Most Nigerians never knew what a Virtual Private Network (VPN) was until the federal government’s decision to suspend Twitter services in the country on the 4th June, 2021. VPNs were merely popular among online fraudsters or the so-called ‘Yahoo Boys’ who use the networks to disguise their location and others who use VPNs to access sports or TV programmes with licensing restrictions in Nigeria.
But two days after Twitter took action to remove President Muhammadu Buhari’s tweet, the Nigerian Ministry of Information and Culture released a statement on Twitter announcing the “indefinite” suspension of Twitter in the country that will become effective at 12 midnight.
In the time period between the announcement and the actual suspension of services by the telecommunication companies, Nigerians on Twitter started mobilising on how to defy the ban and the best bet was VPNs. Immediately, users started making recommendations on the best VPN products available for download- from Thunder VPN to Windscribe, the options were limitless.
And that was it. Even though the suspension led to a reduction in active Twitter users, some claim that it only sanitised the space by pruning it of government sympathisers and praise singers who are usually paid to influence the network’s trending topics
On 2 June, Twitter had taken down a post by President Buhari and suspended his account for 12 hours, citing an infraction of its abusive behaviour policy. In the post, Buhari made reference to the destruction of government facilities in the country, linking this with the Nigeria-Biafra War of 1967-70. He also threatened to deal with “those misbehaving…in the language they understand.”
This was the first time a social media ban of any kind has happened in Nigeria. Many Nigerians criticised the telecommunications operators (MTN, Airtel, Globacom and 9mobile) in the country for subserviently implementing the ban without recourse to an order of court.
William Ukpe, a journalist with Nairametrics called them clowns. “Don’t forget, Nigerian telcos agreed to ban Twitter without a court order. An illegal law was carried with full cooperation of the Nigerian private sector. Dictatorship is only possible with the cooperation of willing tools. Don’t forget that Nigerian banks took their operations away. A whole generation of men let the youths down…clowns,” he said.
Nigeria lifted this historic and controversial Twitter ban mid-night, January 13, 2022. Spokesperson to the President, Garba Shehu tweeted shortly and said “welcome back.”
“Let me join fellow countrymen and women in welcoming the resolution of the impasse between the Federal Government of Nigeria and Twitter Inc., leading to the laying of a “foundation for a mutually beneficial future with endless possibilities.”
“I join the leaders of government in appreciating all Nigerians, “especially the vibrant Nigerian youths who have borne with the long wait to resolve this impasse,” and as the government statement clearly says, the gains made from this shared national sacrifice are immeasurable,’’ Shehu added.
The real MVPs are those compatriots living in Nigeria who defied the dictator’s ban and continued tweeting with VPN, said a popular Twitter user, @Real Olaudah said.
That morning, VPN was a top trending word on the platform in Nigeria. “This is an appreciation tweet to all the amazing VPN companies who have in one way or the other assisted the good people of Nigeria to stay on Twitter. Notably we say thank you to: Proton, Windscribe, Samsung max, VPN360, Thunder VPN. With love, Twitter NG” another user said.
Salihu Umar @Necessary_Cho tweeted, “HotspotShield’s appreciation tweet: As a VPN, you came through for democracy where a democratically elected President failed. Thank you! Thank you!! Thank you!!!”
Another user, @Ordinary_Her tweeted, “This is a @ProtonVPN appreciation tweet. Thank you for holding up for me when the government tried to mess with my peace. Thank you for availing me the opportunity to interact with more international communities and contents as opposed to when I used twitter without VPN.” The VPN company immediately replied to the tweet and stated “We created ProtonVPN to make privacy and security accessible to everyone. Internet freedom is a human right, and we’re proud to be able to help so many people bypass online censorship (or simply protect their privacy) every day.”
The ban also inadvertently helped in spreading the reach of the Nigerian Twitter community and influenced trending topics in those places with the VPNs. Nigerian problems and local politics started gaining audiences in places like Germany, United Kingdom and United States where these VPNs took the users.
But the ban also affected the small businesses of many young Nigerians who depended on the platform to sell their products. According to NetBlocks estimates, Nigeria lost over $1.2 billion (about N546.5 billion) during the 7-month duration of the Twitter ban.
While it lasted, a young Nigerian human rights lawyer, Inibehe Effiong filed a fundamental right enforcement suit against the Federal Government, the attorney-general of the federation and the minister of information at the Federal High Court in Lagos on Tuesday, June 15, 2021 to challenge the suspension of Twitter. The court is expected to give its judgement on the matter on March 18, 2022.
Reacting to the latest development, Effiong says that the lifting of the ban on Twitter does not call for celebration but retribution by the sane, conscious and conscientious electorates during the next elections.
He said “As Nigerians, we must imbibe the culture of punishing parties and office holders who inflict pains on us. A regime/party that stifles free speech, promotes draconian policies and suffocates citizens should be dealt with at the polls by citizens. That is how we are going to build an accountable and a viable democratic country with the rule of law. Buhari’s regime shouldn’t be praised.”
According to Effiong, the ban on Twitter last year was actuated by vengeance and done in bad faith. “The subsequent attempts to twist the narrative and make the ban about “compliance with regulatory requirements” was an afterthought. We all know this happened because Buhari’s vicious tweet was deleted.
“The fact that other social media platforms were not targeted in the same manner evinces the self-serving intent of the regime and their defenders. No matter how long it takes, one day, the destroyers of Nigeria shall be brought to justice for their atrocities,” he said in a long tweet post.
Evidence suggests that social media use is booming in Nigeria. Since the days following the lifting of the ban on Twitter, thousands of new accounts have been created- perhaps because of the long period of denial or an apparent curiosity over what makes this platform more special than, say, Facebook or Instagram.
An increasing number of persons including bloggers, journalists, news outlets, non-governmental organisations, activists, and university students use and depend on Twitter to spread information and opinions to the public. As of 2001, only 200, 000 Nigerians used the internet. In July 2020, a report by Heinrich Boll Stiftung recorded that over 126 million Nigerians use the internet.
The Internet is fast becoming the primary arena for free political debate, where the activism and advocacy of ordinary Nigerians is connecting and democratising even the rural population. Moreover, online communications have grown to be an essential tool in the realm of human rights and election monitoring, enabling rapid reactions to incidences of human rights violations.
The increasing Internet penetration is attracting the fury of the Nigerian government who sees the democratisation of information as a threat to its sovereignty. Some recent examples include the breach of data privacy of Nigerians who were actively involved in the #ENDSARS protest in October 2020; bank accounts of some protesters were restricted, and alleged GPS tracking and phone calls tapping. There were attempts to control the public’s access to information, amongst which was blocking the online news platform, Peoples Gazette and the ban on Twitter. These moves by the government are seriously threatening digital rights in Nigeria.
While the whole country waits on the legislature, the courts and even civil society organisations to act fast to check the excesses of the executive arm of government, the youths are finding ingenious ways to break the ice.