Nigeriaâ€™s decision to suspend Twitter indefinitely could backfire for the government and cost the country economically in terms of new investments into its technology sector. The Nigerian governmentÂ suspendedÂ Twitter on June 4. The officialÂ press releaseÂ gave only a vague justification, citing threats to â€œNigeriaâ€™s corporate existenceâ€.
While only a minority of Nigerians use Twitter, they form part of the most vocal and politically active segment of the population. Many young people have used Twitter and other social media recently to organise anti-government protests. AndÂ NigeriaÂ has been among the best-performing African countries in attracting investments for technology start-up business. The ban could threaten that status.
The government made little effort to hide the likely main reason for the ban: the social media giantâ€™sÂ decisionÂ to delete a tweet by President Muhammadu Buhari just days before. In the tweet, Buhari seemed to threaten violent retaliation against a southeastern secessionist groupâ€™sÂ alleged recent attacksÂ on government facilities and personnel. Twitter claimed the message had violated its rules against â€œabusive behaviourâ€.
The move angered many in the Nigerian government. Information and Culture Minister Lai Mohammed criticisedÂ â€œdouble standardsâ€Â andÂ complainedÂ that Twitter had not deleted missives from a separatist leader. He also alleged that it supported theÂ 2020 #EndSARSÂ movement against police brutality. The potential that social media could help mobilise such a large,Â youth-driven protest movementÂ sent shudders throughout the ruling establishment. Officials might hope a ban squelches aÂ growing protest movementÂ against rising insecurity.
The shutdown challenge
Shortly after the ban went into effect, traffic to the site wasÂ blockedÂ on leading local mobile networks like MTN, Globacom, Airtel and 9mobile, though access was still possible through some internet service providers.
Nigeriaâ€™s attorney general, Abubakar Malami,Â promised to prosecuteÂ those violating the ban.
But the extent to which the ban will stop Nigerians who want to use the platform from doing so is open to question. Targeting users for punishment would be a gargantuan and costly task.
It might also not be technologically feasible. Within hours, internet searches for â€œVPNsâ€ â€“ virtual private networks, which allow users to disguise their online identity and evade country-specific limits â€“Â surgedÂ across the country. Multiple videos appeared on YouTube, explaining the ins and outs of VPNs to Twitter-hungry Nigerians.
Nigerians also have plenty of other digital options to share opinions and information, from theÂ popular WhatsApp Â to the Indian microblogging service Koo, which quicklyÂ announced plansÂ to expand into the country.
The widespread use of VPNs would come at significant costs. Poorer Nigerians are likely turn to free VPNs instead of fee-based ones that are more secure. This will expose them toÂ data theftÂ and other forms of hacking.
And the use of VPNs canÂ slowÂ internet connectivity.
Beyond being an annoyance, this could significantly hamper economic productivity. Nigeriaâ€™sÂ economyÂ and even government have become increasingly reliant on digital media. Some noted theÂ ironyÂ that the government announced its ban on Twitter with aÂ tweet. NetBlocks, which tracks internet governance,Â estimatedÂ that each day of the Twitter shutdown will cost the Nigerian economy over 2 billion naira ($6 million US).
Digital media are essential for information exchange, marketing, customer service, and remote work, especially during public health and safety emergencies.Â ShutdownsÂ can slow commerce, cut productivity and ultimately cost jobs.
In the longer term, the ban â€“ even if only brief â€“ could seriously harm Nigeriaâ€™s ability to attract investment to itsÂ otherwise-promising digital economy. Investors may turn to markets without the threat of sudden regulatory disruptions to the digital economy. In other words, Twitterâ€™s choice of Ghana would only be the beginning.
Predictably, the ban generatedÂ widespread angerÂ on the platform. But Twitter users constitute a minority of the Nigerian population and they are not representative of the general public.
AÂ 2020 surveyÂ by the independent, Africa-based research organisation Afrobarometer found that:
35% of Nigerians reported using some social media service to get news at least a few times a week.
Men were marginally more likely to use it than women â€“ 39% versus 31%.
More young people used it â€“ 46% of 18-25 years old, versus 8% for those over 65.
Rates of weekly access were higher for Nigerians who lived in urban areas (54%, versus 18% for rural), had at least a secondary-level education (57%, versus 12% with a primary education or lower) and had the lowest levels of lived poverty (51%, versus 25% for those with the highest levels).
Nevertheless, Nigerians more broadly are unlikely to take the ban quietly. Afrobarometer research also shows that Nigerians, like most Africans,Â oppose government restrictionsÂ on media generally. Those surveyed were roundly opposed to restrictions on digital media. More thanÂ three-fifthsÂ (61%) said that internet and social media should be â€œunrestrictedâ€ versus only 23% who agreed that â€œaccess should be regulated by the governmentâ€.
Nigerians were also particularly fond of social media. NearlyÂ two thirds (65%) of those who had heard of social media said the technologyâ€™s impacts were more positive than negative. This rate is the highest among the 18 countries surveyed in 2019/20.
Nigeriaâ€™s move is part of aÂ worrying trendÂ of governments in Africa throttling the use of social media. So far this yearÂ Niger,Â the Republic of the CongoÂ andÂ UgandaÂ have limited digital media around elections.Â SenegalÂ also did so around anti-government protests.
These shutdowns are typically justified as necessary to ensure national security around sensitive periods. But they transparently serve incumbent interests, byÂ limiting democratic freedomsÂ around information, expression and assembly.
With its ban, the Buhari government has escalated a spat into something much more serious. The damage toÂ economicÂ andÂ democratic developmentÂ from shutdowns can be significant, even with short blockages. Lost productivity and commerce threaten Nigeriaâ€™s economic recovery, and the reputational harm to its ability to attract investment to its digital economy could be long lasting.
On the political side, the government risks angering the most vocal and engaged segment of the population, with the likelihood that even most non-users will oppose the ban.
Given these costs, it is not even clear the government will come out ahead.
As one Nigerian programmer and web developerÂ put it:
"In the long run, this might be a blow on the Nigerian government and not Twitter."