The micro-blogging and social media platform, Twitter, has written the President, Major General Muhammadu Buhari (retd.), seeking restoration of its operations in Nigeria.
The Special Assistant to the Minister of Information and Culture, Segun Adeyemi, who disclosed this in a statement in Abuja on Tuesday, also said the President had constituted a team to engage with Twitter on the recent suspension of its operations.
These came to fore as members of the House of Representatives on Tuesday described the suspension of Twitter operations as ill-timed and dictatorial.
Recall that the Federal Government had on June 4 through the Minister of Information and Culture, Alhaji Lai Mohammed, suspended Twitter operations on the grounds that the platform was undermining the country’s corporate existence.
The following day, the Attorney General of the Federation and Minister of Justice, Abubakar Malami, SAN, directed the Director of Public Prosecution in his ministry to begin the process of prosecuting violators of the suspension order.
The Federal Government’s action was heavily criticised by groups and nations including the Nigerian Bar Association, the United States, the United Kingdom and Canada.
On Tuesday, the Ministry of Information and Culture, in a statement titled, “Twitter writes President Buhari seeking restoration of access in Nigeria,” said the President had approved negotiations with Twitter.
According to the statement, the negotiations will be led by the Minister of Information and Culture, Mohammed.
Other members of the team are the Attorney General of the Federation and Minister of Justice, Malami; the Minister of Communications and Digital Economy, Isa Pantami; the Minister of Foreign Affairs, Geoffrey Onyeama; the Minister of Works and Housing, Babatunde Fashola; and the Minister of State for Labour and Employment, Festus Keyamo.
The ministry also disclosed that the social platform had written the Federal Government seeking negotiations on the suspension of its operations.
“Following the indefinite suspension of its operations in Nigeria, for activities that are capable of undermining Nigeria’s corporate existence, Twitter wrote to President Buhari seeking to engage with the Federal Government over the suspension, with a view to charting a path forward,” it stated.
Action based on constitution, national security – FG
As the Federal Government set to begin negotiations with Twitter, the executive arm of government and some members of the House of Representatives on Tuesday disagreed over the suspension.
The House of Representatives’ committees on communications; justice; information and culture; and national security and intelligence, grilled Mohammed over the government action.
At the investigative hearing organised by the committees, Mohammed listed the various legal provisions backing the action by the government.
The minister stated that national security superseded other considerations such as fundamental human rights.
Several members of the committee, however, criticised the timing and the selective action against Twitter, noting that other social media platforms were also allegedly guilty of the same offences listed by the government.
In his presentation, Mohammed explained the legal backing for the action against Twitter, saying, “It is true that many Nigerians have accused the Federal Government of an attempt to stifle the media and free speech, and we say not at all. There is absolutely no attempt on the part of government to stifle free speech and the media.
“While it is true that sections 37, 38, 39, 40 and 41 of the constitution actually provide for freedom of speech, it is actually qualified by Section 45 of the same constitution, which is to the effect that nothing in these sections shall invalidate any law that is reasonably justifiable in a democratic society in the interest of defence, public safety, public order, public morality, public health or for the purpose of protecting the rights and freedom of other people.
We suspended Twitter because it became security risk, freedom of expression not absolute – FG
“The only reason why we suspended the operation of Twitter was because it was promoting disunity in Nigeria and therefore became a national security risk. The provisions of Section 45 of the Constitution leave no one in doubt that the provision of Section 39 of the Constitution on freedom of expression is not absolute. The right of freedom of expression within the contemplation of Section 39 makes it a qualified right in line with Section 45, which permits restriction of civil liberty in the public interest.”
Mohammed also cited Section 3 of the National Security Act from where the Department of State Services draws the powers to preserve the internal security of Nigeria. “It is very instructive that any platform that threatens the internal security of Nigeria will not be allowed to operate,” he stated.
The minister referred to Twitter’s influence in the #EndSARS protests to back his claim, adding that the platform played “a very unsavoury role by making available its platform to retweet the messages of the #EndSARS protesters and also raised funds for the #EndSARS protesters.
The minister said despite the banning of the Indigenous People of Biafra, Twitter was being used by the secessionist group to direct “its people” to kill security agents.
The minister stressed that the provisions of the Companies and Allied Matters Act, especially Section 78(1), also supported the suspension of Twitter operations.
Reps fault FG, say suspension disservice to Nigerians
The lawmakers, however, faulted some of the issues raised by Mohammed.
A member, Shaba Ibrahim (PDP/Kogi) said he agreed with the minister that national interest and security were at stake.
He also admitted that Mohammed had done “a very beautiful rendition of the legal framework” that supported the suspension.
Ibrahim, however, said, “Beautiful as it is, I just wonder if in the consideration of that ban, you took into cognizance, the coincidence of Mr President’s tweet and Twitter’s action, and the impression it created on the minds of millions of Nigerians and indeed the entire world.
