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Nigerians can finally turn off VPNs, but what is the cost of Twitter’s return in Nigeria?

Nigerians can finally tweet again without using virtual private networks (VPN) that have allowed them to skirt the obnoxious suspension of Twitter announced seven months ago.

Nigerians can finally turn off VPNs, but what is the cost of Twitter's return in Nigeria?

President Muhammadu Buhari’s government suspended the use of the social media service last June after a tweet of his, widely considered to be in bad taste, was deleted from the platform.

The Federal Government has since then embarked on a desperate dance to convince Nigerians, and the critical international community, that the suspension had nothing to do with the embarrassing deletion.

A campaign led by the Minister of Information, Lai Mohammed, argued that Twitter had become a disruptive presence in Nigeria, a platform for all sorts of subversives to spread misinformation/disinformation, and advance a secessionist agenda to break the country.

Nnamdi Kanu, who was arrested later that same June, was identified as one of the major culprits who allegedly used the platform to campaign for the destruction of the country, without being sanctioned by Twitter.

The government was especially upset about its lack of clout with Twitter, as its advances to the American company to gag disruptive elements like Kanu were not successful.

The Federal Government finally announced on Wednesday, January 12, 2022 that the suspension was to be lifted at midnight on January 13 following negotiations and agreements it reached with Twitter.

Some of the concessions the government said Twitter has made includes legal registration of operations, taxation, and management of prohibited publication in line with Nigerian laws.

Last April, Twitter announced its African presence by setting up a base of operations in Ghana, a country the company hailed as a supporter of free speech, online freedom, and the open internet.

The announcement earned the Nigerian government widespread condemnation as the country was considered to be Twitter’s real desired base due to market size and reputation.

Critics said at the time that Ghana became Twitter’s choice because the company was trying to avoid Nigeria’s perceived anti-democratic and harsh business environment.

With the seven-month suspension of the social media service, Nigeria appears to have strong-armed Twitter into establishing itself as a legal entity in the country.

The company has agreed, according to the Federal Government, to appoint a designated country representative to interface with Nigerian authorities.

The company has also apparently agreed to comply with applicable tax obligations on its operations under Nigerian law.

More crucially, Twitter has also agreed to enroll Nigeria in its Partner Support and Law Enforcement Portals.

The Partner Support Portal (PSP) is a dedicated reporting channel that would enable the Nigerian government to expedite pressing issues directly to Twitter, like in the case of officials demanding Kanu’s account be restricted for promoting violence against the state.

The Law Enforcement Portal provides a channel for law enforcement agencies to submit reports with legal justification on suspicion that content on Twitter violates Nigerian laws.

The applicable provisions of those portals Nigeria has now been added should reawaken the dread that greeted the attempt to pass the so-called anti-social media bill in 2019.

The Internet Falsehood and Manipulation Bill sought to criminalise the act of using social media to spread statements that are untrue and maliciously defamatory.

And despite the real danger of misinformation and malicious disinformation in Nigeria, critics rejected the bill for its extreme government overreach.

It was quietly killed following backlash, but there have been sometimes successful attempts to insert provisions from the bill into guidelines operated by other media regulation agencies like the National Broadcasting Commission (NBC).

The PSP and LEP, for instance, can be used to target content considered to undermine government officials, a provision that fits like a glove for the Nigerian government that has in the past warned media organisations not to host content that undermines leaders due to cultural reasons.

The government believes its handling of the Twitter suspension and eventual resolution is the silver bullet to reduce cybercriminal activities such as terrorism, cyberstalking, hate speech, and other such offences, but fingers will remain crossed on how this unfolds.

VPNs hit peak popularity in Nigeria when the suspension was first announced last year, but Nigerians have started turning them off in light of the latest development.

The unrestricted freedom to use Twitter in Nigeria is back, but the cost of that newfound freedom is yet to fully play out.

Updated: January 13, 2022 — 5:10 pm

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