An autocrat is an autocrat. There is nothing like a reformed autocrat or a recovering autocrat, after all, a leopard never changes its spots. We should have known it would come to this; the Buhari’s #Twitterban. In 1984, Buhari passed the infamous Protection Against False Accusations Decree, dubbed Decree 4. Till date, it is still the most repressive press law ever enacted in Nigeria. Buhari has never hidden his disdain for freedom and contempt for those outside his clan. It beggars belief that an elected leader would make the kind of genocidal statement that earned him Twitter censure. The signs were there from the beginning. Immediately, Buhari was sworn in, we learned about his digital foot soldiers called BMC – Buhari Media Center. The BMC is a loose federation of trolls, influencers and ready for hire near illiterates, whose low income and deft use of social media platforms make them generally well suited for professional trolling. They cheer every sentence from the administration, steal online pictures from other countries, pass it off as Buhari’s achievement, smear critics, spread disinformation and create barely sensible updates in support of government for monthly pocket money. Cascading insecurity and gloomy economy, has caused the government’s manipulation of social media to wear thin. The BMC have met their match in frustrated Nigerians who take the battle to them and call them out.
Unfortunately, we are in for the long haul. It will get worse before it gets better. Why? We are saddled with a conduit House of Representatives, a Mailbox Senate and a drunk Malami cabal. The secret Memo Malami wrote and feebly denied tells us to brace up for the last two years if Buhari. From now onwards, we should expect orchestrated actions from the federal government designed to undermine democracy, the rule of law, and the protection of fundamental rights. Actually, with the exception of International disinformation campaigns, the four elements of the autocrat playbook has been unleashed. Announcing the #Twitterban, Lai Mohammed said; “persistent use of the platform for activities that are capable of undermining Nigeria’s corporate existence”. That is straight from the autocrat playbook. Autocratic governments often appeal to national sovereignty when confronted by the people. They make constitutional identity a fetish by taking it out of context, claiming abuse of power as part of constitutional identity. In addition, they plead to national security by harassing the media and non-government organisations. We should ask Mr. Lai Mohammed if terrorism, banditry, kidnapping, killings by herdsmen, are not undermining Nigeria’s cooperate existence.
After the #Twitterban, it was reported that the Federal Government and China’s Cyberspace Administration office discussed plans of building a Nigerian internet firewall. What that means is that the government is seeking to use digital information technology to surveil, repress, and manipulate us. Buhari’s plan is the textbook definition of Digital Authoritarianism. China and Russia are the gatekeepers of digital authoritarianism. Hours after the Buhari Twitterban, RT, the Russian state-controlled international television went agog. Writers for RT online praised Buhari. One of them wrote; “Nigeria is a far more serious and “based” country than the US, at least if President Muhammadu Buhari’s response to Twitter censorship – compared to that of Donald Trump’s – is anything to go by….The Nigerian government also missed an easy opportunity to clobber Twitter with its own wokeness cudgel and accuse CEO Jack Dorsey of being racist and Islamophobic – considering Buhari is both African and Muslim.” How is that?
President Buhari’s mentors in digital authoritarianism have created, mastered and exported technology-driven playbooks for authoritarian rule. Moscow is adept at repressing opposition at home and undermining democracy abroad using digital disinformation tools. The word saw what they did in the United States leading to the election of Donald Trump. China whom Lai Mohammed et al are looking up to for salvation from prurient critics, is the pioneer of digital age censorship through their “Great Firewall”. They are the supplier of choice for budding autocratic regimes looking to deploy their own surveillance systems. So far, they have exported surveillance and monitoring systems to many countries. Nigeria is looking to be their biggest customer yet. Buhari administration’s recourse to digital authoritarianism of state-controlled Internet and unprecedented high-tech repression, reliance on China for loans and infrastructure gives a peep into his stunted view of the future. Beyond the current noise, these convergence of Chinese interests in Nigeria should worry every Nigerian.
Those of us who have the unique privilege of being on the internet at its infancy in the mid nineties are learning the real meaning of unintended consequences as internet is being used to advance and undermine humanity simultaneously. The internet was imagined as a global web (World Wide Web) of communication where anyone can access any resource. Censorship was inadvertently aided by the United States government when the net neutrality law was repealed. It created an ecosystem of interference for the internet service providers to interfere or block internet traffic. The trend of increasing censorship embraced by authoritarian regimes is not only dangerous, it can also lead to a future never before envisaged where leaders of countries distort reality and determine what view of internet their citizens have. In the wake of looming social unrest, flares of insecurity, the ghost of Decree 4 appears with new laws in the making to gag Nigerians and prosecute them for exercising their rights to free speech and association.
It is not too late for the United States and other liberal democracies to tighten export controls on technologies that advance digital authoritarianism. The world is heading down a slippery slope if the free world is not united at sanctioning digital authoritarianism and companies that supply them with the equipment. The time is ripe for the United Nations to develop a digital governance charter.
Bámidélé Adémólá-Olátéjú a farmer, youth advocate and political analyst writes this weekly column, “Bamidele Upfront” for PREMIUM TIMES. Follow me on Twitter @olufunmilayo