By Lasisi Olagunju
Our president “seems to act speedily only when there is a political enemy to be punished.” That is the conclusion of about 40 diaspora Nigerian intellectuals in a statement they issued on the state of our nation on Friday. I agree with them. Our president is known for easy life – and he enjoys ‘eating’ it. But, something strange is now happening with his Villa. Our president has been very active in the past two weeks. The last time he was that sprightly and zesty was when he wanted to renew his reign in 2019. That time, he campaigned vigorously – leaving his enemy (and friends) panting. After that race, he went back to his rocker, toothpick forever busy between his lips. But, in the last couple of days, the laid-back has been up. President Muhammadu Buhari banned Twitter; threatened Twitter users; used the NBC to warn radio and television stations not to dare touch Twitter; removed and replaced the head of the NBC who signed for him just days ago. He granted an interview to Arise TV on Thursday in which he described IPOB’s Biafra as a miserable dot in the Nigerian circle – a dead end. The same day, he was on his feet in Lagos cutting tapes and making speeches. The following day, he granted another interview to the NTA – in which he said nothing. On Saturday, he copied from Sani Abacha’s war jottings and made June 12 a day of tears and tear gas. As I write this, our president is busy, trekking from the north to the south, tracing cattle grazing routes, using the 1954 Fulani Amenities Proposal, the Grazing Reserves Gazette of 1964 and the 1965 Grazing Reserve Law of Northern Nigeria. The antiquated laws are his magic bullet against the killing of farmers and the spate of kidnapping by herdsmen.
The Buhari regime is never original in anything, not even in misbehaviour. Its recent ban of Twitter and threats of prosecution of Twitter users are straight from dark, centre pages of tragic autocracy. The regime forgets that Nigeria has a long history of successful resistance to evil and its darkness. There was a time a government in Nigeria banned the Nigerian Tribune and decreed that no one born of woman must be seen with a copy of the paper. That government and its operators enforced the ban but they failed tragically and lost everything. Mama HID Awolowo’s narration of that bit of our media history is here: “When the copies were printed, they would bring them down to our house at Oke Bola, Ibadan covered with cloth or something like that and people would be coming to buy from there, only one penny. You would then hide it under your armpit and take it away. There was a man the head of that government detailed at Oke Bola to keep watch to arrest anybody caught with the Tribune. So, there was a day Mr Biodun Falade (Awo’s secretary) just carelessly held one of the copies going back to his own house which was not too far from us. So, as soon as this man, the detailed man, saw Falade, he arrested him. We had to run helter-skelter before we were able to bail him out.” That same government on December 1, 1965 invaded and ransacked the newsroom of the Tribune in search of Indian hemp. For that government, however, the drama ended in dry tears just two weeks after that episode. That is part of our history which today’s powerful, strongmen are refusing to learn from.
A more recent model copied by Buhari and his men was Hosni Mubarak of Egypt’s misadventure of February 2011. The Egyptian leader, like our own leader, didn’t like the audacity of the Internet, particularly of Twitter and Facebook which were allowing the Arab Spring to wash him away. So, just like in our own case, the Mubarak regime ordered telecommunications companies to cut off access to the Internet. He added voice calls and SMS to the ban list. It didn’t matter to him that what he was doing was a direct assault on his people’s “right to seek, receive, and impart information.” He was a strong man of war, his survival must be at all costs. So, Mubarak ordered the Internet shut but he was soon shot down by the Internet.
Dictators will do anything to enjoy their lives of entitlement. They dictate but hate being dictated to. As Mubarak denied his people the right to use the media, he was forcing the telecoms companies to allow his own propaganda messages go out. They do it here in Nigeria too. They use the social media to push their narratives. They embrace and use, then attack whenever the media threatens their political survival. Media theorists call their ambivalence ‘Dictator’s dilemma.’ Like all bullies, the golden rule of those warning us not to tweet is “you must not do as we do.” They banned Twitter from operating in Nigeria. They also withdrew the right of Nigerians, including of radio and television stations, to pass information or get information through Twitter. But they are online, trading, smuggling and trolling on Twitter, downloading fake-tweet apps and faking stupid tweets for their enemies. They are too drunk with ignorance to know that the Twitter generation they are fighting have all the uncanny powers of witchery. Knowledge-savvy internet wizards will always catch their preys, skin and devour them, liver, lungs and heart. You saw how the Twitter people so easily caught the Buhari regime’s anti-media lawgiver on Twitter with contrabands? The minister was caught breaking his own padlock and law, and transacting business with Twitter, the enemy. So, they say if this thief must catch those he called thieves, let him catch himself first. The man was too ‘simple’ to know that the hunter who seeks to catch night crawlers must also be in that night. He has been shocked into silence, even recanting.
