “I am the Attorney General and Minister of Justice and once I direct the Director of Public Prosecution to prosecute a case, he finds a friendly court and he prosecutes! We are only interested in results, not semantics! A presidential directive delivered via the Minister of Information is law! Presidential pronouncements are sources of law in this country, got that?” Someone starts clapping, then two and then three and then the whole gathering! Pats on the back for the law guru and joyous shouts of victory over the Nigerian people rent the air!
The Minister of Information folded up his agbada and adjusted his glasses, looked up to make sure everyone was listening and then declared:
“And here is the real icing on the cake. We shall insist that Twitter registers in Nigeria as a Nigerian company and be licensed by the National Broadcasting Commission. We don’t have to elaborate, we will just put out adverts calling on social media companies to be licensed by the Nigerian Broadcasting Commission before they can operate in Nigeria.” Someone muttered that this was a “brilliant idea” and another said it was a “super idea” and everyone began to fall over themselves to praise the idea to high heavens.
Someone timidly asked: “How about the international community? How are we to get them on our side?” The Minister of Information beamed bigheadedly and then nodded to the Minister for Foreign Affairs. “We shall invite the ambassadors and envoys of the United States, the United Kingdom, Canada, Ireland and the European Union for a meeting where we shall explain our position,” the Minister for Foreign Affairs explained. “The key thing is to tell them the ban is temporary and that we are at the moment talking with Twitter. We won’t give them any condition to resume service in Nigeria, except that they promise that from now on, Twitter will be used responsibly. Of course, we solely determine what is responsible….”
Another fearfully concerned voice squeaked: “But, wouldn’t that be too vague?”
“Nah,” the Minister for Foreign Affairs assured the gathering. “No one would have any issue with us insisting on responsible usage of the platform. Why should they? It just keeps us in the driving seat and makes Twitter eternally defensive.” They all nodded seemingly knowingly, clapped loudly, patted the Foreign Affairs Minister on the back and went to work….
So, in the real world, they had this meeting with the envoys and they went down fast in a hail of bullets! The Ambassador of the United States to Nigeria, Mary Beth Leonard, who spoke on behalf of her colleagues said they’ve heard all the complaints listed against Twitter by Geoffrey Onyeama, the Foreign Affairs Minister (including charges that Twitter is using its platform to encourage incitement and violence) and that there’s nothing in all he said that isn’t justiciable under extant laws in Nigeria. She said pointblank that they were not swayed by the justification the government was presenting for the suspension of Twitter. In other words, she told the Foreign Affairs Minister he was lying through his polished teeth.
“We have to be very clear that we are Nigeria’s strong partners on issues of security and we recognize the daunting task on the issues of security that confronts Nigeria.
“While they are daunting, they are not insurmountable, and part of the way you surmount them is with the partnership of the people you see represented here.
“We recognize that there are issues of irresponsible use of social media, but we remain firm in our position that free access to the ability to express self is very important and perhaps more important in troubled times.’’
So, the meeting with the envoys went as badly as possible and they were all back on the drawing board once more, chastised, weather-beaten chickens. It did not help at the end that the Minister for Foreign Affairs was tangled in a web of contradictions trying to deny he gave a condition to Twitter before the suspension can be lifted. At any rate, if saying Twitter has to guarantee responsible use of its platform before suspension can be lifted is not a condition, how about the hurriedly installed requirement to first register as a Nigerian business?
Now, almost a week after the blunder of suspending Twitter and with all they’ve done so far, they realized they’d been firing blanks. Then, their supposedly wise heads came up with the big idea of wheeling out the president to take the wind out of all the noise by appearing in what they billed as a live interview on Arise Television. This was supposed to be the first exclusive interview he was granting before the cameras since his reelection in early 2019, a fact that is in itself a scandal. It was obviously something hurriedly put together to undermine the anti-government sentiments at home and abroad over their decision to suspend Twitter. They reckoned that the president taking questions on a range of diverse issues and appearing strong and unfazed as he answers these questions would divert attention from the Twitter stuff as Nigerians would be discussing the issues he talked about in the following days and weeks instead of the Twitter suspension. So, the decision was made not to talk about the Twitter thing during the interview. No one knows if the questions were sent to the president before the interview, but the lie that it was a live interview was soon revealed on camera when the president inadvertently indicated he was being interviewed a day before the airing.
