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Nigeria #TwitterBan: RFKHR, SERAP host Twitter Spaces on ECOWAS court ruling

On July 15, Nigerians on social media converged on a Twitter Spaces conversation organized by the Social Economic Rights Accountability Project (SERAP) and Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights to discuss details of a ruling by the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) Community Court of Justice that declared last summer’s Twitter ban by the Nigerian government to be unlawful. Ikechukwu Uzoma, RFKHR Africa Staff Attorney; Kolawole Oluwadare, Deputy Director, SERAP; and Mojirayo Ogunlana-Nkanga, Principal Counsel, M.O.N. Legal, were panelists at the conversation titled, “They Can’t Silence Us: The Implications of ECOWAS Court Judgement.”

Setting the tone for the discussion, Nigerian broadcast journalist Sandra Ezekwesili, who moderated the conversation, described the ECOWAS court ruling as a significant milestone that was not easy to achieve. “There were lots of people, lots of organizations that put a lot of time, energy and resources into pushing this case to the end,” she said.

RFKHR’s Uzoma provided some context on why the ECOWAS court was able to rule on the case, despite push back from the Nigerian government that the court lacked jurisdiction. He said that the court has an explicit human rights jurisdiction in the West Africa sub-region. He highlighted a unique feature of the court, that, unlike other continental and sub-regional legal institutions that require litigants to first exhaust local remedies in their home countries, the ECOWAS court does not have that requirement. At the time of the ban, Uzoma said that the courts in Nigeria were on strike. “That meant that if we couldn’t approach the ECOWAS court, there was no other court we could go to.”

In January, the Nigerian government lifted the ban on Twitter. Human rights lawyer Ogunlana-Nkanga explained how the government’s legal team tried to dismiss the case on the pretext that it was no longer in existence and had become an academic exercise. “At no point in time was it an academic exercise because we are talking about a government deciding to shut a space that has given a lot of Nigerians the right to express themselves,” she said. “The court had to make it clear that even if it was 24 hours or less than 24 hours that Nigeria took that arbitrary action, then there was a violation.”

The Nigeria Twitter ban case was filed by SERAP and other organizations, including Media Rights Agenda and Media Defence. RFKHR participated in the case as amicus curiae. Oluwadare recounted the hostility of the Nigerian government in the wake of the court case, even as some Nigerians defied the ban and continued to access Twitter. “If you recall clearly, the attorney-general of the federation had come out that time to say that Nigerians that were using VPNs to access Twitter will be prosecuted,” he said. “I can’t really say we were surprised, looking at the actions of government. Both the executive and legislature have given clear indications that they really do not like freedom of expression.”

In its July 14 ruling, the ECOWAS court ordered the Nigerian government to “take necessary steps to align its policies and other measures to give effect to the rights and freedoms” protected by the law.