By Joel Popoola
Our nation will only move past these dark days if the government sets out to build bridges. This week’s banning of Twitter suggests it is only interested in building walls.
As a Nigerian tech entrepreneur I am extremely concerned about the economic implications of this week’s events, which have once again left the eyes of the World on our nation for all the wrong reasons.
NetBlocks, a global internet monitor, believes the ban is costing Nigeria 103,000,003 Naira every hour. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg.
A World Bank has reported that digital entrepreneurship has the potential to become ‘an engine of economic transformation in Nigeria and set the country on a new growth trajectory’. Official figures suggest that 14% of our GDP is directly dependent on digital communications – with many more key economic sectors dependent on it for productivity.
In recent weeks, a Financial Times report found that Nigeria has the most start-ups in all of Africa. Influential industry news website TechCrunch called Nigeria.
“Africa’s unofficial tech capital”. Lagos has been called “Africa’s Silicon Valley”.
At a time of economic uncertainty and mass unemployment the government needs to be encouraging international technology firms to invest in Nigeria, and new innovative companies to start up and scale up.
Sending the message that Nigeria has a government willing to arbitrarily declare war on technology companies does our nation no favours at all.
Then there are the democratic implications.
Our constitution clearly protects the right to freedom of expression and in 2021 that expression inevitably takes place online, with almost two-thirds of Nigerians using Twitter.
It is not as if this ban will even work.
Senior figures in this administration may be from an age when the government could stop people criticising them by shutting down newspapers and seizing printing presses. But this is not the age we live in now. A tech savvy population has already identified countless ways to circumvent the Twitter ban – in particular using Virtual Private Networks to bypass the ban.
As a result, the only people losing out right now are the government themselves – unable to take advantage of a means of communicating with two-thirds of Nigerians who use Twitter – and the businesses our economy desperately needs to grow. The only people they have muted are themselves.
The government may claim that any people using Twitter will be prosecuted, but the only way to do that would be to have the police stop people and search their phones for the Twitter. If two-thirds of Nigerians are using Twitter, that’s in the region of 80-90 million phones the police are going to have to check by hand. Does that seem practical to you?
The irony is that the government is not wrong that social media is responsible for a pandemic of misinformation which is poisoning our public discourse and breeding mistrust in our democratic institutions.
There is also a wider question of whether it is sustainable or desirable for social media platforms designed, for example, for people to rate which girls at a university were the prettiest (as Facebook was) to have such an integral role in our democratic processes.
Social media giants’ inability or unwillingness to tackle this issue is exactly why the digital democracy campaign I lead set out to create a new social media platform explicitly designed for communications between government and governed, adding trustworthiness and politeness into to the transparency and accessibility of the digital age.
We have created a free smartphone app called Rate Your Leader which puts verified voters in direct contact with the elected officials who serve them. Rate Your Leader allows people to put questions directly to local leaders, as well as bringing important local issues to their attention. The relationship Rate Your Leader creates allows electors and elected to communicate better and collaborate in the common interest.
Rate Your Leader also lets people rate politicians for accessibility, transparency and honesty – building trust in both politicians and political institutions. Its abuse-proof technology makes harassment, bullying and obscenity impossible.
There is an argument that the government should be encouraging people to use social media platforms more appropriate for political communication and more proactive when it comes to dealing with misinformation and inflammatory discourse.
Instead the government has taken an action which makes it unwise and frightened to its people and despotic to international observers. It has taken a step which damages our economy while at the same time being impractical and unenforceable. It needs to think again.
Joel Popoola is a Nigerian tech entrepreneur and digital democracy campaigner and is the creator of the Rate Your Leader app. He can be reached via @JOPopoola