February 1, 2023

Demonstrators carry symbolic coffin of President Buhari as protests explode in Nigeria over Twitter ban, corruption, bad governance, human rights abuses, hunger and economic hardship

Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken meets virtually with Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari and Foreign Minister Geoffrey Onyeama
Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken meets virtually with Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari and Foreign Minister Geoffrey Onyeama

Demonstrators on Saturday carried a symbolic coffin of President Muhammadu Buhari as protests exploded in Nigeria over Twitter ban, corruption, bad governance, human rights abuses, hunger and economic hardship across Africa’s most populous nation.

The June 12 protests, which are taking place across many towns and cities in Nigeria, were organized by some civil society groups and activists with no central leadership. They come nearly eight months after the #EndSARS protests rocked Nigeria in October 2020, and ahead of an explosive 2023 presidential election.

Local news outlets and social media posts suggested that the protests were taking place in the commercial city of Lagos, the Federal Capital Territory (FCT), Abuja, and other major cities and states, including in Oyo state.

Reports said the protesters carried various placards with inscriptions such as “Buhari most go!”, “End impunity in Nigeria”, “Food is costly” and “We must get angry.”

Police were said to have arrested many protesters and taken them to cells across the country.

June 12 is known as Democracy Day in Nigeria, a national public holiday, that was held annually on May 29 until June 6, 2018. Democracy Day marks the day the military handed over power to an elected civilian in 1999, marking the beginning of the longest continuous civilian rule since Nigeria’s independence from colonial rule in 1960. June 12 was formerly known as Abiola Day, celebrated in Lagos, and other southwestern states, to commemorate the democratic election of MKO Abiola on June 12, 1993. Abiola never became president as his election was annulled and he was arrested and died in prison.

Tensions have been rising in Nigeria in recent months and just last week, the Nigerian government suspended Twitter, shutting down a key medium Nigerians use to vent their frustrations.

On Thursday, the United States suggested that President Buhari may be turning Nigeria into a dictatorship with his suspension of Twitter and the adoption of other draconian actions in recent weeks.

In a statement, the United States government issued its strongest condemnation of Twitter’s suspension in Nigeria, saying that the decision “has no place in a democracy.”

“The United States condemns the ongoing suspension of Twitter by the Nigerian government and subsequent threats to arrest and prosecute Nigerians who use Twitter. The United States is likewise concerned that the Nigerian National Broadcasting Commission ordered all television and radio broadcasters to cease using Twitter,”  State Department spokesperson Ned Price said in a statement on Thursday.

Price added: “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. We support Nigeria as it works towards unity, peace, and prosperity.  As its partner, we call on the government to respect its citizens’ right to freedom of expression by reversing this suspension.”

It is not only the United States that seems fed up with the suspension of Twitter and the refusal by the Buhari government to heed the voice of reason, Nigeria’s Socio-Economic Rights and Accountability Project (SERAP) and 176 concerned Nigerians have also filed a lawsuit against the government of President Muhammadu Buhari over “the unlawful suspension of Twitter in Nigeria.”

The activists said they were also taking the government to court over the “criminalization of Nigerians and other people using Twitter, and the escalating repression of human rights, particularly the rights to freedom of expression, access to information, and media freedom in the country.”

Following the deletion of President Muhammadu Buhari’s tweet, the Minister of Information and Culture, Lai Mohammed last week announced the suspension of Twitter in Nigeria. The government has also threatened to arrest and prosecute anyone using Twitter in the country, while the National Broadcasting Commission (NBC) has asked all broadcast stations to suspend the patronage of Twitter.

In suit filed on Tuesday before the ECOWAS Community Court of Justice in Abuja, SERAP and the concerned Nigerians are seeking: “An order of interim injunction restraining the Federal Government from implementing its suspension of Twitter in Nigeria, and subjecting anyone including media houses, broadcast stations using Twitter in Nigeria, to harassment, intimidation, arrest and criminal prosecution, pending the hearing and determination of the substantive suit.”

On June 5, the diplomatic missions of the United States of America, Canada, the European Union (Delegation to Nigeria), the Republic of Ireland, the United Kingdom released a joint statement conveying their “disappointment over the Government of Nigeria’s announcement suspending #Twitter and proposing registration requirements for other social media.”

“We strongly support the fundamental human right of free expression and access to information as a pillar of democracy in Nigeria as around the world and these rights apply online as well as offline. Banning systems of expression is not the answer,” they wrote. “These measures inhibit access to information and commerce at precisely the moment when Nigeria needs to foster inclusive dialogue and expression of opinions, as well as share vital information in this time of the COVID-19 pandemic.”

They said the path to a more secure Nigeria “lies in more, not less, communication to accompany the concerted efforts of Nigeria’s citizens in fulsome dialogue toward unity, peace and prosperity.”

“As Nigeria’s partners, we stand ready to assist in achieving these goals,” the diplomatic missions added.

In a separate statement the United States embassy in Nigeria said the government’s decision Friday to indefinitely suspend Twitter’s operations in the country directly undermines the country’s commitment to freedom of expression.

“Nigeria’s constitution provides for freedom of expression. The Government’s recent #Twitterban undermines Nigerians’ ability to exercise this fundamental freedom and sends a poor message to its citizens, investors and businesses. Banning social media and curbing every citizen’s ability to seek, receive, and impart information undermines fundamental freedoms,” said a press release from the U.S. embassy released Saturday.

“As President Biden has stated, our need for individual expression, open public conversation, and accountability has never been greater. The path to a more secure Nigeria lies in more, not less communication, alongside concerted efforts toward unity, peace, and prosperity. #KeepitOn,” continued the statement.

Many other Nigerians at home and abroad have condemned the decision to suspend Twitter, but the Nigerian leader whose mandate ends in 2023 has rejected the voice of reason to embrace a more democratic approach.

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