ABUJA, Nigeria—“Anger” is the word used by those close to the Nigerian president in describing how the leader felt on Friday, when his aides informed him that Facebook had followed Twitter by deleting a post he made on both platforms.
In the controversial posts, President Muhammadu Buhari had threatened to “deal with” people in the country’s southeast, who he accuses of being behind recurring attacks on public infrastructure in the region.
“He was furious and wanted to deal with both Twitter and Facebook,” an official in the president's office told The Daily Beast privately. “The action [the social media companies] took was embarrassing to the president.”
Without consulting too many people, and overlooking his own vice president, Buhari ordered the Ministry of Information and Culture to “indefinitely suspend" Twitter’s operations in the country because of “the persistent use of the platform for activities that are capable of undermining Nigeria's corporate existence.” The Daily Beast has learned that while the president initially wanted to shut down both platforms—he allegedly succumbed to pressure from his closest aides not to immediately target Facebookoffender so that it isn’t blatantly obvious that he was acting in response to the deleted posts.
“The action taken by Facebook ultimately triggered the ban on Twitter,” another official told The Daily Beast. “Even though Facebook wasn't affected, things could change in the near future.”
The Twitter suspension—which was ordered two days after the company deleted Buhari's tweet and minutes after Facebook took similar action against his post—says a lot about the president's thinking. To him, the social media bigwigs had insulted his ego, and he was going to teach them a lesson.
Despite the damage his words could trigger in a country hugely divided by religion and ethnicity—Buhari, a Muslim from Katsina State in the northwest, posted on social media on Tuesday that “many of those [referring to some people in the predominantly Christian southeast region] misbehaving today are too young to be aware of the destruction and loss of lives that occurred during the Nigerian Civil War. Those of us in the fields for 30 months, who went through the war, will treat them in the language they understand.”
The president's post on both Twitter and Facebook referred to the brutal Nigeria-Biafra war, which led to the death of about three million people, mostly from the Igbo tribe in the eastern part of the country in the late 1960s. As a military officer during the civil war, Buhari commanded a battalion that played a major role in the first action of the war: They captured Ogoja, a key Biafran town at the time, and made advances towards Enugu, the initial capital city of the Republic of Biafra, a secessionist state that existed until 1970.
After many Nigerians on Twitter flagged the president’s tweet to the social media company, the platform deleted it on Wednesday, saying it had violated its policy on abusive behavior.
But even if Twitter hadn’t taken those actions—which is similar to the measures the company took against Donald Trump for tweeting disinformation surrounding the 2020 U.S. presidential elections—the conspiracy theories that have been spread by officials in Nigeria’s leader cabinet were enough to vilify the platform in the eyes of the president.
Information Minister Lai Mohammed, for instance, accused Twitter of “double standards” and questioned the social media giant’s motives in the country, saying at a news conference that “the mission of Twitter in Nigeria is very very suspect.” Whether or not he meant what he said, it appears as though he had given Buhari something to think about. After all, the president has a habit of feeding off of petty comments made by cabinet members, especially those that align with his own views.
For example, when 17 governors from southern Nigeria resolved a few weeks ago to ban open grazing in a move aimed at bringing an end to incessant land disputes in the region, the country's Attorney General Abubakar Malami wrongly claimed that the governors’ decision “does not align with the provisions of the constitution” because it goes against the constitutional rights of “freedom and liberty of movement,” even though that right only applies to people, not animals. His shocking position was embraced by Buhari who further accused the governors of “politicking” with serious security issues in an attempt to “demonstrate their power.”
That Buhari always seems to welcome the ridiculous positions of some members of his cabinet calls into question his own ability to separate the truth from fantasy. Over the weekend, for instance, he approved Malami’s proposal to prosecute offenders of the government’s ban on Twitter operations in the country, as it became clear that many Nigerians had downloaded VPN apps to be able to access the platform.
The Attorney General, in a statement released by his office, said he has “directed” the Director of Public Prosecution of the Federation (DPPF) “to swing into action and commence in earnest the process of prosecution of violators of the Federal Government De-activation of operations of Twitter in Nigeria,” a move top lawyers in the country say is unconstitutional.
“Using Twitter is not a known crime or written offense,” prominent Nigerian human rights lawyer Mike Ozekhome said in a statement on Sunday. “The NASS [National Assembly] has not enacted any law banning the use of social media, including Twitter. Mere verbal pronouncement, declaration, directives or threats by the Attorney General, do not amount to a law validly passed by the NASS.”
What the president's actions also show is that he still hasn't changed much from the man who ruled Nigeria with an iron fist as a military dictator between 1983 and 1985, during which he executed drug dealers, jailed journalists, and imprisoned politicians. One action he took at the time—which showed that he was capable of going to great lengths to target those on his radar—was the shocking capture of Umaru Dikko, who served as transportation minister under former civilian president Shehu Shagari, whose term was cut short by a Buhari-led coup on New Year’s Eve in 1983.
Having fled into exile in London following the coup by the new military regime, Dikko was seized outside his London home in July 1984 by Nigerian undercover agents, who were assisted by an Israeli doctor and a diamond trader. Dikko was whisked into a van and taken to Stansted Airport in Essex, where a Boeing 707 cargo aircraft from Nigeria waited to repatriate him to his home country. He was handcuffed, drugged, and chained into a crate by his captors, who put the doctor by his side to ensure that his breathing was maintained through a tube.
It was a telephone call to police by Dikko's secretary—who had witnessed her boss getting dragged into the van as she glanced out of her window—that eventually led to customs officials opening the crate in the presence of an official Nigerian government representative and discovering the former minister, who was then rushed to hospital for treatment, his captors arrested.
Nearly 37 years later, Buhari's ban on Twitter—a platform used by 40 million Nigerians, including paid influencers and advertisers—shows that even now, the Nigerian leader will do anything in his power to satisfy his ego. Even if it means restricting access to a platform many rely on financially, in a country with a 33 percent unemployment rate—the second highest in the world.
What happens to Twitter users in Nigeria who've defied the ban remains to be seen. But few seem to fear the barking government—not even the social media company in question, which is standing in solidarity with its Nigerian users.
“Access to the free and #OpenInternet is an essential human right in modern society,” Twitter said in a statement. “We will work to restore access for all those in Nigeria who rely on Twitter to communicate and connect with the world.”