ECOWAS Court restrains Nigerian government from arresting Twitter users

Remains to be seen if the Buhari-led administration will adhere

If the current administration of the Nigerian government was in a passive-aggressive relationship with Twitter over the last few months, its position in the last few weeks makes its stance on the platform, and social media in general, clear. Following the deletion of President’s Buhari’s tweet, which invoked genocidal civil war and was widely reported by Nigerians, the government suspended Twitter’s operations in the country over “activities capable of undermining Nigeria’s corporate existence.”

Within hours of the statement, ironically released via Twitter, local internet service providers and mobile networks disabled access to the social networking app. The ban drew widespread criticisms from Nigerians and the international community, citing it as a move to restrict freedom of speech in a country running a democratic system. In a rare interview, President Buhari refused to address the suspension of Twitter’s operations, another indicator that his administration’s dedication to regulating and restricting social media might not be thawing anytime soon. Circumventing the indefinite ban, many Nigerians have taken to VPNs in order to access Twitter, but are doing so under threat of prosecution by the Attorney General of the Federation, Abubakar Malami—who himself was allegedly caught violating the ban.

Yesterday, the ECOWAS Court of Justice in Abuja restrained the President Buhari-led administration from arresting Nigerians using Twitter, pending the full hearing of the suit brought before it by the Socio-Economic Rights and Accountability Project (SERAP) and 176 concerned Nigerians. The court stopped the “government of President Muhammadu Buhari and its agent 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 stations, the plaintiffs and other Nigerians who are Twitter users, pending the hearing and determination of this suit.”

In its ruling, ahead of the substantive hearing which has been adjourned to July 6, the court stated that it viewed the interference with Twitter as interference with human rights, and admonished the Nigerian government to “take immediate steps to implement the order.” It remains to be seen if the Nigerian government will comply with the ECOWAS court’s order, as access to Twitter is still disabled solely via local network providers. The President Buhari-led administration hasn’t always shown the utmost respect for the rule of law, with its track record of detaining and re-arresting citizens contrary to court orders. Ironically, just last week, the Nigerian president called on the regional union of ECOWAS to pressure Mali to return back to civilian rule.

Established in 1991, the ECOWAS court has accepted the submission of complaints for human rights violations since 2005, and member states must take all measures necessary to ensure execution of the court’s decision. Hours before the ECOWAS court’s ruling, President Buhari appointed several ministers to negotiate over the Twitter ban. The envoy notably includes Lai Mohammed, Babatunde Fashola and Isa Pantami, all of whom are regular targets for the civil criticisms Twitter enables.

This is a developing story.

[Featured Image Credits: Web/Foreign Policy]

@dennisadepeter is a staff writer at the NATIVE.