The Platform


Twitter’s deletion of a tweet by Muhammadu Buhari, the president of Nigeria, and the retaliatory ban of Twitter by the government will undoubtedly impact freedom of speech in Africa, where it remains fragile. Although Twitter’s ban will almost certainly negatively impact Nigeria’s image globally, it will also affect the future of Twitter on the African continent, where freedom of speech is under assault on a daily basis.

Nigeria’s Twitter ban might appear as a retaliation to the company’s decision to remove a tweet by Buhari, however, Garba Shehu, an aide to Buhari, asserts, “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.” He added, All the while, the company has escaped accountability. Although the ECOWAS Community Court of Justice has called Twitter’s suspension as well as threats to prosecute Nigerian Twitter users as arbitrary and unjustified, it is powerless to force Nigeria to lift the ban.

As a sovereign state with its own laws, Nigeria has the right to take any actions it finds necessary to protect its citizens. On the other hand, Twitter’s decision to remove Buhari’s tweet because it violated its policies might also seem justified. However, Twitter’s tendency to see itself as a regulatory company and remove any tweet that does not align with its subjective policies will become a threat to the freedom of speech it claims to promote and defend in many countries. The intrusion of Twitter in the political arena in Nigeria will assuredly lead to its future ban in other countries on the continent where according to the Global Democracy Index 2020, only Botswana, Ghana, Namibia, and South Africa, are questionable democracies.

As African officials increasingly use Twitter and rely on it to share their stories and connect with the world, one can argue that the removal of Buhari’s tweet will make them think twice before posting any questionable content. However, most heads of state have been quiet on Nigeria’s decision to ban Twitter. On the whole, one would probably find that most African heads of state support Nigeria’s decision to ban Twitter. Any expert in African politics knows that media freedom and citizens’ right to free speech remains a real issue in many African countries.

In addition, with the growing influence of authoritarian powers on the continent, such as China or Russia, coupled with the lack of democracies to offer a better alternative for development and democracy, the regression in democracy is tangible these last few years. As the principal economic partner of most African countries, China has demonstrated to current and emerging African dictators that democracy and freedom of speech are not compatible with economic development. Thus, Twitter’s future looks precarious in many African countries.

There is no doubt that the Capitol Hill attack in Washington has eroded the image of American-style democracy around the world. And it is not Twitter and other social media bans of Donald Trump that will reverse that perception. Instead, the action of Twitter appears to demonstrate a shift in American democracy. Political agendas seem to be dictated by the press and social media rather than democratically elected officials. That intrusion of the media in politics is at the antipodes of politics in Africa. While the decision of Nigeria to ban Twitter has become a controversial subject among Nigerians and Africans, the decision itself and the silence of African leaders about the ban should act as a warning to Twitter.

Twitter’s ban will in all likelihood become the norm throughout many African countries in the coming months and years, especially during elections. Twitter’s decision to engage in dialogue and negotiations with the Nigerian government might only lead to a positive outcome for the company and its users in Nigeria. However, does it mean that Twitter will never remove a tweet by Buhari again? Hence, even if the ban is lifted, the damage has already been done. Some Nigerians have already migrated to the Indian app, Koo.

Twitter must adopt a more constructive approach to posts on its platform if it wants to be a tool used by millions of Africans to voice their opinions. Moreover, to counter the increase of authoritarian regimes and their allies that muzzle free speech and strengthen non-democratic governments on the continent, the U.S. should develop a real policy agenda towards Africa and use foreign aids as a tool to promote democracy, good governance, and free speech on the continent. Maybe then, democracy will start winning more on the continent.

Komlan Avoulete is an independent international relations analyst and writer. He is an expert in African affairs, U.S.-Africa relations, France-Africa relations, and public diplomacy. He is a contributing writer at International Policy Digest, and his writings have appeared in Foreign Policy Research Institute, Eurasia Review, and The Week (UK), among other publications. He has worked and interned with various organizations, including the U.S. State Department, World Learning, and Citizen Diplomacy International of Philadelphia. Komlan holds a B.S. in Sociology of Education from the University of Lomé (Togo) and an M.A. in Diplomacy and International Relations, specializing in International Security and Africa from Seton Hall University. He is fluent in English, French, and Ewe, and originally hails from Togo, a country in West Africa.