Nigerian government justifies Twitter ban in court as hardline president attempts to silence dissent

In court documents, the government of President Muhammadu Buhari on Tuesday justified the suspension of Twitter in Nigeria.

Nigeria’s Socio-Economic Rights and Accountability Project (SERAP) and 176 concerned Nigerians had filed a lawsuit at the ECOWAS court headquartered in the Nigerian capital Abuja against the government over Twitter ban and threat that those who use Twitter may be prosecuted.

But the government went to court to object, claiming that the lawsuit did not have any standing because “the subject matter of this suit is not for the enforcement of any human right recognized by this Court.” The preliminary objection was, however, dismissed by the ECOWAS Court.

The federal government’s objection, read in part: “Particulars: The subject matter of the SERAP suit relates to the indefinite suspension of Twitter in Nigeria. This is not in any way connected to any Nigerian or SERAP. Individual user’s Twitter accounts are not suspended.”

“The right to freedom of expression is completely different from freedom of reach. The suspension of Twitter does not fall under the provisions of arts 8 and the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights.”

“Twitter as an entity is not an organization of any member state as it is an American microblogging networking service. The suspension of Twitter in Nigeria is not a right recognized under any treaty enforceable by this Court.”

“In the unlikely event that this Honourable Court agrees with SERAP that the suspension of Twitter is a fundamental right, the dissolution or liquidation of twitter as a profit-making entity may as well open a floodgate and vest the users the rights of a non-existent right.”

“Twitter is a profit-making entity which can be proscribed/dissolved in compliance with any national laws. The compulsory shut down of an entity cannot be termed the breach of any fundamental rights by this Honourable Court.”

“The suspension of Twitter in Nigeria is in compliance with the provisions of sections 420, 419 of the Penal Code [Northern Nigeria]; Federal Provisions Act, and section 58 of the Criminal Code Act. The operation of Twitter is in violation of Nigerian domestic legislation.”

“Ground Two: This Court lacks the jurisdiction to determine the criminalization of an act under Nigerian laws. The subject matter of the SERAP suit borders on the criminalization of Twitter operation in Nigeria pursuant to the Penal Code and the Criminal Code.”

“The use and operation of Twitter in Nigeria constitutes the offences of Importation of Prohibited publication under sections 420 and 421 or the offence of possession of seditious articles under section 419 of the Penal Code Federal Provisions Act.”

“In any event there is a right of action vested in the suspension of Twitter in Nigeria, the said right vests directly on Twitter and not individual users of Twitter. This is more so that individual user’s Twitter accounts were not tempered but only the operation of Twitter.”

“Nigerians and SERAP have no cause of action. The suspension of Twitter in Nigeria is in compliance with the provisions of sections 420, 419 of the Penal Code and section 58 of the Criminal Code, and sections 78 and 79 of CAMA 2020.”

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.”

Chief White House Correspondent for

Simon Ateba is Chief White House Correspondent for Today News Africa. Simon covers President Joe Biden, Vice President Kamala Harris, the U.S. government, the United Nations, the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank and other financial and international institutions in Washington D.C. and New York City.

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