Twitter Ban in Nigeria: Implications for Twitter and the Government

“When two elephants fight, the grass gets trampled.”

On the 4th of June, the Federal Government of Nigeria announced they are proscribing Twitter operations in the country. Later that day, telcos cut access to the service, and no one in Nigeria has been able to access Twitter without using a VPN. Forty-four days later, this ban is still in effect, and the end is not in sight. As a result, people have sought to understand the impact of this ban on the people, the government, or even Twitter.

The case of Nigeria’s Government vs. Twitter et al.

Before the government decided to put a muzzle on the social media platform, there have been interests from the political class to regulate social media. The social media bill, which was introduced on the floor of the national parliament in 2019, received a lot of backlashes and has been moving slowly since it was first introduced. The government believes that social media is facilitating unrest in the country and thus should be curbed. The sheer scale of how Twitter conversations aid organizing is one of the greatest fears of a not-so-democratic government. That said, the implementation of this ban is an interesting one. First, the order to ban Twitter came from the Minister of Information and Culture. In his press release, he directed the Nigerian Broadcasting Corporation (NBC), the same agency regulating traditional media houses, to begin work on licensing social media companies operating in Nigeria. There’s a lot to unpack here.

Let’s take a look at an excerpt from Akinola’s article in The Conversation:

It is possible for the Twitter ban to be pressed into one or two of the permissible grounds of limitation under section 45 of the Nigerian constitution. However, examination of the facts surrounding the ban show that, at the very least, the ban fails the test of legality. For one, it was announced by the country’s Minister of Information at a press conference rather than being effected through a law of general application as required by Section 45 of the 1999 Constitution.

I will not focus on the legality for this piece, but you can read more about Akinola’s argument to get a sense of it. It is simply not constitutional. And even more interesting is how the telcos executed the ban without a court order. But then, it is Nigeria.

The grass in the elephants’ duel

There are three participants in this face-off - the Nigerian people, the people in government, and Twitter. I will assume that the ban intends to serve as a punishment to Twitter. The government is pissed - whether for the right reasons or not - at Jack and his company. They believe that banning Twitter will be very bad for the social media company. And they are not going to stop there. I hate to burst the bubble of Lai and his cohorts, but Twitter is very much not affected. Let’s do a “back of the envelope” math to unpack this.

Several reports have alluded that Nigeria has 40 million people on Twitter and that Nigeria is a massive market for Twitter. This number suggests that Nigeria contributes to 12% of Twitter’s users globally. That’s preposterous, for the lack of another big English word. Statista shows an estimate of 4.1 million Twitter users in Nigeria. However, not all Twitter users are monetizable. Statista shows that only about 3 million of them can be reached by Twitter’s advertising. With an estimated 33 million social media users in Nigeria, this puts Twitter at about 9% of monetizable social media users in Nigeria (this doesn’t account for double-counting and other discrepancies). Per PwC, display advertising revenue in Nigeria is projected to be $31 million by 2021. Let’s say social media is 70% of display advertising in the country, which puts the number at $21.7 million. Coupled with the Statista data, this shows that revenue per user for social media in Nigeria is 65 cents. Multiplying that by the number of monetizable Twitter users gives $2 million (1 billion naira). If we adjust this for errors and maybe want to be more realistic, we can’t possibly stretch it past $10 million. To put that in perspective, Twitter’s annual revenue in 2020 was $3.7 billion. Obviously, this ban is not making a dent in Twitter’s revenue.

On a macro level, this doesn’t affect the people in government either. The tax revenue from Twitter or the lack thereof is a drop in the ocean for the government. The economic implications of this for the Nigerian government will be negligible in the short term. The problem for the government will stem from the indirect impact of the ban. As it affects small businesses in the economy, this might cascade into a bigger problem if the ban is upheld for a long time or extended to other platforms.

Zainab wrote for Foreign Policy:

With its ban on Twitter, Nigeria joins China, Iran, and North Korea. China can afford to shut out foreign services thanks to the scale of its own domestic internet. North Korea is an economic disaster zone, and Iran is deeply unstable. Wanting to get on that list, as a mid-sized developing economy, is a disastrous move.

“Nigeria’s ban on Twitter fails to appreciate its current economic situation,” says Odoemenam. “With the state of its economy, Nigeria should be prioritizing policies that would drive economic recovery and not on internet firewalls to stifle free speech. We are a third-world economy battling with high levels of insecurity, youth unemployment, a dwindling economy, and political instability. Our realities are completely different from a country like China.”

I agree with this submission. While the government has referred to China many times when talking about the ban, we don’t have the economic autonomy of China to walk out of this completely unscathed. From the Ministry of Information memos, it seems as though this battle intends to force social media companies to incorporate a Nigerian entity and be regulated. If these companies decide not to follow through and get banned for it, it will be more disastrous for the Nigerian government than for them. The reason? We are not China.

More specifically, the people that are feeling the impact of this ban are the Nigerian people. A small business owner told CNN she was selling more than $1200 worth of goods on Twitter per week. Her audience will be hard to recreate on other platforms immediately, and her income will take a hit for some time. Nigerians like her are the ones at the brunt of this ban.

A Yoruba adage says, “When two elephants fight, the grass gets trampled.” It begs the question: Whose side are the people in government on?