The ECOWAS Court of Justice in Abuja, on Thursday, declared as unlawful last year’s suspension of Twitter by the Muhammadu Buhari government, ordering the government to desist from such an illegal act in the future.
The court ruled that suspending the operations of Twitter is unlawful and inconsistent with the provisions of Article 9 of the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights and Article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, both of which Nigeria is a state party, according to a statement by the Socio-Economic Rights and Accountability Project (SERAP).
SERAP and 176 concerned Nigerians had filed the suit to challenge the suspension of Twitter’s operations in Nigeria in June last year.
The ban came after Twitter deleted a tweet by Mr Buhari.
The Nigerian government and officials of Twitter held talks which led to the lifting of the suspension in January this year, ending the ban that lasted about seven months.
While the talks were going on, the Nigerian government locked horns with SERAP and 176 others in a legal battle at the ECOWAS Court.
SERAP and the other plaintiffs alleged in the suit that the ban on Twitter violated their various right to freedom of expression and others.
The Nigerian government, on its part, urged the court to dismiss the suit, saying the regional court lacked the jurisdiction to hear it.
But the ECOWAS Court, in its judgement, on Thursday, affirmed it had jurisdiction to entertain the suit.
“The Buhari administration in suspending the operations of Twitter violates the rights of SERAP and 176 concerned Nigerians to the enjoyment of freedom of expression, access to information and the media, as well as the right to fair hearing,” the court held.
The court also ordered the Buhari administration to take necessary steps to align its policies and other measures to give effect to the rights and freedoms, and to guarantee a non-repetition of the unlawful ban on Twitter.
The Court also ordered the Buhari administration to bear the costs of the proceedings and directed the Deputy Chief Registrar to assess the costs accordingly.
SERAP and the 176 other concerned Nigerians had in suit marked ECW/CCJ/APP/23/21, argued that “The suspension of Twitter is aimed at intimidating and stopping Nigerians from using Twitter and other social media platforms to assess government policies, expose corruption, and criticize acts of official impunity by the agents of the Federal Government.”
They contended that “the free communication of information and ideas about public and political issues between citizens and elected representatives is essential,” urging the court declare the government’s action unlawful.
Drawing the court’s attention to the losses being incurred by businesses in Nigeria as a result of the ban, the plaintiffs said, “The arbitrary action by the Federal Government and its agents have negatively impacted millions of Nigerians who carry on their daily businesses and operational activities on Twitter.”
They said Twitter’s suspension was “arbitrary” as “there is no law in Nigeria today permitting the prosecution of people simply for peacefully exercising their human rights through Twitter and other social media platforms.”
“The implication of the decline in freedom of expression in Nigeria is that the country is today ranked alongside countries hostile to human rights and media freedom such as Afghanistan, Chad, the Philippines, Saudi Arabia, Zimbabwe and Colombia.”
But the Nigerian government argued in February that with the lifting of the suspension of Twitter operations, the suit had lost its purpose and amounted to an academic exercise.
But the court noted that the lawyers representing the Nigerian government only filed the application for the dismissal of the suit after the suit had been adjourned for judgement.
It added that the Nigerian government did not provide evidence of the agreement it reached with Twitter management as evidence of resolution of the issue.
The federal government, on June 4, 2021, announced the suspension of the platform in Nigeria through the Minister of Information and Culture, Lai Mohammed.
The government, through the Attorney-General of the Federation, Abubakar Malami, subsequently threatened to arrest and prosecute anyone using the microblogging site in the country, while the National Broadcasting Commission (NBC) asked all broadcast stations to suspend the patronage of Twitter.
Justifying its action, the government had insisted Twitter was using its platform as a channel for disseminating fake news against Nigeria’s corporate existence.
After being criticised for bypassing the federal government’s ban on Twitter, Mr Malami, denied threatening to prosecute Nigerians still tweeting on the microblogging site.
Mr Malami’s denial came days after he unknowingly exposed himself in a Facebook post which showed he too had bypassed the Twitter ban like many other Nigerians.
He, however, reiterated the government’s position on the ban.
“But our position on Twitter is clear: Anyone, whether individual or corporate institution ‘that enables Twitter’ to circumvent the ban the Federal Government of Nigeria placed on the company, will be prosecuted.”
The suspension of Twitter by the Nigerian government drew criticisms locally and from foreign governments and organisations, among whom were Nigeria’s allies.
The European Union (EU) and the four countries – the United Kingdom, Canada, the United States of America, and the Republic of Ireland – issued a joint statement through their diplomatic missions in Nigeria expressing their disappointment over the Nigerian government’s suspension of the social media platform.
The joint statement added to the growing condemnation which the ban on Twitter and move to impose licensing requirements on other social media in Nigeria attracted.
In their joint statement, the diplomatic missions expressed their support for human rights of free expression and access to information.
According to them, the rights applied both online and offline.
About three weeks after the ban was announced in June last year, the court gave a reprieve to Twitter users.
The court ruling on an interlocutory application issued an interim order restraining “the government of President Muhammadu Buhari and its agents from unlawfully imposing sanctions or doing anything whatsoever to harass, intimidate, arrest or prosecute Twitter and/or any other social media service provider(s), media houses, radio and television broadcast stations, the Plaintiffs and other Nigerians who are Twitter users, pending the hearing and determination of this suit.”
After seven months of the ban, the Nigerian government in January, announced it had lifted the restriction on the micro-blogging site.
Before the ban was lifted, the government announced that Twitter had agreed to register as a corporate entity in Nigeria, among other conditions that preceded its reversal of the restriction.
The ban on Twitter, costing Nigerian businesses billions of naira, was condemned by many Nigerians, civic groups and the international community, but the government claimed that “many agreements had been reached” with the social media platform ready to comply.
The government claimed Twitter had committed to establishing a legal entity in Nigeria during the first quarter of 2022.
The legal entity, it said, will register with the Corporate Affairs Commission (CAC).
Similarly, it said the social media platform has agreed to appoint a designated country representative to interface with Nigerian authorities.
Twitter reportedly agreed to comply with applicable tax obligations on its operations under Nigerian law.
The federal government said the company also agreed to give its officials the ability to take down tweets it considers a threat to the country’s security.
Twitter wrote on its public policy account that it was delighted with the restoration of its services in Nigeria.
While expressing delight at the restoration of its services in Nigeria, it has yet to comment on the government’s claims.
The restriction had pushed Nigerians in the country to accessing Twitter with the aid of a Virtual Private Network (VPN).
Following the lifting of the ban, many Nigerians are reacting in different ways, most attributing the decision to lift the ban to the upcoming general election in 2023 and the government’s intention to use the platform for its campaign.