BusinessDay

Microblogging and the Nigerian State: Matters Arising

The Nigerian government’s suspension of the use of Twitter, a microblogging platform has resurfaced questions around the growth of information technology and how it can best be deployed for the greater good of the many.

The vice president, Yemi Osinbajo (SAN) recently declared that the Nigerian government is ready to introduce a new mechanism to widen the tax net.

This mechanism involves the collection of taxes on the Nigerian income of global technology giants not based in the country, but with significant economic presence. According to Section 4 of the Finance Act 2019, “the finance minister, may by the order of the president, determine what constitutes the significant economic presence of a company other than a Nigerian company”.

The Nigerian government is set to utilize this legal provision by taxing profits made in the country by global technology and digital firms such as Google, Twitter, Facebook, Microsoft, Netflix, among others.

Over the years, efforts have been made to widen the tax net, including the creation of the Voluntary Assets and Income Declaration Scheme (VAIDS), which was an attempt to bring more people into the tax net, and hiking the VAT rate from 5.0 percent to 7.5 percent.

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Notably, total tax revenue increased by 59.1 percent to N5.3 trillion between 2016 and 2019. However, due to COVID-19 and the resultant effects on the economy, tax revenues declined by 5.8 percent to N4.9tn in 2020, driving an urgent need to broaden the tax base.

 

The storm and the teacup

The problem of the power of social media, as a product of private enterprise, remains a prickly global issue as governments’ worldwide struggle to establish the balance between individual rights and social responsibility.

While governments have been accused of muzzling free speech, social media entrepreneurs commit the same offence with less or no public outrage.

On Friday, June 04, 2021, at about 04:34 PM (WAT) the Federal Government of Nigeria (FGN) through the minister of Information and Culture, Lai Mohammed, announced the indefinite suspension of the use of Twitter in Nigeria. The announcement first appeared on the ministry’s Twitter handle @FMICNigeria and cited the use of the platform for activities that were capable of undermining the country’s corporate existence as a reason for the suspension.

However, Nigerians generally believed that the government responded to Twitter’s decision to delete a tweet by the Nigerian President where he was alleged to have threatened violence against a section of the country.

The President was alleged to have responded to the violence erupting in parts of the country by saying on June 01, 2021, that: “Many of those 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 30months, who went through the war, will treat them in the language they understand.”

This statement was believed by Twitter managers to be inappropriate and breached the company’s policy on acceptable speech on its platform. In a swift reaction to the company’s decision to delete the Nigerian President’s tweet on its platform, the Nigerian Federal Ministry of Information directed the National Broadcasting Corporation (NBC) to immediately commence the process of licensing all OTT (Over the Top) and social media operations in Nigeria and suspend the operations and use of Twitter in the country.

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Later that week, the Association of Licensed Telecommunication Operators of Nigeria (ALTON) confirmed that its members had received formal instructions from the Nigerian Communications Commission (NCC), the sector regulator, to suspend access to Twitter, while the attorney-general of the Federation (AGF) and minister of justice, Abubakar Malami had reportedly issued a statement ordering the prosecution of violators of the Twitter suspension order in Nigeria insisting that users of the platform would be prosecuted.

The presumption that social media is a socially and politically neutral platform for societal conversation is false. Owners of microblogging platforms have recognizable biases that range from the innocuous to the sinister and these biases could have severe consequences for social and political stability in different parts of the world.

Frontier and emerging market economies appear to face the blunt force trauma of the biases of owners of microblogging platforms more powerfully than more mature countries.

More recently one of the most publicized battles with a social media platform was the bust-up between the United States of America’s President Donald Trump and Twitter in which the social media platform banned the US President from using its platform to tweet until 2023.

The action of Twitter to bar the then US President inspired several global conversations over the power social media wielded and the capacity of the owners of social media to use it to shape the public conversation, perception, and action.