In any case, the interview was deployed as a diversion and, as I said, part of it was to say nothing about the Twitter thing when asked. That was why when the president was asked a question about what his government will do about Twitter, he said he’d keep that close to his chest. So, the real reason this whole charade was put up was actually not going to be discussed. Of course, the interview, as usual, was a train wreck. We saw a president who in trying to project strength projected wickedness, callousness, helplessness, divisiveness and criminal abdication of duty as he laughed recklessly throughout the interview. We saw a president who has no respect for Nigerians, who refuses to take responsibility for anything, who has incredibly stupid excuses for every failure and who, in all that he said, didn’t give any thoughtful Nigerian a reason to believe he is actually working to get the nation out of the serious security and economic quagmire it is in right now. In that interview, we saw a president mocking Nigerians for electing him, telling them in words and body language that he is not on seat to address their problems.
Not surprisingly, three days later, in an attempt at a redo of his evidently failed interview, he put out a falsehearted delivery of a Democracy Day speech that was a pity party. His attempt to hide his Hyde character and present the Dr Jekyll version of himself was cringeworthy. I mean, who in Nigeria actually believes that the growing insecurity in the country as we have seen with the genocidal sprees of the Fulani herdsmen and their kidnap-for-ransom campaign are the “unintended consequences” of him “scattering” the Boko Haram in the North-East which has led them being pushed “further in-country”? Does he think Nigerians are so gullible that they do not know that the menace of the Fulani herdsmen has his nod and the collective nod of a section of the Fulani elite all over it? Does he think Nigerians do not know the difference between Boko Haram and the Fulani militias masquerading as herdsmen? What true leader would claim that “criminals are taking undue advantage of a difficult situation and profiteering therefrom with the misguided belief that adherence to the democratic norms handicaps (his) Administration from frontally and decisively tackling them”? Of course, only a leader or ruler that sees every problem or challenge as a nail that needs a hammer. Democracy is not spinelessness and no one confuses it for spinelessness or assumes others think it spineless, except a leader that is truly spineless at best or cruel at worst. The BBC report of the unfortunate speech appropriately titled it ”Boko Haram: Nigerian president admits failure to end violence.” So much for damage control. It’s a surrender and if Nigeria were working, he would have resigned and slinked away to his cows in Daura or to his condo in Zinder in Niger Republic.
It is ironic that the government’s main and in fact standalone reason for supposedly temporarily banning Twitter is because its platform was being used to undermine the corporate existence of the country. They fail to see that if mere chats by a small number of Nigerians can undermine our corporate existence, what that really shows is that there is no corporate existence at all because any corporate existence worth its salt should be made of sterner stuff. By the way, should a president who has declared all Ndigbo IPOB members and threaten their properties all over the country for the sin of a section of them exercising their right to free speech in the form of campaigning for self-determination be the one talking corporate existence? Should a president who claims to come from landlocked Daura or Katsina mocking Ndigbo for being a landlocked community in Nigeria be the one talking corporate existence? Should a president hand in glove with murderous Fulani herdsmen on a genocidal campaign all over the country be the one talking corporate existence?
And for a government that talks from many sides of its mouth, isn’t it funny that after announcing the suspension of Twitter and announcing that social media companies will have to register as Nigerian businesses before they can operate in Nigeria, they themselves have quickly moved to Koo, an Indian microblogging platform? I mean, China, a well-known autocracy had the self-respect to establish national microblogging alternatives for their people when they struck against Twitter; they didn’t go squatting in another country’s microblogging platform. But, of course we have no shame. We have gone happily Indian, even when this Indian microblogging site is not registered as a Nigerian business. What can be more disgraceful? Does the Nigerian government now expect thinking Nigerians to follow it to Koo? Wouldn’t it have served them better to keep some self-respect and keep off any microblogging site for now? Or what exactly are they looking to tell Nigerians and the international community that they cannot say through their various other media channels and the national press?
At this juncture, it is important to state that this article is not making a case for Twitter against the Nigerian government neither is it a plea for the government to reverse its decision. Twitter are adept at dealing with dictatorships and I know they aren’t losing sleep over the Nigerian government’s decision because the loss is Nigeria’s and Nigerians’. I was reading a June 14 2021 Reuters report on how the Twitter ban has left some Nigerian businesses in the lurch. We are talking small and medium-sized businesses by young people, budding entrepreneurs using Twitter for advertising and marketing in a country with 45 percent unemployment rate amongst young, employable people. The more reports of this type I read, the more I see that a vast number of young enterprising Nigerians depending on Twitter to run their businesses are actually tapping out in droves. And then we have a president who during the Arise TV interview threatened that the scary army of millions of unemployed Nigerian youths are not going to get employment until they “behave themselves” (whatever that means). Isn’t it clear now that a president who thinks it is good governance to deprive young Nigerians of jobs because he thinks they are not behaving the way he’d like is an agent of economic destabilization? Is there a worse economic saboteur in Nigeria than a president who deliberately decides to swell the ranks of unemployed young people in these dangerous times by taking away a social media facility helping to keep them employed? Of course, Twitter isn’t really bothered because it is not a Nigeria-dependent business. Whether they are talking with the Nigerian government or not, their statement stating that they have informed the Nigerian government that they are “ready to meet for an open discussion to address mutual concerns and see the service restored” proclaiming that they “remain advocates for the free and #OpenInternet everywhere” is actually the last word on the matter. If the government is thinking Twitter will make some special rules for Nigerians to operate on its platform to assuage the hurt feelings of a murderous president, they’ve got another think coming.