In all things, if you seek to lead, seek first wisdom and knowledge. Nothing destroys a nation more easily than enthronement of arrogant ignorance and illiteracy. It is more dreadful when the stupid thinks he is wise. Someone said illusion of knowledge is the greatest enemy of civilization. It is worse than ignorance. The Nigerian government exhibited this last week – as always. Because its Twitter-ban misadventure backfired big time, it wanted to change the focus. And it did it very badly, leaving intelligence behind. It said that Twitter was “doing business in Nigeria and making billions,” therefore it must pay tax into our coffers. If you assert, you must prove. We have an arrogant government that loves bandying big, hollow figures. It flames first, then thinks later. It randomly shames its subjects with unwisdom cutely wrapped in arrogance. The world is now an open book, there is no figure you want that is not on your finger tips. The fact is, Twitter, according to Statista, as of the first quarter of 2021 had 199 million monetizable daily active users (mDAU) worldwide. In the third quarter of 2020, the figure was 187 million. Out of that figure, the United States had 69.3million users; Japan had 50.9; India had 17.5; United Kindgom had 16.45. Nigeria did not feature in the first 20 on the list. The only African country there was Egypt, and it was number 20. Twitter, in fact, recorded a net loss of $1.14billion in 2020. Can we then do the maths and ask our revenue-seeking government where it found the billions?
Is the Twitter market missing Nigeria? Not at all, Nigerians are tweeting. Rather, it is the Nigerian government that has shut itself out of openly participating in the never-ending conversation on that platform. Our government thought that with the ban, it had killed Twitter. It then decided to double-down on its dirty acts by asking all others -Facebook, Instagram, WhatsApp, YouTube etc – to come and register with our Corporate Affairs Commission or be banned too. Bad manners are like bad sores, they fester. Very soon, our government will order the CNN and the BBC and all other foreign enemies (who covered the June 12 protests live on their online platforms) to come and be licensed by our National Broadcasting Commission (NBC). Power is a poisonous intoxicant in the hands of the ignorant. My people say if you become too obsessed with seeking out your father’s debtors, you would soon run into those your father owes. Is our NTA International registered with the US and all other countries it broadcasts to? How much tax does it pay abroad?
Richard Hass, president of the US’ Council on Foreign Relations, wrote in 2008 on what he described as the Age of Non-Polarity. He warned that the world was moving to an age when no one would be in charge. The Internet and its awesome possibilities have birthed that age of no poles in national politics. Governments and parties have lost their traditional leverage over conversations. What the goons in Abuja are attempting with the new media is equivalent of fools’ efforts at damming the ocean. Blogging pioneer, Jeff Jarvis, in his book, ‘What Would Google Do?’ wrote about power shifting to the edge; about power no longer centralized in the hands of the powerful – thanks to the new media. He said with the communication realities of this millennium, “political movements need not start in Washington but can start in a thousand places linked online.” You remember how the EndSARS protest started on Saturday, 10 October, 2020 at the Ekiugbo section of Ughelli, Delta State? How the protest went through the Ughelli Market, Ughelli Area Command and Isoko road; how it eventually berthed at Lekki in Lagos from where the whole country got drenched in its sweat of audacious controversies. Moneybags, in government and in business, who think they own the yam and the knife of Nigeria would soon know that the immediate future is not likely theirs. Jarvis warns: “When millions of people give $10 dollars each to a campaign – instead of 10 people giving $1million each – the power in a party shifts to the edge.” The Internet is doing that already; it will seal the deal shortly, even here, going forward.
Every age has its own challenge. It is the duty of the leadership to think through how to harness the new media for the good of the society. You cannot contain its excesses by banning it. There are bypasses all over which are even more dangerous. The social media rules the world of disinhibition. Or is it the other way round? The makers of the Internet said what they created was a tech-being “designed to beat almost anything it comes up against.” That is the machine the grazing-route regime of Buhari is taking on. John Perry Barlow, in 1996 wrote his Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace which he addressed to the “governments of the industrial world.” He warned those who thought they were powerful and in power that: “cyberspace does not lie within your borders…Those of you who belong to the past (should) leave us alone…you have no sovereignty where we gather.” He added for effects that in the world of the then emerging online, only one golden rule would rule: “We are creating a world where anyone, anywhere may express his or her beliefs, no matter how singular, without fear of being coerced into silence or conformity.”
The Internet is every dictator’s nightmare. That, really, is its founding political philosophy – and of all its possibilities. Dr. Vint Cerf, revered in American tech history as the father of the Internet, in a 2012 interview with wired.com said he knew what he was “unleashing on the world.” He explained that what he built is a system deliberately made to “run on top of everything.” Cerf knew what he was talking about. He played a key role in creating the Internet and its security technologies. He invented the protocol that “made possible Wi-Fi, Ethernet, LANs, the World Wide Web, e-mail, FTP, 3G/4G ― as well as all of the inventions built upon those inventions.” And he did all that in 1973. How many years ago is that? So, if in 2021, a third-rate, third-world, freedom-hating, knowledge-lacking dictators dream of using cow dung to kill the fire of the Internet or hunt down any of its social media platforms, tell them to please go back to bed. The war is theirs to lose. And they will lose.
(Published in the Nigerian Tribune on Monday June 14, 2021)