Twitter’s negotiated return to Nigeria, which was announced this week, has been in the works for months and was finalized before Jack Dorsey’s departure as the company’s CEO, a senior source in the Nigerian government told Rest of World.
The senior official, who asked not to be named, said that Twitter had agreed to all of the government’s demands in November 2021. The agreement had been sent to the president for approval in December 2021, but took until January 13 to work its way through the bureaucracy. Dorsey resigned as Twitter CEO on November 29.
Nigeria ended its seven-month ban on Twitter after the social media company agreed to a list of demands from the government. Twitter will open an office in the capital Abuja, register as a broadcaster, pay taxes, and commit to being sensitive to national security and cohesion, according to documents seen by Rest of World.
The Nigerian government ordered telecomms companies to block Twitter in June 2021, after the platform removed a tweet by the president, Muhammadu Buhari, that the platform said violated its policy on calls to violence. Buhari had used his account to make thinly veiled threats against a secessionist group in the country’s southeast.
The Buhari government was criticized by the U.S. and EU, as well as by local and global civil society groups, for its total block on Twitter. The platform was widely used by young people during the #EndSARS protests against police violence in October 2020 and had become a tool for political organizing.
In the early weeks following the ban, some senior Nigerian government officials quickly switched to alternative social media platforms, including Koo, an Indian startup trying to displace Twitter in politically charged markets. But despite its early efforts—including plans to render its service in multiple Nigerian languages—Koo failed to gain meaningful influence as a platform there and has since faded, as Nigerian social media users worried it was an echo chamber for the government’s most radical supporters.
The ban also triggered an uptick in the use of virtual private networks (VPN); Nigeria’s young digitally native population used different services to bypass the blockade by using IP addresses from other countries. VPN usage by Nigerians gradually affected Twitter conversations in different territories, as Nigerian topics topped the trending list in these locations.
Gbenga Sesan, the executive director of the Paradigm Initiative — a Nigerian digital rights group that filed a court case against the government, arguing that the ban was illegal and violated Nigerians’ rights to free expression — told Rest of World that while he welcomes the end of the ban, he worries that the agreement will give the government more power to control information online.
“We are concerned that some of the conditions that [the] government claims Twitter agreed to will play into the long-term agenda of clampdown that the government has demonstrated toward citizen rights and the civic space,” Sesan said. “If [the] government is allowed to move on as if this suspension was not illegal, it leaves room for even worse violations — including a possible complete internet shutdown during the 2023 general elections.”
Twitter declined to respond to questions but did not dispute the government’s account of events. A spokesperson sent a statement confirming the company will establish a legal entity in Nigeria. The statement also said that the company would “continue to act with respectful acknowledgement of Nigerian laws and the national culture and history on which such laws have been built.”
The government source told Rest of World that they expect Twitter to set up a compliance office and appoint its local representative by the end of the first quarter of 2022. The agreement means the company will be one of the first companies to begin complying with Nigeria’s new digital tax laws, which were created in 2020 but have not yet been implemented. The government will collect taxes on all Twitter revenue, including ads and subscription revenue, coming from Nigeria. The platform will train government employees, including security staff, on how to report content to moderators.
International observers said they were concerned about the precedent set by the case. Last year, Twitter faced pressure to remove or reinstate political content in India and Russia. The Indian government threatened to ban the platform, while the Russian government throttled the platform for a month, making it almost unusable in the country.
“The Nigerian government’s blocking of Twitter exemplifies the high-stakes battle between governments and tech companies around the world,” Allie Funk, senior research analyst for technology and democracy at Freedom House told Rest of World.
Funk pointed to the trend of governments requiring that social media platforms open local offices and appoint representatives in country, which “puts employees in the crosshairs between the state and the private sector,” she said. Governments can effectively threaten the companies’ local staff to compel platforms to agree to policized demands, creating a real threat to free expression and access to information. The Kremlin reportedly threatened to prosecute local employees of Google and Apple, to force them to remove a voting app created by the government’s main political opposition.
“It’s internet users who are paying the price,” Funk said. “By exploiting their role as gatekeepers to a particular market, authorities can pressure companies into agreeing to the government’s own terms of operation.”