Nigeria’s Twitter ban and the rise of internet censorship in Africa

President Muhammadu Buhari at a World Economic Forum meeting in Jordan in 2019. (Source: World Economic Forum)

On June 4, Nigeria announced it would indefinitely ban Twitter from operating in the country, with Minister of Information and Culture Lai Mohammed accusing the social media company of being used for activities “capable of undermining Nigeria’s corporate existence.” The decision came two days after Twitter deleted a tweet by President Muhammadu Buhari that seemed to threaten violence against Biafran secessionists blamed for attacks against government targets in southeastern Nigeria. 40 million Nigerians use Twitter, and the country has one of the highest rates of internet usage in Africa.

The move sparked immediate outcry and resistance eight months after the #EndSARS protests, with #KeepItOn trending on Twitter as Nigerians flocked to virtual private networks, or VPNs, to evade the ban. Demand for VPNs spiked 1,409% in Nigeria on June 5, the day the ban came into effect, and rose an additional 405% on June 6 as the shutdown extended into its second day. Nigerians also took to the streets, with protests taking place in several cities across the country on June 12 to coincide with Democracy Day, which marks the date of the 1993 democratic election, the freest and fairest election the country had ever held, and the results of which were subsequently annulled by the ruling military junta. Saturday’s demonstrations were also in protest of the Buhari administration’s poor management of the country’s issues, including insecurity, economic issues like high food prices, and unconstitutional policies, most recently the current Twitter ban. The Nigerian Police fired tear gas and arrested several protesters in Lagos and Abuja; however, protesters throughout the diaspora, in cities such as London and New York, were able to express themselves freely.

As these developments demonstrate, the Twitter ban is deeply unpopular and hard to enforce. Nevertheless, the current blackout is just the first step in the Nigerian government’s agenda to restrict internet access more broadly. Days after the ban took effect, Information Minister Mohamed announced a set of new rules for social media companies operating in Nigeria, including requiring that they register domestically and be licensed by the state broadcasting commission. President Buhari’s administration has also reportedly contacted the Chinese state cyber regulatory body to discuss developing a nationwide Nigerian internet firewall similar to China’s “Great Firewall.” If implemented, such a firewall would create a separate “Nigerian internet” over which the government would have extensive censorship powers, including the ability to block VPNs and additional social media platforms like Facebook, Google, Instagram, and WhatsApp.

A growing trend

Nigeria is not the first African nation to limit its citizens’ internet access. According to data from watchdog group Access Now, at least 13 countries on the continent have implemented full or partial internet shutdowns in the first six months of 2021, as did around a dozen in 2020. Uganda notably put in place a nationwide blackout on the eve of its presidential election in January. Tanzania also restricted access to the internet and social media platforms during its elections in October. Other countries that blocked internet access in 2020 include Chad, Burundi, Ethiopia, Guinea, Mali, Togo, and Zimbabwe.

Internet shutdowns are on the rise in Africa. In 2019, there were 25 documented cases of total or partial internet blockages, compared with 20 in 2018 and 12 in 2017. Worryingly, seven of the 14 countries — Benin, Eritrea, Gabon, Liberia, Malawi, Mauritania, and Zimbabwe — that blocked internet access in 2019 had not done so previously. With 18 recorded instances since January, 2021 could end up being the worst year yet for internet freedom in Africa if shutdowns continue to occur at the same rate.

Implications for the future

In Nigeria, and across the continent, young and tech-savvy internet users have found ways to evade shutdowns. Still, blackouts can have a significant impact in limiting democratic freedoms of expression, information, and assembly. While social media users make up a small minority of Africans, they have an outsized political and social influence. Only around 20% of Nigerians use Twitter, but they are one of the most vocal and engaged segments of society, and trends among online activists have often had tangible political impacts in recent years.

In 2014, Nigerian Twitter users popularized a global rallying call in #BringBackOurGirls, in response to the kidnapping of 276 schoolgirls by Boko Haram militants. The hashtag embarrassed the government and helped Buhari defeat incumbent President Goodluck Jonathan to win the 2015 election. And last year, when demonstrators took to the streets to protest police brutality, they rallied around another hashtag, #EndSARS, referring to the name of an especially notorious police unit. The movement gained international traction, with solidarity protests taking place in cities across the world, and the SARS police unit was ultimately disbanded, although the other demands the protestors were campaigning for remain unmet.

With the rise of the internet, Africans have been presented with a powerful tool for sharing information and holding their governments accountable. VPNs and other mechanisms have often allowed internet users to avoid attempts by African governments to block online access. However, that may be changing, as recent years have seen increasing numbers of African governments trying their hand at blocking the internet. In the future, if Nigeria is any guide, more countries may graduate from targeted and temporary shutdowns and begin seeking out larger-scale measures, like firewalls and VPN blockages.

Several African countries are already among those known to have participated since 2017 in China’s cyberspace management seminars, which Freedom House has said export “digital authoritarianism.” China was also involved in the development of new cybersecurity measures in Uganda and Tanzania in 2018. With this history, it is not out of the question that China may be willing to help its African allies develop their own “Great Firewalls” to regulate and censor domestic internet access. If they do, the silencing effect on Africa’s next generation of internet activism could be lethal.

John Dashe and Temi Ibirogba,

Africa Program

The Center for International Policy Africa Program analyzes U.S. foreign policy toward the nations of Africa to promote greater positive U.S. engagement