Nigeria’s indefinite Twitter ban was a blow to the nation, but one TV presenter saw it coming well in advance — because it happened to him first.
ORBACH 1: It all started with a tweet.
((Sound: Music in))
ORBACH 2: On June 1st, Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari tweeted to his 4 million followers a message many interpreted as violent. It referenced Nigeria’s 1960s civil war and said that those misbehaving, basically regional secessionists whom he blames for recent attacks in the south-east, will be treated quote in a language they understand. On June 2nd, Twitter removed the tweet. And then, the big one…
((Sound: “Nigeria’s government says it’s banning Twitter indefinitely.” + other news sites))
ORBACH 3: The news sparked outrage both in Nigeria and abroad. I went to a demonstration outside of the Nigerian consulate here in New York City to hear from protesters.
((Sound: “Are we happy? NO. Are we happy? NO!”))
((Sound: ADEYEMI 1: Thank you all for coming out. It’s summer. People have stuff to do this weekend. You could be anywhere else.))
ORBACH 4: What do you make of the Twitter ban?
PROTESTER 1: It’s ridiculous. it’s unconstitutional for a president of a country to do that. We are a democratic nation. That is showing that the president wants to move into the angle of fascism into dictatorship. And we don’t want that and we will not allow that.
ADEYEMI 2: The sign says, “fuck Nigerian politics and screw the president” because they’re screwing us as citizens. I think the Twitter ban is a no-no for me, and the president needs to lift the ban as soon as possible. It’s a breach of the Constitution.
ABRAHAM 1: We’re here to stage a peaceful protest to amplify the voices of people back home that have been oppressed — their voices have been silenced by the government.
((Sound: PROTESTER 2: Keep it. On. Keep it. On. No retreat. No surrender. No retreat. No surrender.))
ORBACH 5: The Twitter ban was the latest act of authoritarianism by a Buhari government … few understand this more deeply, or more personally, than Ohimai Amaize, the first victim of the Nigerian government’s social media crackdown.
In fact, back in 2015 he predicted this would happen. He tweeted, quote: “Dear Nigerian youth: This freedom that you have to express yourself the way you like will be taken from you under a Buhari presidency!”
Amaize was a popular news presenter and commentator in Nigeria. His Twitter handle was MrFixNigeria, nodding to his work trying to ‘fix Nigeria’ through open, progressive discourse. But in 2019, he had to flee Nigeria. He now lives in New York City on asylum. And the reason he had to flee Nigeria?
[cut to tape of his show, then describe the public, progressive, sometimes critical of the govt show he hosted]
((SOUND: Kakaaki Social intro))
ORBACH 6: At 33, Amaize became the face of Kakaaki Social, a daily, 20-minute news show that aired the voices and opinions of everyday Nigerians. It’d take people’s social media posts, often highly critical of the government, and talk about them on television.
While most of Nigeria’s 200 million people have a TV, only about half have internet access, so not everyone was tuned into the lively political debates happening on Twitter.
AMAIZE 4: For the first time, you had a TV program that curated the opinions of Nigerians on social media, and presented them on television in a way that reached audiences that were not even on social media. A conservative estimate would put it at 20 million viewers every day.
ORBACH 7: So you had 10% of the population of Nigeria watching your show every morning?
AMAIZE 5: Watching my show every morning.
ORBACH 8: Wow.
AMAIZE 6: Right. Just as much as the positive recognition came, you also had a security risk that came with it: People who didn’t like the program, because they felt it put the current president in the bad spotlight. It basically put me in the spotlight of the entire country.
ORBACH 9: It would include tweets that directly addressed the police force and criticized Buhari.
((Sound: AMAIZE 7: [inaudible] said, ‘so you want me to vote for a president who doesn’t know when he came into office again?))
Even though the show was popular, it lasted for only a little under a year, between August 2018 and June 2019. Its cancellation was a calculated process months in the making.
AMAIZE 8: Within two months of the program premiering on air, the government regulators sent a letter of warning to my network, saying “we recognize you’ve just started this new TV program, we want you to be very careful, we know you’re taking stuff from social media. You have to be careful.”
ORBACH 10: In January 2019, Amaize received another letter from the government. This time, directed squarely at him.
AMAIZE 8: It was a severe reprimand, where they were literally almost threatening me.
ORBACH 11: Amaize’s crime? Laughing at a tweet about President Buhari.
((Sound: AMAIZE 9: Quite interesting. The parody account of President Buhari…))
AMAIZE 10: When that came, it was clear that those guys were not going to let this program exist for long.
ORBACH 12: Amaize was right. “Technical difficulties” kept happening. The network signals would disappear right before the show. And they’d return right after the time slot ended. Amaize knew the government was behind all this.
AMAIZE 11: That was when I started really getting really scared about my personal safety, knowing that the government was that concerned to interfere with the network signals of my TV station.
ORBACH 13: Amaize’s scariest affair, though, had yet to come. He received another letter from the government. This one accusing him of treason. Soon after, he received a tip that he was penciled in for arrest.
AMAIZE 12: That is the thing with Nigeria. You can’t rely on the legal system to fight. Otherwise I would have stayed back to fight it. This is a president who removed a supreme court justice.
ORBACH 14: In June 2019, Amaize fled for his life to the United States. Instead of covering the news, this time he was the news. His departure was all over local media.
[beat since we’re switching gears]
As of September, Amaize has been a Master of Arts student at Columbia Journalism School and the recipient of a university scholarship for displaced students. And while President Buhari’s Twitter ban from last month is still in effect, Amaize worries about his compatriots back home.
AMAIZE 13: A lot of Nigerians feel a sense of helplessness about what is going on in their country. And the only thing that gives them a glimmer of hope, is that they can tweet at the US president’s handle and they can tweet at the foreign government to say, “hey, call our government to come hold our government to account.” So that’s what Twitter means for a lot of it’s like the last hope is like a last resort. So when you take Twitter from young Nigerians or for Nigerians in general, you’re practically telling them that there’s nothing else they can do. And it’s it’s it’s, I can’t even imagine it. It’s like being in a black hole where you are crying out and nobody hears you.
ORBACH 15: Twitter is more than just social media; for Nigerians, it’s a constitutional right. Taking it away ruins the lives of small business-owners and social media marketers, but also of those who simply want to be heard.
As Martin Luther King Jr. said in 1963, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere… Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.”
Amaize knew that when his voice was silenced, the rest would follow. While the ban shows no signs of letting up, with their VPNs and resourcefulness, neither do many Nigerians.