While the Twitter ban could be seen as putting the US President in check over what generally were considered incendiary tweets, it showed that private enterprises managing social media platforms could wield enormous power over what societies consider acceptable or unacceptable speech or conduct, it hands such institutions a sword that could swing both ways.

It is this inherent capacity of social media enterprises to sway collective opinion and subtly affect people’s decisions that make social media institutions as dangerous as they are liberating.

 

No Time for Excuses

Be this as it may, the Federal Government of Nigeria’s action to suspend microblogging platform Twitter’s operations in Nigeria was precipitated and clever by half.

A local Nigerian adage says that the answer to a headache is not cutting off the head.  The answer to Twitter’s removal of a Nigerian Presidential Tweet that did not comply with the company’s governance guidance should certainly not have been the suspension of its operations in the country.

Indeed, by the suspension, the government has highlighted its intolerance and its tendency to act before introspection, both characteristics unbefitting of an administration that claims to respect citizens’ rights and the rule of law.

The suspension of Twitter’s operations in Nigeria conflicts with Chapter 2 section 22 of the Nigerian 1999 constitution as amended in 2011. The section declares that “The press, radio, television and other agencies of the mass media shall at all times be free to uphold the fundamental objectives contained in this Chapter and uphold the responsibility and accountability of the Government to the people”.

Microblogs are channels by which media platforms hold governments accountable and so suspending such microblogs goes against the spirit of the country’s constitution which guarantees citizen’s access to information.

Concerns about national security are valid but they must be viewed within the wider context of balancing national security interests with the rights of citizens to information. So far, this has been a delicate global trapeze trick. However, governments cannot use this as an excuse to plug the mouths and stop the keyboards of subscribers to social media.

 

The Twitter Red herring    

The Twitter saga is an unfortunate diversion from major social issues such as the wantoning killing of Nigerians across the federation by marauding herdsmen. The killing of almost 50 citizens in Oyo state, another 100 citizens in Benue state, 3 citizens in Ogun state and 10 in Kaduna state within forty-eight (48) hideous hours camouflages behind the issue of a Twitter suspension.

However, both issues are tangentially linked. Microblogging platforms provide Nigerians with up-to-the-minute information on human carnage going on across the country. The social media tool enables citizens to weigh national insecurity and the nature and effectiveness of the government’s response.

The threat to Nigeria’s corporate existence is not Twitter but the government’s refusal to frontally address the issue of insecurity. The fact that the government wants to wish Twitter away does not resolve the existential challenge of a rampaging band of terrorists unleashing asymmetric war on the country.

Rather than spend time squandering local and international goodwill in fighting an obscure and relatively unimportant battle with Twitter, the federal government would do well to address the Goliath knocking the breath out of its credibility.

Those celebrating the action as a show of might by Nigeria over a global tech giant are either naive, short-sighted or both. Nigeria and Nigerians would be better served if the country shows itself to be in control of the safety and livelihoods of its citizens and in control of its territorial borders than flexing muscles with a perceived digital enemy.

A local adage suggests that the federal government has avoided finding an enduring cure for its festering ringworms (security and economic distress) as it casually continues to pick at its pimple (Twitter).

There is a place for ego and a place for temperance and good choices, Nigeria needs to shun the former and embrace the latter. Both physical security and enterprise security are of greater strategic importance than bruised tweets. The earlier the administration stops throwing red herrings the faster it can get to work on addressing Nigeria’s more pressing problems.

In the light of these facts, BusinessDay analysts are of the opinion that, given the local reach of the technology giants, the mechanism can potentially yield some results – increasing the revenue contribution from tax and easing the burden on public debt. However, taking into account the recent Twitter ban, this may send unfriendly policy signals to foreign technology businesses and may have negative implications for already weak FDI flows.

We recommend that the government focuses more on the underlying causes of the country’s weak tax base and implement policies to improve the ease of doing business, support business growth and attract foreign investors, which strengthens the tax base.

 

 

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