In landmark ruling, ECOWAS court stops Buhari government from prosecuting Nigerians for using Twitter

The ECOWAS court has barred the Nigerian government from prosecuting Twitter users in Nigeria.

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In a landmark ruling on Tuesday, the ECOWAS Court of Justice in the Nigerian capital, Abuja, “restrained the government of President Muhammadu Buhari and its agents from unlawfully imposing sanctions or doing anything whatsoever to harass, intimidate, arrest or prosecute Twitter and/or any other social media service provider(s), media houses, radio and television broadcast stations, the Plaintiffs and other Nigerians who are Twitter users, pending the hearing and determination of this suit.”

“The court has listened very well to the objection by Nigeria. The court has this to say. Any interference with Twitter is viewed as inference with human rights, and that will violate human rights. Therefore, this court has jurisdiction to hear the case. The court also hereby orders that the application be heard expeditiously. The Nigerian government must take immediate steps to implement the order,” the court said.

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The ruling followed the suit filed against the government by Nigeria’s Socio-Economic Rights and Accountability Project (SERAP) and 176 concerned Nigerians who argued that “the unlawful suspension of Twitter in Nigeria, criminalization of Nigerians and other people using Twitter have escalated repression of human rights and unlawfully restricted the rights of Nigerians and other people to freedom of expression, access to information, and media freedom in the country.”

SERAP and the concerned Nigerians had in the suit sought “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.”

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SERAP deputy director Kolawole Oluwadare said in a statement that the court gave the order after hearing arguments from Solicitor to SERAP, Femi Falana, a Senior Advocate of Nigeria, and lawyer to the Nigerian government, Maimuna Shiru.

“The intervention of the ECOWAS Court is a timely relief for millions of Nigerians using Twitter who have been threatened with prosecution under the provision of the Penal Code relating to sedition,” said Femi Falana. “Contrary to the assurance credited to the Attorney General of the Federation and Minister of Justice Mr Abubakar Malami, SAN that violators of the Twitter would not be prosecuted, the Federal Government filed processes in the ECOWAS Court threatening to prosecute Nigerians using Twitter for violating the suspension under the provisions of the Penal Code relating to sedition.”

Falana added: “It is extremely embarrassing that the Federal Government could threaten to jail Nigerians for sedition, which was annulled by the Court of Appeal in 1983, in the case of Arthur Nwankwo vs The State.”

The substantive suit has been adjourned to July 6, 2021, for hearing.

The suit and the ruling followed the suspension of Twitter by the Minister of Information and Culture, Lai Mohammed after the social media giant was banned in the country for deleting President Muhammadu Buhari’s tweet. The National Broadcasting Commission (NBC) also ordered TV and radio stations to “suspend the patronage of Twitter immediately”, and told them to delete ‘unpatriotic’ Twitter.

Twitter is an American microblogging and social networking service which allows users to post and interact with messages known as tweets. Registered users can post, like and retweet tweets, but unregistered users can only read them. Twitter was founded in San Francisco, California, where it is also headquartered.

On June 4, the Buhari government announced on Twitter that it was suspending Twitter in Nigeria over what it described as the “persistent use of the platform for activities that are capable of undermining Nigeria’s corporate existence.” The ban came a few days after Twitter deleted tweets by President Muhammadu Buhari for violating the platform’s policies. The deleted tweets referenced the 1967-1970 Nigerian Civil War and discussed treating “those misbehaving today in the language they will understand.

Facebook removed the same posts from its platform, also citing policy violations.

On June 5, the Association of Licensed Telecommunications Operators of Nigeria announced that its members had received and complied with instructions from the authorities to block access to Twitter. The state also directed all television and radio stations to stop using Twitter which they described as unpatriotic.

The decision by the government of Buhari to ban Twitter has been criticized at home and abroad.

“The Nigerian government’s decision to ban Twitter and prosecute those who continue using the platform is a blatant and unjustified restriction on civic space and people’s right to information through social media,” Anietie Ewang, a researcher at the Africa division of Human Rights Watch, wrote in an opinion piece on June 7.

Ewang noted that “millions of people across Nigeria, especially youth, rely on social media to engage in discourse and to share and access information.”

“Twitter was especially crucial for organizing during the October 2020 EndSARS protests against police brutality and other campaigns calling for government accountability. The authorities have proposed legislation criminalizing criticism of the government on social media, but citizens pushed back,” added Ewang.

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.”

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