The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Nigerians could get arrested for tweeting. They’re protesting on Twitter anyway.

A newsstand in Abuja, Nigeria, displays a newspaper reporting a ban on Twitter on its front page on June 5. (Afolabi Sotunde/Reuters)

DAKAR, Senegal — Nigeria’s telecom companies had officially blocked Twitter, and the attorney general vowed to prosecute those who found a way to use it, but Editi Effiong kept posting.

“Silence is the enemy,” he tweeted Sunday to his 139,000 followers.

The marketing executive in the country’s commercial capital, Lagos, understood the risk. This was no anonymous protest, he said — the government had his home address.

Effiong, 37, had worked on President Muhammadu Buhari’s digital campaign strategy during Nigeria’s 2015 election. Now he was urging everyone to defy the administration’s social media decree, announced Friday.

“The very act of tweeting has become a crime in the eyes of the government, but it is actually what we should all be doing,” Effiong said. “We should all be tweeting.”

In the days since Nigeria suspended Twitter, asserting that the platform threatened stability, people across Africa’s most populous country have logged on in defiance, blasting what they call an attack on free speech. Demand for firewall-circumventing apps jumped by more than 1,400 percent over the weekend, according to TopTenVPN, a tracker in London.

The Nigerians still tweeting say they don’t want leaders to embrace the blackout playbooks of China, Iran and North Korea. The authoritarian regimes in those countries have restricted Twitter and silenced, often violently, dissent.

“This can be used against anyone,” said Kolawole Oluwadare, deputy director of the Socio-Economic Rights and Accountability Project, a legal advocacy group in Lagos that planned to file a lawsuit Monday against the government.

At stake is a critical tool for Nigerian social movements, which have surged to life on social media in recent years and shed light on abuses of power. The #EndSARS protests of 2020, for instance, led to the disbanding of the Special Anti-Robbery Squad, a police unit with a reputation for brutality.

By Monday, Oluwadare said, lawyers running emergency help lines had recorded no arrests related to tweeting, and the attorney general’s office had not clarified the punishment for using the website.

Yet authorities doubled down on the ban, ordering television journalists to stop using Twitter for newsgathering and sharing.

“Note that it will be unpatriotic for any broadcaster in Nigeria to continue to patronise the suspended Twitter,” Armstrong Idachaba, director general of the National Broadcasting Commission of Nigeria, said in a statement.

The Nigerian president’s office denied that Twitter’s 12-hour freeze of Buhari’s account last week had motivated the ban. (The company deleted his tweet pledging to strike back against separatists with “the language they understand,” describing it as “abusive.”)

“There has been a litany of problems with the social media platform in Nigeria, where misinformation and fake news spread through it have had real world violent consequences,” Garba Shehu, an aide to the president, said in a statement. “All the while, the company has escaped accountability.”

However, he said, the removal of Buhari’s tweet was “disappointing,” adding: “The censoring seemed based on a misunderstanding of the challenges Nigeria faces today.”

Assailants in Nigeria’s southeast have ambushed police stations and government buildings in recent months, killing several officers and civil servants.

The government has blamed an armed group linked to a secessionist movement known as the Indigenous People of Biafra — the apparent target of Buhari’s Twitter ire. (The president, a retired major general, led Nigerian troops in the 1967-70 civil war against separatists fighting to create a nation called Biafra.)

Diplomats from the United States, the European Union, Canada and other nations urged Nigeria to lift the Twitter ban.

“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,” the U.S. Embassy said in a tweet, “and these rights apply online as well as offline.”

Those without diplomatic backing continued to tweet using virtual private networks.

One was Jola Ayeye, a 29-year-old screenwriter in Lagos, who posted about how Twitter helped launch her career. She was 7 when Nigeria transitioned from decades of military rule to democracy.

“So it’s just weird,” Ayeye said. “I grew up taking freedom of expression for granted. So many young people make friends and money this way.”

Another was Alex Oluwatobi, a 30-year-old public relations strategist in Lagos — although he said tweeting made him nervous to the point of stomach pain.

“It's really causing serious bowel movement for me,” he posted to his 51,000 followers Monday, trying to lighten the mood.

Oluwatobi worried about the erosion of rights in Nigeria, but he also has more immediate concerns, such as losing work. Some of his clients paid him to craft tweets.

“It’s a source of livelihood for people,” he said. “We make money on Twitter. People crowdfund on Twitter. People raise up on Twitter. The same authorities in power campaigned on Twitter.”

Effiong, the marketing head, remembers it well.

Buhari had thanked his social media team on Twitter right after his 2015 victory.

The platform had been key to reaching young voters. Effiong saw it as the place where the nation’s civic conversation happened — so much debate and mobilization and, well, fun. Nigerian snark was boundless.

Twitter also hosted government criticism, he said. Buhari’s relationship with social media became strained. A controversial bill to punish spreading “fake news” died two years ago in the National Assembly.

People were outraged then, he said, but the Twitter ban seems more alarming.

“They know where I live, so they can come pick me up for tweeting,” Effiong said. “But it is my fundamental right to speak my mind.”

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