Having said the above, I am aware that government has a right to regulate over-the-top (OTT) and social media platforms as businesses only for the purpose of taxation, but they simply do not have the right to regulate their use by the people for the purposes of exercising their right to free speech or with the aim of infringing on their right to freedom of expression. However, in imposing any form of taxation, the government must be aware that it is not Twitter that will pay that cost because at the end of the day it is a business, not a charity. It is the Nigerian people using the services for business purposes that will bear that cost and more.
The most important and telling development on this Twitter matter has been the latest statement by the United States government. After President Buhari’s disgraceful display of an interview aired on Thursday, June 10, 2021, the US State Department did not bother discussing his diversionary props, they simply focused on the matter he is trying to avoid by issuing a statement that same day immediately condemning “the ongoing suspension of Twitter by the Nigerian government and subsequent threats to arrest and prosecute Nigerians who use Twitter.” This is crucial because it immediately had reverberations in the corridors of power in Nigeria. The Attorney General, who has no scruples disgracing the wig and gown he wears, quickly ran to the press to declare that at no point did he threaten the prosecution of Nigerians for using Twitter after the government said it is suspended. This boldfaced lie came with gratuitous insults directed as Nigerians who appropriately recall the statement his office issued on his behalf by his official spokesperson on Saturday, June 5, 2021. The CNN quoted the spokesperson, Dr. Umar Jibrilu Gwandu: “Malami directed the Director of Public Prosecution of the Federation (DPPF) at the Office of the Attorney General of the Federation and Minister of Justice, to swing into action and commence in earnest the process of prosecution of violators of the Federal Government De-activation of operations of Twitter in Nigeria.” The statement went on to say the Attorney General has directed the country’s communications regulator, NCC, and the Ministry of Communication and Digital Economy to collaborate with prosecutors "to ensure the speedy prosecution of offenders without any further delay."
More tellingly, Dr Gwandu had a separate interview with the CNN where he said anyone still tweeting will be brought to book. "Any violator, whether individuals or organizations, will be prosecuted," he said. While responding to whether it is lawful to prosecute law-abiding citizens who are entitled to freedom of thought, expression, and privacy, Gwandu told CNN that Nigeria's laws do not guarantee absolute freedom. "How do you call them law-abiding when they violate laws... when they want to create havoc, create issues of sedition, felony and are inciting hatred among Nigerians?" he asked. "Every freedom has certain responsibilities — corresponding responsibility to the freedoms. No freedom is absolute. Those who are apprehended will get to know what sort of prosecution awaits them," Gwandu told CNN. Also, two days later, the Minister of Information was being interviewed on the BBC Africa Focus programme and he was asked a question about a cleric’s violation of the Twitter ban and he said: "The Attorney General has made it clear that if anyone violates the regulation, that such person will be prosecuted. I think it is the right of the Attorney General to decide who to prosecute."
But, Malami ran to the press immediately after the State Department statement to declare:
“It is within their guaranteed fundamental right to tweet from anywhere in the world. Nigeria, being a democratic nation, cannot stop its citizens from exercising their rights of freedom of expression.
"But our position on Twitter is clear: Anyone, whether individual or corporate institution that enables Twitter to circumvent the ban the Federal Government of Nigeria placed on the company, will be prosecuted.
“Our statement outlining our position on June 1, 2021 did not ask the DPP to prosecute Nigerians using Twitter or any social media platform to express their view. But we are going to use the legal instruments at our disposal to go after those who aid and abet Twitter to continue to threaten our corporate existence as a nation.
“It is clear from the barrage of insinuations and falsehood being orchestrated by some Nigerians and those trying to change the clear position of the Government of Nigeria to suit their whims and caprices and to whip up sentiments to hoodwink the people, that they are up to some mischievous and sinister games, which the Federal Government will not condone.
