The Community Court of Justice of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) in Abuja on Tuesday issued a restraining order stopping the Nigerian government from unlawfully imposing sanctions, arresting, or prosecuting anyone still using Twitter in the country. 

The ruling comes as the court considers a legal action launched by activists seeking to reverse the June 4 Twitter ban, with a hearing date set for July 6, 2021.

Earlier this month, Nigerian authorities suspended Twitter indefinitely, days after the company deleted a controversial post from President Muhammadu Buhari on the basis that the tweet violated its rules. After the suspension, the country’s attorney general announced that Nigerians who defied the ban would be prosecuted.

The Twitter ban triggered an immediate backlash among social media users and civil society groups. Hashtags like #NigeriaTwitterBan and #KeepitOn have been trending on the platform since the ban was imposed, as Nigerians continue to access the site with the aid of virtual private networks (VPNs).

The government’s move has also been challenged in court, with at least three lawsuits filed against the Twitter ban. The suit at the ECOWAS court was filed by the Socio-Economic Rights and Accountability Project (SERAP), a local rights group, along with 176 other Nigerians.

During a virtual hearing on Tuesday, leading human rights activist, Femi Falana, who represented SERAP, argued that the Twitter suspension escalated repression of human rights and unlawfully restricted the rights of Nigerians and other people to freedom of expression, access to information, and media freedom in the country.

After the hearing, a statement released by SERAP said the court was restraining the government from acting against citizens or media outlets over the use of Twitter, pending a substantive ruling on the core issue. 

“The court has listened very well to the objection,” SERAP said. “Any interference with Twitter is viewed as inference with human rights, and that will violate human rights. The Nigerian government must take immediate steps to implement the order.”

Despite the ECOWAS court order, there is a general belief that the Muhammadu Buhari government will not soften its stance on the controversial Twitter ban. It has already moved to regulate all social media and internet broadcast platforms, with rumours of a Chinese-style internet firewall being implemented in the country.

“We have always known that President Buhari acted ultra vires against the law of Nigeria and especially the well-grounded fundamental right provision of the Constitution when he arbitrarily banned the use of Twitter,” the Human Rights Writers Association of Nigeria (HURIWA), a leading civil rights advocacy group, said in reaction to the ECOWAS ruling. 

While denouncing the arbitrary Twitter ban, the organisation asked President Buhari to “respect absolutely the wide-ranging, well-considered, thoughtful, logical, sound and unimpeachable decision” of the Court of Justice.

Nigeria, under the current administration, has severely clamped down on free speech and crushed press freedom. The country ranks 120th on this year’s press freedom index compiled by Reporters Without Borders, from 111 in 2015.

There has been no official comment by the government following Tuesday’s ruling.

Dialogue with Twitter

Meanwhile, the government has said it is ready for a dialogue with Twitter after the company reached out for possible reconciliation. The social media giant had, on June 11, revealed its intention to negotiate with the federal government, saying that it was “ready to meet for an open discussion to address mutual concerns and see the service restored.”

In response, the President has approved a team of ministers to oversee the negotiation process, a spokesperson for the Information Minister, Lai Mohammed, said on Tuesday. 

“President Muhammadu Buhari has approved the composition of the Federal Government’s team to engage with Twitter over the recent suspension of the operations of the microblogging and social networking service in Nigeria,” Segun Adeyemi said.

Lai Mohammed heads the team, which also comprises the Attorney-General of the Federation and Minister of Justice, Abubakar Malami (SAN), Minister of Communications and Digital Economy, Isa Pantami and Minister of Foreign Affairs, Geoffrey Onyeama, among others.

The outcome of the negotiation will tell if Nigerians can once again enjoy Twitter’s services freely without fear of prosecution or the country will be left with a regulated social media.

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Michael Ajifowoke | Author

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