• Saturday, April 13, 2024
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Twitter ban: Dear Mr Buhari, what was the point?

Twitter ban: Dear Mr Buhari, what was the point?

On December 31, 1975, the world did not come to an end.

This was hardly headlined news for most people in the world, but for many Jehovah’s Witnesses, the non-occurrence of Armageddon was the end of their world as they knew it. Driven by their strongly held belief that the world would end in 1975, many of them had quit jobs, sold belongings, taken out huge loans, discontinued education, taken shelter in doomsday bunkers, and generally displayed all the behaviour expected of people preparing to survive the end of the world.

A certain David F. Hundeyin, who at the time was a high-performing student on an OAU scholarship at the University of Ghana, had almost quit his studies to become a missionary ahead of the expected end of the world. If not for a chance encounter with an actual missionary who convinced him to complete his program before becoming an end-time preacher, his son may never have had the life and opportunities that would lead to him writing this column someday.

I heard this story several times during my childhood, and my personal takeaway was not just the fact that unsupported conviction can lead to foolish actions with disastrous consequences. It was also that refusing to acknowledge one’s own smallness and the possibility that one is wrong makes it possible for one to inhabit an alt-reality of one’s own making – and then make real-world decisions with far-reaching consequences – based on that alt-reality.

Basically, what that story taught me was that you must never, ever conflate the emotional certainty of your malaria hallucinations with real world facts and expectations. The world inside your head and the real world out here are 2 very different places. Unfortunately, it would seem that this lesson I picked up as a child, was never learned by the people old enough to be my granddad who currently inhabit the “corridors of power” in Abuja. The lifting of Nigeria’s pointless and counterproductive Twitter ban illustrates this in clear detail.

Self delusion vs real world outcomes

So you’re nominally the President of a failing Sub Saharan African state that cannot fund its annual budget, enforce its borders or even count its residents reliably. Your country is slowly devolving into a patchwork of ungoverned spaces, warlord fiefdoms, and standalone cities, with your poorly trained, unreliable, poorly disciplined and politically fragmented security forces stretched far beyond their design specifications. You have lost most of your credibility at home and internationally, and following a brutal massacre of unarmed civilians at a toll plaza in your country’s largest city, you are flirting with Abacha-style regime sanctions.

Naturally, as a self-respecting African dictator, you fire off a tweet targeted at your presumed enemies, threatening them with ethnic genocide. Your citizens report your tweet en masse, and it is taken down by Twitter in line with its platform rules. What do you do in this situation? Do you A.) Keep quiet, refuse to acknowledge what has just happened, and find a way to move on from the temporary embarrassment, knowing very well that your citizens have a short attention span anyway?

Or do you B.) Throw an unprecedented sovereign tantrum by “banning” Twitter in your country and threatening to prosecute citizens who use it, knowing full well that you have exactly zero chance of enforcing any such ban, and Twitter simply does not have to pay any attention to you whatsoever? Muhammadu Buhari chose Option B, driven by the Malaria hallucination that is Nigeria’s alleged global importance.

The outcome? Well, after 7 months of successfully banning no one except the Nigerian government itself from Twitter, and with the 2023 elections fast approaching, the Buhari regime then rushed out a press release last week announcing that the ban had been lifted. What did it get out of this 7-month tantrum? Short answer – absolutely nothing. Not a tangible result, not a moral victory – nothing. While ignoring real word realities and living inside its self-created “Giant of Africa” delusion, the world around it simply downloaded a VPN and went on, or simply ignored it with practically zero acknowledgment. It was January 1, 1976, all over again.

Read also: Twitter: Why you still need VPN after Nigeria lifts ban

This is why policy reviews are part of governance

18 months ago in this column, I wrote about the importance of policy reviews in Nigeria, using the disastrous COVID-19 lockdown as a case in point. My argument was that Nigeria is one of the few countries in the world that never comes back sometime after enacting a policy to ask the question, “Did it work?” Nigeria, I argued, is a country that believes that policymaking itself is an accomplishment, as against the results of said policymaking.

The Twitter ban and its subsequent removal have vindicated this argument once again. In this case, the Buhari regime has clearly decided that its angle is not to try to prove that the ban was well thought out or impactful – which it clearly was not. Its sole angle is to use media and information warfare to spread lies and mischaracterisations about the circumstances surrounding the lifting of the ban. In other words, using Nigeria’s famously uncritical media and a certain BBC Africa journalist in Abuja who has close links to Tolu Ogunlesi, the strategy is to simply lie that this stunning, epic failure of governance and policymaking is some sort of success.

When one peels an inch below the surface of the “FG Defeated Twitter” argument, the only contents of said “defeat” are that a) Twitter will register a corporate entity in Nigeria and pay taxes, and b) the Nigerian government has been enrolled in Twitter’s Law Enforcement tool. These fall apart completely when scrutinised as “achievements” because a) You do not need to ban a platform for 7 months just to convince it to register a legal entity in Nigeria; b) It is in fact Nigerians, who will pay taxes for using Twitter’s advertising services in Nigeria – Twitter itself will NOT “pay taxes”; and c) The law enforcement tool was freely available for governments to enroll in anyway.

The reality is that the real goals of the ban were to pacify the broken ego of the septuagenarian man-child in Aso Rock, to engage in muscle-flexing around “national sovereignty,” to prevent Nigerians from accessing Twitter, and to gain censorship powers over what Nigerians post on Twitter. Exactly none of these goals was achieved. Not a single one.

Instead of buffing his ego, the ban made Buhari even more of a caricature than he already was, because – newsflash – behaving like Idi Amin no longer wins you fawning admiration in today’s information-saturated world. In the world of the gerontocrat who referenced “West Germany” as an existing country in 2015, announcing “bans” with immediate effect and showing off executive power might be a flex in the eyes of the people, but the thing is that the world hasn’t existed since the 90s. Thus, he only made an even bigger fool of himself than was already apparent.

The muscle-flexing completely fell flat as well, because as it turned out, Nigeria is simply not that important anyway. Not to Twitter, not to anyone outside West Africa, and not even to many Nigerians living in Nigeria. Twitter’s share price surged from $55 in June 2021 to over $70 in August 2021 at the height of the ban. Nigeria who? With what leverage? It turned out -shockingly enough – that picking a fight with a tech behemoth whose market valuation is significantly bigger than Nigeria’s total annual budget was incredibly infantile, gratuitously stupid and a supreme waste of 7 months of our collective time.

What is more, Nigerians did not stop accessing Twitter either. We all downloaded VPNs and continued on our merry way. If the point of this was to intimidate Nigerians into knowing who is boss, well I hate to break it to the retired general – we absolutely and evidently don’t care. You failed. Nobody observed the Twitter ban. Even members of his own administration like Attorney General Abubakar Malami were famously caught using VPNs. Nigeria’s government only succeeded in banning Nigeria’s government from Twitter.

Censorship? “Leemau,” as we say on Twitter. So what did the Buhari regime gain from this 7-month burst of insanity, and what is the plan to deal with the fallout of what’s one of the most absurd and unforgivable policy gaffes ever made since independence? They, of course, have no answer.

They never do.