“At no time did we threaten any religious leader for using Twitter to express themselves. Neither did we indicate in any way that we were going after them. But mischief-makers were quick to mention names of religious leaders and give the impression that we were already in court to try them.
“Let it be made clear that the Buhari administration being a people-centred government that relies on the rule of law, will never adopt any policy or programme that seeks to add pain or injury to the very people who elected it to serve them.”
Of course, Mr Malami has no shame. It does not matter that what he originally said about prosecuting people over the ban is on record, he still had to come out to lie unintelligibly and fume in righteous indignation. I mean, why the obfuscation regarding who the state would be going after? Who are these people he is looking to “aid and abet Twitter to continue to threaten our corporate existence as a nation” and how exactly would they do this? If all these persons do is express themselves on Twitter, if all they do is exercise their right to self-determination, there is nothing the president, Malami or any of their agents can do to such persons. This is because there is nothing in Nigerian and international law that empowers the president and his Attorney General to arrest and put anyone on trial for using Twitter to advocate secession, despite their declaration.
Section 39(1) of the Constitution states: “Every person shall be entitled to freedom of expression, including freedom to hold opinions and to receive and impart ideas and information without interference.” This is unambiguous. Freedom of expression is exactly what it means in its ordinary, literal sense. It does not say the opinion expressed has to be loved by the president or the Attorney General or any other citizen. The president, the Attorney General and any other citizen opposed to the idea of secession is free to use the same forum to express their own opinion without interference. As far as whoever is preaching secession isn’t unlawfully bearing arms against Nigeria and using the platform to incite people to carry and use arms against Nigeria, there is nothing anyone can do to him or her, no matter how vociferously they express their view on Twitter.
Also, section 36(12) of the Constitution states: “Subject as otherwise provided by this Constitution, a person shall not be convicted of a criminal offence unless that the offence is defined and the penalty, therefore, is prescribed in a written law, and in this subsection, a written law refers to an Act of the National Assembly or a law of a state, any subsidiary legislation or instrument under the provisions of law.” This is the section that has already declared the president and Malami’s declaration and intentions unlawful. What the president and his Attorney General are saying about the prosecution of anyone using Twitter is something obtainable only under a dictatorship or military rule. Banning Nigerians from using Twitter and threatening to prosecute anyone who uses it is a fiat that has no place in the body of democratic laws. Even if the National Assembly at this very moment passes a law to back this up, that law would be inconsistent with the Constitution and it will fail to the extent of that inconsistency. Any judge that makes his or her court available to even hear such a case would be engaging in an abuse of the court process and must wear a pangolo hat in disgrace for the rest of his or her life for presiding over such nonsense.
International law as espoused by Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights is also clear on this. It states: “Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.”
The State Department’s statement did not only target the disgraceful Attorney General, it said this: “The United States is likewise concerned that the Nigerian National Broadcasting Commission ordered all television and radio broadcasters to cease using Twitter.” When the Acting Director-General of the Commission, Mr Armstrong Idachaba squirmed in the face of this, Buhari promptly sacked him and replaced him with one Balarabe Shehu Ilelah. Premium Times reported that this was done by Buhari as part of his campaign to stifle free speech.
But the significance of the State Department’s statement is not lost on watchers of international affairs. The statement was released after the Nigerian government officials met the envoys who more or less told our Foreign Affairs Minister that the excuses the government was tendering for the suspension of Twitter were all lies and after President Buhari’s interview. More crucially, it was issued at a time the G7 were meeting in England where the state of democracy worldwide was on the agenda. The statement puts the final nail in the coffin of the Buhari government when it said: “Unduly restricting the ability of Nigerians to report, gather, and disseminate opinions and information has no place in a democracy. Freedom of expression and access to information both online and offline are foundational to prosperous and secure democratic societies.”
The June 12 edition of the Economist in a piece titled, “Nigeria’s Twitter ban prompts ridicule – and fear” (and with a rider: “President Buhari reveals a thin skin and an authoritarian streak”) observed that “the government may soon run out of bluster.” Actually, it has. Nigerians who celebrated June 12, Nigeria’s Democracy Day with series of protests against the budding Buhari dictatorship have already made it clear that the government has lost all legitimacy. The international community has reluctantly reached that conclusion as well. The message is clear. Nigeria has ceased to be recognized as a democracy. The Buhari government has finally returned Nigeria to the status of a rogue nation, a status the country worked hard to discard after General Sani Abacha’s reign of terror. So, let no one be deceived, our goose is well and truly cooked. Nigerians must get themselves back in the trenches! The prodemocracy struggle has started all over again!
Good luck and God bless Nigeria and Nigerians!