“I say this because sometimes there is what you call ‘claim of right made in bad faith.’ You may well have a legal platform upon which to anchor that action but the circumstances are (the reasons) why you have everybody alluding to the (similar) action taken (by Twitter) against (President Donald) Trump.”
“If you have been proactive, with due respect, you wouldn’t have allowed all these infractions to go unchecked, until the President’s tweet was taken down. I think, with all due respect, that was a disservice to us.
“We are at the mercy of people who handle social media irresponsibly. All it took to wake to that responsibility was for Twitter to bring down Mr President’s tweet. With all due respect sir, I don’t think that was good enough.
“I agree that no right is in absolute terms. But, again, we must mind the timing of it so that proactive actions are taken to nip these things in the bud. Because what you have done, whether you like it or not, looks like symptoms of emerging totalitarianism. And that is why everyone is shouting blue murder.”
Another member, Chinedu Ogar (APC/Ebonyi) asked the minister about the efforts made by regulatory agencies especially the National Broadcasting Commission to address the issues until a tweet by the President was deleted and Twitter banned.
Also, Olatunji Shoyinka (PDP/Lagos), said, “We have all talked about the disadvantages, but there are advantages of the social media.” He condemned the sudden nature of the government action.
Another member from Akwa Ibom, Aniekan Umanah, asked, “Did we have to wait for Mr President’s tweet to be taken down before the government came to the realisation that certain things have been going wrong? Did we have to wait for a tweet to be taken down before we rediscovered these laws and all these sections that we have heard from the honourable minister?
“Mr Minister, my constituents are as unhappy as others in this country and they have asked me to plead on their behalf to the Federal Government through you to look at these issues.”
But the lawmaker representing the Daura/Maiadua/Sandamu Constituency in Katsina State, Fatuhu Muhammad, condemned the social media and the users.
Responding to the questions, Mohammed partly said Twitter was not banned, but suspended.
ECOWAS Court stops Buhari govt from prosecuting Nigerians using Twitter
Meanwhile, the ECOWAS Court of Justice in Abuja has restrained the Federal Government and its agents from arresting or prosecuting Nigerians who are making use of Twitter.
Civil Society Organisation, the Socio-Economic Rights and Accountability Project, and 176 concerned Nigerians, had instituted a suit before the ECOWAS court, arguing that the unlawful suspension of Twitter in Nigeria, criminalisation of Nigerians and other people using Twitter had escalated repression of human rights and unlawfully restricted the rights of Nigerians and other people to freedom of expression, access to information, and media freedom in the country.
SERAP Deputy Director, Kolawole Oluwadare, said in a statement that in a landmark ruling on Tuesday, the ECOWAS court restrained the regime of Buhari and its agents from “unlawfully imposing sanctions or doing anything whatsoever to harass, intimidate, arrest or prosecute Twitter or any other social media service provider, media houses, radio, television broadcast stations, the plaintiffs and other Nigerians who are Twitter users, pending the hearing and determination of this suit.”
The court gave the order after hearing arguments from Solicitor to SERAP, Femi Falana (SAN), and lawyer to the government Maimuna Shiru.
The ECOWAS court further stated, “The court has listened very well to the objection by Nigeria. The court has this to say. Any interference with Twitter is viewed as inference with human rights, and that will violate human rights. Therefore, this court has jurisdiction to hear the case. The court also hereby orders that the application be heard expeditiously. The Nigerian government must take immediate steps to implement the order.”
Reacting to the ruling, Falana said the intervention of the ECOWAS Court was a timely relief for millions of Nigerians using Twitter who had been threatened with prosecution under the provision of the Penal Code relating to sedition.
The senior advocate argued that contrary to a later assurance credited to Malami that violators of the Twitter would not be prosecuted, the Federal Government filed processes in the ECOWAS Court threatening to prosecute Nigerians using Twitter for violating the suspension under the provisions of the Penal Code relating to sedition.
“It is extremely embarrassing that the Federal Government could threaten to jail Nigerians for sedition, which was annulled by the Court of Appeal in 1983, in the case of Arthur Nwankwo vs The State,” Falana said.
The substantive suit has been adjourned till July 6, 2021 for hearing of the substantive suit.
However, before the hearing of the suit, the Federal Government had filed and served SERAP a preliminary objection claiming that the court lacked jurisdiction to hear the case on the grounds that the suspension of Twitter in Nigeria was not a right recognised under any treaty enforceable by the court.
However, the court dismissed the objection.
Keyamo dismissed the ruling by the ECOWAS Court of Justice. Speaking on Politics Today, a current affairs programme on Channels Television, he noted that Nigeria is a country that has its territorial integrity and sovereignty to protect.