Few African governments are comfortable with social media and the scrutiny it provides to ordinary citizens. Nigeria, among other countries, has already banned social media platforms but there are signs that it might go the whole hog and emulate China in creating its own firewall for total control. Report by Finbarr Toesland.

The Nigerian government and social media platforms have long been at loggerheads – from anti social media bills being proposed as far back as 2015 to calls by ministers to introduce regulations in the face of #EndSARS protests. Attempts to restrict internet freedom have been picking up pace in recent years.

In June 2021, soon after Twitter announced the temporary suspension of President Buhari’s account and deleted one of his tweets, the government indefinitely suspended the platform, marking the latest bid to expand internet censorship in the country. The government claimed that the social media had allowed a “persistent use of the platform for activities that are capable of undermining Nigeria’s corporate existence.”

In his Independence Day address to the nation on 1 October, Buhari said that the ban could be lifted, but only if Twitter met certain conditions. At the time of writing, talks were continuing between the Federal Government and the social media company.

Nigeria turns towards digital repression

According to an investigation by the Nigerian Foundation for Investigative Journalism, plans to gain greater command over online spaces are being considered. The Foundation reports that government officials, including Ibrahim Gambari, the Chief of Staff to the President, and Lai Mohammed, Minister of Information and Culture, “reached out to the Cyberspace Administration of China (CAC) to discuss plans to build an internet firewall” in early June this year.

Internet firewalls, like the so-called ‘Great Firewall of China’, allow almost unlimited control over the websites citizens can access. If a similar internet filtering system is implemented in Nigeria, many human rights advocates and internet freedom experts fear this will be another in a long line of efforts designed to restrict the digital freedom of Nigerians.

“Nigeria’s government in the past year has taken a dangerous turn towards digital repression,” says Kian Vesteinsson, Research Analyst for Technology and Democracy at think- tank, Freedom House. “This recent expansion of online censorship in Nigeria is a really concerning sign for internet freedom in the country.”

Vesteinsson points out that the partnerships between governments in sub-Saharan Africa and Chinese technology firms are very strong. “From Angola to Zambia, we’ve seen Chinese companies providing technical assistance to African governments to facilitate increased censorship and surveillance,” Vesteinsson says. “To a certain extent, those partnerships have produced harsher, more restrictive digital environments.”

As far back as 2009, a report from Reporters Without Borders noted that China was suspected of selling internet surveillance technology to a number of countries, including Zimbabwe.

Nigeria’s Minister of Information and Culture, Lai Mohammed, has campaigned for new laws to restrict access to popular social media platforms. “We’ve heard officials, most prominently Lai Mohammed, talking about new legal regimes where social media companies would be required to register in Nigeria and work with the government on essentially online censorship,” Vesteinsson adds.

Dominating social media space

When Mohammed appeared before the House of Representatives Committee on Information and National Orientation last year to answer questions about the role of fake news during the #EndSARS protest, he underscored his view that the Nigerian government needs to “dominate [the] social media space”.

“If you go to China, you cannot get Google, Facebook or Instagram and you can only use your email because they have made sure that it is regulated,” Mohammed told the Committee.

“We need a social media policy that will regulate what should be said and posted and what should not. We also need technology and resources to dominate our social media space,’’ he added.

Nigeria is not alone in implementing restrictive internet policies. At the beginning of the year in the run-up to the presidential election, Uganda ordered an internet shutdown, with Tanzania, Ethiopia, Kenya, Zambia and Mali also implementing internet shutdowns and restrictions of varying lengths this year. Global human rights organisation, Access Now, recorded at least 50 internet shutdowns in 21 countries globally in the first five months of 2021.

Many African leaders who seek to introduce social media controls or implement a full internet shutdown do so under the guise of preventing hate speech, misinformation and to quell protests. However, free access to the internet has proved essential to activists and everyday citizens alike, particularly when it comes to sharing personal experiences of police brutality and misconduct.

When Nigeria’s Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS) was accused of a litany of crimes including extortion, rape and extrajudicial killings, the #EndSARS hashtag rapidly became a rallying call for change. Mostly younger activists used Twitter to organise protests demanding the disbandment of SARS, discussed demonstration strategies and coordinated resources.

Vesteinsson sees the #EndSARS protest as the perfect example of how important social media sites are in Nigeria for giving citizens a platform to exercise their human rights. In October last year, when Nigerian military forces opened fire on protesters at the Lekki toll gate, killing at least 12 people, the power of social media came to the fore.

“Nigerians who were on the ground in that protest movement took photos and recorded videos and then shared those online to warn people and keep others safe,” he adds. “It ultimately provided critical documentation to later demand justice and accountability from the government.”

Realistic ambition?

While a ban is technically in place that stops Nigerians from accessing Twitter, many are able to bypass these restrictions by using virtual private networks (VPN) or use other social media sites to post their opinions.

Fully implementing a great firewall in Nigeria would not just require the government to order internet service providers (ISPs) to block certain websites and filter content, it would also require a great deal of technical expertise to establish and maintain.

With the unemployment rate in Nigeria rising to 33% this year, the second-highest globally according to Bloomberg, the government is likely to face criticism that the time and money consumed by this project could be better spent elsewhere, for example on investment in infrastructure or job creation schemes.

For Y. Z. Y’au, the Director of the Nigeria-based Centre for Information Technology and Development (CITAD), the fact that the government has blocked access to Twitter is a sign that more repressive measures could be taken in the future.

“Nigeria’s government, if left unchecked by democratic and civil society forces, can afford to impoverish the citizens by sequencing away resources from, say, the health and education sectors, and push to develop a massive great firewall to control the way citizens access and use the internet,” explains Y’au.

A number of bills have been introduced at the National Assembly in recent years that seek to give the government greater control of cyberspace, in the name of combating hate speech. “All the bills, including the one that was purportedly meant to stop the spread of falsehood on the internet, were rejected by Nigerians,” says Y’au. “Now that [the government] has tested the ban on Twitter, it may think of going further but the opposition to such action is strong.”

Economic interference

More than half of the over 206m people living in Nigeria use the internet, making it the African country with the highest number of users. African tech start-ups, too, are commonly found in Nigeria, with three of the four African tech unicorn start-ups that have reached a $1 billion valuation coming from the country.

“The cost of any new restrictions to internet freedoms will be borne primarily by Nigerian businesses, citizens, and in fact, its leading tech sector, with implications across the African digital economy,” explains Accra-based Bridget Boakye, Internet Policy Lead at the Tony Blair Institute for Global Change.

Analysis by Top10VPN found that the economic cost of Nigeria’s Twitter ban has reached $402.6m, with this figure growing by millions of dollars every day the prohibition remains in effect. “There are good reasons to believe that in the internet era, the economic consequences of badly designed and highly restrictive regulation are significant and immediate,” she adds.

The total financial costs of such a widespread blockage of essential internet services are difficult to quantify accurately, due to the sheer amount of businesses and people impacted.

“The open internet has already helped address financial inclusion, has fuelled the creative economy with new content creation and the arts, and has connected African businesses to each other and the larger global digital ecosystem. Beyond a platform for social commentary, social media has become an important lifeline for many African people and governments,” adds Boakye.