Twitter ban is not just about losing billions of naira

Abimbola Adelakun

16 September 2021

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The Twitter ban in Nigeria by the Major General Muhammadu Buhari (retd.) regime has stretched for more than 100 days, and the issue still comes up mostly as a matter of economic loss. When we focus on how much money Nigeria has lost due to the ban, we risk overlooking the crucial aspect of the regime’s persistence in maintaining an ill-advised policy. This is not to say the economic angle is insignificant; it is. According to NetBlocks Cost of Shutdown Tool, an agency that tracks the economic impact of the disruption of internet activities, Nigeria loses an estimated $60m daily due to the Twitter ban. That is no mean sum. Even if Nigeria were to reverse the ban, we would never recoup that loss.

To focus on the financial aspect is to miss the larger point of the problem of that decision. I find it far more concerning that the regime cannot accept its error in promulgating that Twitter ban and end it. Letting the ban run indefinitely is doubling down on an initial mistake. That pig-headedness is why their management of Nigeria’s affair has been grossly ineffective.

In June, lawyer Inibehe Effiong sued Minister of Information and Culture, Lai Mohammed, the Attorney-General of the Federation, Abubakar Malami (SAN), and the Federal Government over the ban. A month later, in a counter-affidavit responding to the motion, the government claimed they did not infringe on Nigerians’ rights by banning Twitter because people still use the site. Many Nigerians truly circumvented the ban by using Virtual Private Networks, but that admission all but demonstrates abject stupidity. What kind of government promotes its own myopia and impotence, and even puts them up in court as a defence? After they found that they miscalculated and the ban has not been as effective, why did they not just pull back?

Sociologists describe this insistence on toeing a futile path in a desperate hope to justify an earlier wrong-headed action as the “escalation of commitment.” It means realising the error of one’s ways yet persisting in it because one has over-invested in an initial lousy decision. Nigerian officials have escalated their commitment to a ban they did not think through. What did they expect would happen when they took the decision? That the executives of Twitter, Inc. would come begging? Did they study their earning patterns to ensure the company could not do without the Nigerian market? If Twitter could permanently ban Donald Trump, the ex-president of the United States, whose following on their site constituted about 25 per cent of their entire subscriber base, who says they cannot afford to ignore Nigeria? Within the same period that Nigeria banned their site, Twitter Inc. still declared huge quarterly profits that surpassed even the expectations of economic analysts. But what has Nigeria gained in the meantime?

On the surface, Nigeria, and even Africa, is a goldmine for business investors. Africa has the youngest population globally, and such vast potential should, ideally, make the continent a dream destination for investment. Nigeria especially has long envied China in this regard, and the officials who assumed they could wring some benefits out of Twitter must have thought that this was a chance to leverage the numbers. Unfortunately, numbers alone do not mean much without a viable middle class and some level of infrastructure. Without those basics, forcing companies like Twitter to set up a base in Nigeria and hand over part of their earnings to you as tax will not amount to much. These businesses run with the logic of the balance sheet. If the profit exceeds expenditure, nobody needs to harangue them to open an office in Nigeria.

When the ban first went into effect, some optimists were all over the place, claiming the decision was necessary to assert Nigerian pride and that it was also an opportunity for the country to develop its own social media network. Even Mohammed echoed a similar sentiment when he faced the lawmakers on account of the ban. But the thought that banning an established microblogging site that around 40 million Nigerians subscribe to would lead to a Nigerian alternative is a misguided one. These same people were all alive a few years ago when popular Nigerian blogger, Linda Ikeji, started her own social media network to supposedly rival Facebook, Inc. Despite the vast market that Nigeria portended, that valiant effort still failed to take root. Numbers do not always add up. For social media especially, it will take persuasion-not force-for people to leave the familiar ecosystem that Twitter guarantees and subscribe to another product entirely. A far more productive approach would have been to invent something else. If there are 200 million people in Nigeria and only a fifth of them use Twitter, it means there are 160 million others for whom you can create another product.

In the same June that the Federal Government was sued over the Twitter ban, they announced that six ministers and members of “other relevant government agencies” would engage with Twitter, Inc. They named Mohammed; Malami, who was also supposed to chair the committee; Minister of Works and Housing, Babatunde Fashola; Minister of Communications and Digital Economy, Isa Pantami; Minister of Foreign Affairs, Geoffrey Onyeama; and Minister of State for Labour and Employment, Festus Keyamo. Curiously enough, the press release that announced the names did not mention where and when the meeting would take place, only that they would meet with the delegation of Twitter, Inc. Additionally, Twitter, Inc. did not corroborate the claim.

That announcement itself was another strategic error. For you to line up that many high-ranking officials to negotiate with just one private company, you are admitting the incompetence and inconsequentiality of your administrative officials. If you need a whole village of them to fulfil just one task, it must mean they are ineffective and the only way to get them to come up to something is to pad them up. For that many people to even have so much time on their hands to go into dialogue with a single business organisation, especially a corporation that operates in an environment that premises hyper-efficiency, it also means they do not have a lot going for them. More than a month ago, Mohammed announced that they were very close to a decision with Twitter, Inc. and that there would be a resolution in a matter of days or weeks. Again, Twitter did not corroborate his claims. An online medium reported that Mohammed truly went to the USA but was rebuffed. Of course, he denied the report, but Mohammed can’t be believed easily.

At this point, Nigeria should undo the ban even if they cannot find a face-saving way to do so. Even if they do not care about how much small Nigerian businesses are losing to the ban, they can still demonstrate some degree of honesty by admitting they did not plan this well. Even if they eventually get Twitter, Inc. to the negotiating table, their pursuit should not be about a singular company. By going after only Twitter, their actions seem like they are merely obsessed, desperate, and yet, entirely clueless. It is quite desirable for Nigeria to want to optimise interactions with powerful global corporations, but its officials need to develop a proper policy for that first. It cannot be that hard to approach foreign organisations on more amicable terms while also intentionally building long-term relationships with them.

Unfortunately, when it comes to businesses, Nigerian officials have not learned the culture of nurturance. That is why they hardly promote policies that can help economic initiatives thrive, whether big or small. When government agents see a Nigerian business blossoming even marginally, their immediate impulse is to tax it to untimely death. That was the same attitude they took to Twitter, Inc., but it has not paid off. They have a chance to learn from this experience and re-structure relations with business organisations, local and international. Rather than this perennial display of the impulse to punish, why not promote a conducive environment for them instead?

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