Cheta Nwanze, Lead Partner, SBM Intelligence

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Subjects of Interest

  • Fiscal Policy
  • Geopolitical Analysis
  • Governance
  • Politics

The damage of the Nigeria Twitter ban 07 Feb 2022

On 11 January 2021, an American named Sahil Lavingia sent an introductory Direct Message (DM) to the official Twitter account of a Nigerian start-up, Cowrywise. He got a response the next day, and 16 days afterwards, the subsequent interactions between both parties led to Cowrywise raising a pre-Series A funding round worth $3 million from a consortium comprising Mr. Lavingia, Quona Capital, the Tsadik Foundation, and a syndicate of Nigerian angel investors.

Born in New York 30 years ago, Sahil Lavingia is a US-based tech company founder and Chief Executive Officer of Gumroad, a web platform where creators can sell products directly to consumers. Cowrywise has the duo of Edward Popoola and Razaq Ahmed as co-founders and are based in Lagos, Nigeria. In our interconnected world, access to Twitter helped the Nigerians to access funding worth more than a billion naira. This money should help them build Cowrywise into a great company, grow the Nigerian economy, and put a dent in the country’s high unemployment rate. Having tens of companies with similar potentials as Cowrywise and enabling them to access funding locally and internationally, will make a significant impact in the economy. Indeed, hundreds of such companies are incubating in the country as I write.

The Cowrywise anecdote serves to illustrate a type of opportunities that the President Muhammadu Buhari administration deprived Nigerians by banning Twitter in the country. The Twitter ban lasted over seven months, between June 2021 and January 2022.

The government had banned Twitter in response to the social media platform deleting a controversial tweet from President Buhari. The tweet read in part: “we will treat them in a language that they understand.” It was adjudged to have been threatening towards Nigeria’s South-East region, which had attempted to secede from the country half a century ago and was brought back into the Nigerian union by force in a war that many observers agreed had incidents of genocide. Rather than communicating with the restraint fitting for a President that is responsible for the welfare of the entire country, Buhari chose to act contrariwise.

Regardless of the government’s propaganda on lifting the ban on Twitter, we have entered another electoral cycle and the ruling party knew it would need to campaign on social media in a society where the traditional media platforms are finding it harder to shape the narrative and influence people. Nigeria has become a place where Nigerian communities on Nairaland, Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram create more stars than the television industry where an aversion to innovation and professionalism has seen a lot of young people turn to social media platforms for entertainment and a sense of community.

Propaganda spread via outlets such as the state-owned Nigerian Television Authority (NTA) and other television stations stand no chance at outdoing the efforts of individuals via Twitter and Facebook accounts. The government had to unban Twitter and save face in doing so, by claiming that the social media platform has agreed to meet its “conditions.” Part of the putative conditions include the granting of the government power to delete tweets from Nigerian citizens via a back-end access to the platform.

This claim was quickly discredited with a clarification that shows that all the Nigerian government has is access to a Partner Support Portal (PSP) that only lets governments report troubling tweets to Twitter for further investigation. The PSP programme is free to all governments and is a variant of the opportunity given to non-state actors to make complaints about tweets. Unfortunately, the government chose to stretch the truth, unmindful of, or perhaps not bothering with, how its claims could be easily contradicted by knowledge on the matter.

It is particularly troubling to see how little the Buhari administration cares about the negative impacts of its decisions on the people that it should ordinarily look out for. The Twitter ban is just one of a series of hare-brained policies that include other howlers such as the closure of land borders, a consistent refusal to treat genocidal terrorists as such, and the ban on cryptocurrency transactions in the financial system. Other shockingly deleterious policies being pursued by the government and some of its key agencies show it is out of touch with 21st century realities.

When these policies naturally fail, there is never any remorse or concern for what they have cost the Nigerian people. Oftentimes, the effects of the policy are obvious even as they are announced. A good example of this is the addition of maize in the CBN’s import prohibition list. Coincidentally, on the very day the central bank made that announcement, 14 March 2020, SBM Intelligence had published a chart showing what the potential impact of such a ban would be. It has turned out precisely as we predicted and no amend has been made even if because of the inflationary impact of the policy. The prices of eggs, pharmaceuticals, starch, corn flakes, and a lot of other products that have even a tangential relationship with maize have shot up.

The Twitter ban, in addition to gagging Nigerians, badly hurt the economic fortunes of the tens of thousands of young Nigerians who had used Twitter to build careers as social media managers, content creators, product photographers, vendors, etc.

In a country where gaining exposure to the consumers via TV and radio adverts costs hundreds of thousands – or millions – of naira, social media provide young Nigerians with alternative platforms to get attention and gain market share at exponentially growth rates. The internet monitoring company, NetBlocks, released a report that estimated that the Twitter ban was costing the country as much as N103.1 million ($251,000) per hour.

The Buhari administration did not care about this, even though Nigeria has one of the world’s worst unemployment rates with the government’s own statistics agency putting the unemployment rate at 33 percent, with youth unemployment even higher.

As tempted as we have been to rail at the Buhari administration, as citizens – especially as members of the electorate in 2015 – we would benefit from some self-appraisal on the electoral choice the country made that year. The antecedents of Buhari have been consistent with the way he has behaved as President. Going to the polls, Nigerians, including yours sincerely, ignored what we knew about him, his lack of competence in economic management and his reclusive disposition. Many people actually relied on his anti-corruption credentials, which had glaring flaws, thinking that was the elixir the economy needed.

But we have been saddled with an uncaring and intellectually-hostile government that has shut land borders, restricted SIM card sales significantly enough to stifle the economic growth of the telecom industry, and turned Nigeria to a country with its average wealth plummeting for the first time since we transited to civilian rule in 1999. This decline in average wealth has been continuous since Buhari came into office in 2015!

For emphasis, we Nigerians chose this horror show. Given the clear moves that the current government is making in terms of getting into campaign mode, (including the declaration of the end of the fourth wave of the COVID-19 pandemic by Lagos because of upcoming political rallies by those who currently control political levers of the state), we would do well to adjust our mindset on what qualities and competences are needed for electing the next president in 2023.

I will end with another narrative on the benefit of Twitter. During the ban, a young Lagosian, Babatunde Onakoya, decided to help train some street children in Oshodi, Lagos, in the game of chess. At the end of the training, he held a competition for the participants. The programme was publicised on Twitter daily and the publicity helped in getting attention, goodwill, and funding that has now helped to provide scholarships for 30 children who had been abandoned by our society and government and had become street urchins. The success of the programme has drawn the attention of Paris Hilton Heiress and super celebrity, Paris Hilton, who tweeted to show her support for the initiative and her willingness to help.

It is important to resist the obnoxious policies of government. This is a message for Nigerian corporates as well. Many Nigerians were accessing Twitter via virtual private networks (VPNs) while the ban lasted. If Mr. Onakoya had meekly stayed off Twitter during the ban, those children would probably not have had the opportunity they now relish, or for some of them it could have been too little too late waiting for the ban to be lifted before getting the intervention. Instead, they now have a chance to become doctors, bankers, engineers, or scientists simply because Twitter helped bring attention to an initiative set up to help them. Nigerians need to stop supporting those with inclinations to attack the avenues they use for making a legitimate living and politicians without required competencies to make the economy work better for all.

Cheta Nwanze is Lead Partner at SBM Intelligence.