On Twitter, our touted freedom of expression became only a myth

Never before has the phrase, freedom of speech is definitive, but freedom after speech isn’t guaranteed, been more pertinent for us Nigerians. The freedom to speak in one’s own land, which is largely a fundamental human right, is being negated by the very people it is meant to protect, against themselves.

And the matter is not getting any better. Everyday, we see varying levels of subtle censorship going on, particularly on the now generally-used, mass-controlled, and mass-controlling social media. Twitter has become the censor’s go-to platform.

For the past seven or so years, political issues have been raised, deliberated, ended (and often times resurrected) on Nigerian Twitter. The intellectuals abound there, together with the pseudos. They are the politically conscious youths.

Many would agree with me when I say that, interestingly, the central prevailing factor running Twitter’s algorithm, especially in the Nigerian space bedevilled by an almost lack of information, or perhaps a will to investigate, is the herd mentality, more popularly known as the gbo-gbo ero mentality.

On the Nigerian Twitter space, battles are won and lost based on how many people support or go against a cause. Nigerian Twitter is politics; numbers are everything there. The herd follows the majority, and the minority, however right or wrong, are left ignored. The mechanism is absurdly simple, simplistic even.

The Peter Obi vs. Other Contestants ongoing debacle is a noteworthy case here. On the 1st of August, 2022, veteran Nigerian journalist, Sam Omatseye, wrote an article published on The Nation newspaper, creatively titled Obi-tuary.

Omatseye’s article leaned largely on defamation of the Labour Party Presidential candidate, the former Anambra State governor, Peter Obi. Omatseye, in quite beautiful prose, hammered on the character of the said Obi, the herd mechanism rife with the Nigerian electorate (especially the youths), and the proscribed Independent People of Biafra (IPOB).

The backlash was expected, almost inevitable. Omatseye, many said, should have been more diplomatic, less poetic, in his titling. No one wishes a living man death, not our Saint Obi.

Twitter came down heavily on Omatseye over his article (I’m quite certain it would have been pulled down had it not been run in print!), with tweets casting aspersions on the choice of his use of the wordplay in the title, and more so — and this is most important — on his beatdown of the sainted Peter Obi.

To the Twitter electorate, Omatseye should not have written such an article, and if he must have done it, he should definitely not have done so against the people’s most loved candidate. The plate came down heavy and hot. In only a few hours, Omatseye became the number one enemy of the Nigerian Twitter electorate.

Few hours after the publication of the article, Omatseye (and many have argued this was all a political ploy. The intent, however, is questionable) tweeted an SOS call, calling out Peter Obi, and asking that he cautions his followers.

He cried that Obi would be held responsible if anything happened to him. Omatseye feared the worst, and this is not surprising for a virtual electorate that have pitted completely their camp with Nigeria’s next political saviour.

It is instructive to note that only seven days before, Peter Obi had tweeted a plea to his followers to not fight against his opponents, and let him take the actions. Did he expect this to fall on OBI-dient ears, most certainly not!

Prominent among Omatseye’s critics was David Hundeyin, a Nigerian investigative journalist who only, weeks before, on July 13th, had published an investigative report on Bola Ahmed Tinubu, the APC presidential candidate, and primary opponent to Peter Obi.

Hundeyin’s article titled “Bola Ahmed Tinubu: From Drug Lord to Presidential Candidate” as with his other investigative pieces, stuck to what he brought up as facts (and which strongly seemed to be, and could be, true) over Tinubu’s history with drug trafficking in America.

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The article was written, doubtlessly so, to bring to light the truths about Tinubu’s past, and to bring more people to the camp of the Saint Obi. Primary consensus is that no one vying for the top seat in the Nigerian political landscape should be involved in something as criminal as drug peddling.

An objective sampling would ask for Peter Obi to be scrutinised and judged by the same criteria, too. We all do have skeletons in our cupboards, don’t we? But that is a matter for another day.

Hundeyin’s backlash on Omatseye over Omatseye’s article stands the risk of being seen as hypocritical, since Hundeyin had only just given his own two cents on the opposing party.

If Hundeyin’s claim in his Arise News interview that we all should be willing to “take what we give” is anything of worth, we are stuck in a quandary.

One would have expected that Hundeyin should only have received Omatseye’s own opinion, and not resort to calling him “a 21-year-old Twitter edgelord” and “silly man” for it.

Should I also add that Hundeyin, as at the time of writing this article, had deactivated his comment section in his Tweet, a practice he denied participation in since he was able to “take what he gave”?

But this agreement is unlikely. It would only be naïve to think so, anyway. In the Nigerian Twitter space, the freedom of speech and expression is a myth, a facade that works only when the speaker needs to speak, definitely not when the opponent takes up their own microphone to do same.

We are caught in a problem as young people in Nigeria. The youth population on Twitter fights against the very ideals it has sworn to protect. And they do not know this. Or do they?

It gets more interesting that it is this same Twitter-centric generation who, only two years ago, during the pandemic year 2020, had spearheaded, bravely, a revolution known as the “EndSARS” protest.

It was right there on Twitter that the Nigerian youth sourced, sought and found global support for its cause. The cause was simple: the Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS) had to go. The police team had become too animalistic and predatory.

But if this is far from home, let us consider the fact that only more than a year ago — from 5th June 2021 to 13th January 2022 — the Federal Government of Nigeria had banned Twitter, the primary mode of political expression.

The proscription was done by the Muhammadu Buhari-led government in what was definitely senseless and crude, in the fashion of juntas.

My argument, then, is simple: if we are so passionate (and many are) about the retention and respect for our freedom of expression, about the right of people to their opinions however contrary it may stand to ours, towards whatever beliefs or cause it is directed against, should we not, at least, be tolerant enough to accept divergent opinions when they come? It will be good if the Nigerian Twitter electorate can take a cue from their own instructions.

Nlebedim, a writer, critic and editor, writes from Lagos

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