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Expert predicts Nigeria’s Twitter ban will fail

Mon, 06/21/2021

LAWRENCE – The government of Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari is likely to back down soon from its Twitter ban but will continue to look for measures to exert control over online political and social discourses, despite not being sufficiently adjusted to the requisite sophisticated computational thinking to attempt this control, according to James Yeku, Lagos native and University of Kansas assistant professor of African digital humanities.

Yeku, author of the forthcoming book “Cultural Netizenship: Social Media, Popular Culture and Performance in Nigeria” (Indiana University Press, 2022), is available to comment on the Buhari government’s current and future moves in this regard. 

Yeku was one of a group of 40 Nigerian intellectuals, mostly from the diaspora, who signed an open letter published June 13 in The Guardian decrying the ban, calling on Buhari to uphold freedoms in the Constitution as written, and then for reforms ranging from a “more equitable Constitution” to “delicately” handling calls for separatism.

Yeku said that in recent days, Twitter has created a workaround that allows the half of Nigerians with internet connections to access the microblogging platform once again.

However, the Buhari government further threatened criminal prosecution for those who use VPNs, or Virtual Private Networks, to get around the ban by disguising their whereabouts.

The ban is about far more than Twitter taking down one of Buhari’s tweets for an alleged rules violation, Yeku said.

“The government has been seeking to regulate social media more generally in the last few years,” he said. “This one tweet seemed like the major trigger, but we must not forget Buhari has, in fact, not forgotten the role Twitter played during the #EndSARS movement in Nigeria in the fall of 2020. (CEO) Jack (Dorsey), probably acting on behalf of others on the Twitter board, strategically supported protesters across Nigeria, providing money in Bitcoin, and basically financing that particular protest movement against police brutality in the country. So, in my opinion, the Nigerian government took notice of that gesture by the tech giant and since then, and probably still, has been looking for opportunities for disciplinary actions against Twitter and its politics in Africa’s most populous country.”

The likely backdown from the Twitter ban is just a symptom, Yeku said, of an “analog” government that appears to be at war with its digital citizens. Don’t forget, he said, “President Buhari was a military dictator in the ’80s, and those dictatorial impulses are on display now.”

But Buhari is not the only political dinosaur in this regard, according to Yeku.

“In many African countries and indeed in oppressive contexts worldwide, there is a misreading of the digital moment,” Yeku said. “It's not business as usual for tyrants and hegemonic ideas anywhere. In Nigeria, to be precise, ours is a digital milieu in which the traditional authority of the state is being challenged by young people, and a government that is, frankly, not familiar with that reality, is left frazzled even as it seeks avenues to coopt digital culture or substantially curtail its growth. The government has always muffled the voices of protesters, and anytime people are empowered to speak back to the tyranny and the dictatorial tendencies of the political elite... the government also pushes back, hence its insistence on regulating social media, essentially trying to control the uncontrollable. And I am not suggesting social media companies should have unchecked power; rather, to seek absolute control as the Nigerian government wishes is untenable. 

“How can you even try to control a system whose operational and infrastructural materiality eludes you? Twitter, for instance, recently decided to locate its office in the region in Ghana, rather than Nigeria. In hindsight, the Twitter ban shows the company was right to avoid the more restrictive and infrastructurally porous Nigerian environment, despite the fact that Nigeria has more internet users than Ghana,” Yeku said.

Instead of its tactless spat with Twitter, he said, “What the government could do is provide alternatives to its digital citizens, empower them to make their own social media applications. With one of the most thriving tech spaces in Africa, Nigeria definitely has the human capital to build its similar digital ecologies. But the government doesn't understand what it means to invest in digital infrastructures, a situation that means the government effectively remains an analog entity that undermines its own ability, because the future is digital, right?”

To interview Yeku, contact Rick Hellman at rick_hellman@ku.edu or 913-620-8786.



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