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Global Perspectives: Nigeria: A Case Study In The Slow Creep of Digital Authoritarianism

Technology Policy Brief # 57 | By: Scout Burchill | July 29, 2021

Header photo taken from: Foreign Policy

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Photo taken from: Media 24

Policy Summary

On June 4th, the Nigerian government announced an “indefinite suspension” of Twitter after the social media company deleted a controversial tweet by Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari. The Nigerian government’s Twitter ban and its recent history of attempts to more stringently regulate online speech present a cautionary tale about the rise of digital authoritarianism.


Over the past year, Twitter has increasingly drawn the ire of the Buhari government. The social media platform proved to be instrumental in organizing and sustaining protests against police brutality during the #EndSARS movement that erupted throughout the country in October of 2020. Young Nigerians used Twitter to share information, organize demonstrations, and attract worldwide attention to their cause, which picked up steam in the wake of new revelations and videos revealing gross misconduct and extrajudicial executions by Nigeria’s Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS). Hostilities between the Buhari government and Twitter became distinctly personal as the CEO of Twitter, Jack Dorsey, tweeted messages in support of government protesters.

The official ban comes two days after Twitter deleted a tweet by President Buhari in which he threatened separatist rebel groups believed to be behind recent attacks in Southeastern Nigeria by vowing to “treat them in the language they understand.” The issue of succession still stings like an open wound in Nigeria, a country which fought a civil war not too long ago and is still deeply divided along North/South lines. The Buhari government has often complained that Twitter is complicit in allowing separatist leaders living outside the country to freely campaign and drum up support for succession movements within Nigeria. According to the government, the censorship of President Buhari’s tweet, which was a direct quote from a speech he delivered earlier, provides proof that Twitter has a clear agenda that threatens the sovereignty of Nigeria.

Policy Analysis

Let’s put aside for now the thorny question of whether or not Twitter, an American company, should be deleting or moderating the tweets of democratically elected leaders, and particularly those from other countries. Whether or not the deletion of President Buhari’s tweet is warranted, Twitter and other social media companies’ notoriously arbitrary and ad-hoc content moderation decisions make it hard to argue that such an action is consistent with company standards.

One quick takeaway worth noting about Twitter in particular though is that Jack Dorsey has a real knack for making enemies out of heads of state. From Modi, to Buhari, to Trump, the level of animosity for Dorsey seems personally tinged by the egos of those involved. Case in point, Facebook also deleted Buhari’s post, but has yet to receive any consternation from the government and the company remains operational in the country. Now on to the bigger picture.

Photo taken from: Human Rights Watch

Nigeria’s descent into digital authoritarianism is not a new or unforeseeable development, but it does present a worrying example of the future of online freedoms particularly in the developing world. As the former leader of a short-lived military junta in the 80’s, Buhari’s repressive inclinations were well-known before he was elected president in 2015. In 1984, Buhari passed the notorious Protection Against False Accusations Decree. Known as Decree 4, this decree remains the most restrictive press law ever enacted in Nigeria.

Since Buhari’s return to leadership, he has attempted to pass a number of laws reminiscent of Decree 4 that would allow Nigeria’s government to cut off internet access or block specific social media platforms such as WhatsApp, Facebook, and Twitter. In 2019, the Buhari government introduced new legislation called the Protection from Internet Falsehood and Manipulation Bill, which would have granted the government sweeping authority to gag online speech and stifle dissent. Presented as a way of curbing misinformation and protecting the digital sovereignty of the nation, the bill failed to muster enough support in the face of widespread public opposition. Since the Twitter ban, however, a version of this bill is once again being circulated.

While parallels to Decree 4 seem to suggest that Nigeria is being haunted by ghosts of the past, the reality is that social media bans and repressive internet laws are becoming increasingly common in nations undergoing considerable democratic backsliding around the world. This worldwide wave of legal assaults on free speech and expression online is an example of how authoritarian-bent regimes can learn from one another, exporting both the technology and domestic policy strategies that help them tighten their grip on power and erode civil liberties.

Photo taken from: Telegraph India

Nigeria is clearly bolstered by and learning from other regimes keen on exerting more control over the digital sphere. Not long after Twitter was banned, government officials began promoting Koo, an India-based government-friendly alternative to Twitter, which has deep connections with Modi’s Hindu-nationalist movement. Koo is currently looking to expand its operations in Nigeria and replace Twitter’s massive footprint.

Zooming out a bit further, China’s growing investments in Africa, and especially in Nigeria, are heavily influencing digital practices both in Nigeria and across the continent. As the most sophisticated and experienced steward of digital censorship, the Chinese government is posturing itself as a potential partner to developing countries, with the ability to provide both financing for domestic projects and infrastructure as well as surveillance and monitoring technology. China’s ambitious Belt and Road Initiative is intended to further pull developing nations into the country’s orbit and for many would-be authoritarian regimes the opportunity to replicate China’s state control over the internet makes for an enticing bundle.

In more ways than than one, the question of whether or not authoritarian regimes can succeed economically in the digital age is a crucial one. China has proven that it is more possible than previously imagined and its success is guiding the way for others. To ensure that the world wide web stays the world wide web, and not a balkanized, fractured sphere where governments surveil and police their citizens, the United States needs to take seriously the example it sets both through domestic policy and international engagement.

It is clearer than ever now that digital rights constitute an essential aspect of human rights. The slow chipping away at digital rights and freedoms across the globe is in lockstep with the gradual deterioration of democracy. Accordingly, humane internet governance is built not on the professed need to protect society from danger, terrorism, or security threats, but rather on the preservation and protection of civil liberties and individual rights.

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