Since last week when President Muhammadu Buhari took to the microblogging platform, Twitter, to issue a tweet condemned across the world, there have been massive reactions in the polity. The tweet issued following a meeting held by the president with the chairman of the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC), Mahmood Yakubu, at the State House, Abuja, generated so much hoopla. The president had warned those who “were maybe too young to understand the gravity of war,” who he alleged were behind the burning of INEC offices, mostly in the South-East, to beware, as “those of us in the field for 30 months, who went through the war, will treat them in the language they understand.” The tech company promptly deleted the tweet. In reply, the Federal Government banned Twitter usage in the country.
A number of developments have since followed this saber-rattling between the Buhari government and Twitter. Minister of Information, Alhaji Lai Mohammed, in articulating the government’s wisdom in banning the platform, alleged that there was a deleterious agenda being prosecuted by the tech giant in Nigeria. He wondered, with some justification, why Twitter didn’t delete earlier tweets by the leader of the Independent Peoples of Biafra (IPOB), Mazi Nnamdi Kanu which had violent intent. The minister has since claimed that Twitter has approached the government for talks, and that the platform must be registered in the country and regulated by the government.
To say the very least, the tweet at the heart of the ongoing controversy is decidedly unfortunate and shouldn’t have been affixed to the name of any leader anywhere in the world. The tone, cadence and purport of that tweet were callous, and showed a poor mindset. Fifty-one years after the civil war, in the aftermath of which the then rulers of the country had said there was “no victor and no vanquished,” President Buhari brought back the throes of the war. More than any other thing, this reflects his inability to rise to the level of a president for the whole of the country. On the economic front, the suspension of Twitter has led to irreparable haemorrhage. In particular, small and medium scale enterprises have been badly affected, with their ability to do business online severely impaired. But the government is unconcerned.
In a capitalist world where capital is core, the tech giant cannot but reach a rapprochement with the Nigerian government, especially due to the large market that Nigeria offers for its sustenance. It also, we believe, has a duty to apply the rules fairly and allow the expression of opinion that it disagrees with. It is a fact that certain shades of opinion, particularly of conservatives expressing religious tenets, does not sit well with the Twitter board. That template has to change. However, that does not detract from the meanness of Buhari’s tweet and the ostensible drive by the government to toe an ethnic path.
Instructively, the actions of the government before and after the ban manifest intolerance for dissenting views, a high road to despotism. The government cannot be allowed to cherry-pick what it wants from the basket of democracy. It must abide by democratic tenets, particularly free speech. In a democracy, the majority rule. The majority view is that Buhari’s tweet had genocidal flavour and should never have been uttered by the president in the first instance. That will not change. An acknowledgement of error would have sufficed. Buhari has a lot to learn from his immediate predecessor, who endured citizen’s censure without muzzling the democratic space.
The foregoing notwithstanding, we agree with the president that no responsible national leadership can stand by and allow the country to be made ungovernable by a set of people. But there are extant laws in the land that govern the conduct that he justly deplores, and it is the duty of the police and other security agencies to ensure that the offenders have their day in the court of law. Still, the country cannot embrace economic ruination just because of the president’s personal displeasure. To be sure, the intransigence emanating from the South-East and other parts of the country should bother everyone, but the sub-text of justifiable complaints about Buhari’s style of governance cannot also be ignored.
We think that responding positively to the grouse of the people of the South-East should be the concern of a more empathetic and understanding president. The threat of a genocidal response to the malefaction in the zone sends the wrong signals and can only fester the spate of insecurity in the land. What apparently frightened Nigerians the more was that the president’s ethnically flavoured tweet was indistinguishable from a similar fetid comment by his Minister of Justice, Abubakar Malami. The minister had earlier compared a people he called “spare parts sellers” with terrorist herdsmen. This sends a clear message that the Presidency is afflicted by incurable ethnicization of governance.
We state without equivocation that the cause of unity and continued existence of the country is not served by insensitive comments and actions by the president. He has to purge himself of such marginalising attitude and strive to be the president of all. He cannot be asking for peace where a group of people believe that they are being inflicted with injustice. Nigeria is already treading a divisive path and should not be further divided or allowed to disintegrate.