Nigeria’s Deadly Tug Of War Over Free Expression

Muhammadu Buhari. Image: George Esiri

This article is part of the THE FREE SPEECH PROJECT, a collaboration between Future Tense and the Tech, Law, & Security Program at American University Washington College of Law that examines the ways technology is influencing how we think about speech.

)--For years, Steven Kefas was an operations manager at an environmental services company in Port Harcourt, a booming oil town at the mouth of the Niger River delta in southern Nigeria. In 2009, he signed up on Facebook just like any other young Nigerian at a time when Facebooking was the new cool. He simply wanted to post pictures. In 2010, he joined Twitter.

Now, on his Twitter profile, Kefas describes himself as an “accidental journalist,” a former “terror reporter,” and a former “political prisoner for 162 days.” He’s also become a symbol of Nigeria’s threatened press freedoms, even appearing in the U.S. State Department’s annual report on human rights in 2019. His story exemplifies Nigerian authorities’ assault on free expression.

Beginning around 2013, Kefas began to receive troubling news from Kaduna, his home state in northwest Nigeria. Loved ones were sending him accounts and photographs of bloody and sometimes fatal attacks against people in Southern Kaduna, an area occupied by mostly Indigenous agrarian communities. The killings were reportedly carried out by herdsmen, mostly members of the dominant Fulani group. Kefas began posting the news and photos on Facebook and Twitter.

Kefas told me earlier this year that he believed his social media activism forced Nigerian security agencies to become more responsive to the attacks in the region—but also made him a target. On April 5, 2018, after several years, things reached a turning point when he posted pictures of the dead bodies of two young men who had been killed in a massacre. Facebook user Comr (short for “Comrade”) Mohammed Idris, a member of Nigeria’s ruling All Progressives Congress party in Kaduna state, responded: “YOU WILL BE JAILED soon if you fail to answer some questions from security.” That same month, Kaduna Gov. Nasir Ahmad el-Rufai tweeted at him: “Dear Mr Kefas: This irresponsible and defamatory statement will require a response. So I hope when you receive from court summons, you will be able to prove your defamation? We are tracing your address for service of court processes. Help the processes by providing it early.”

While some Nigerians—and the Nigerian government—see the violence in Kaduna as a series of skirmishes over land between cattle-grazing herdsmen (the Fulani) and farmers (the Southern Kaduna people), Kefas, like many in his region, sees the killings as a form of genocide or ethnic cleansing. The situation was exacerbated in October 2018, when His Royal Highness Maiwada Raphael Galadima, the Agom Adara, the traditional ruler of the Adara people (a prominent ethnic group in Southern Kaduna), traveled to meet with the governor of Kaduna state, Mallam Nasir el-Rufai, a Fulani. The Adara chief, whose position is recognized by the Nigerian state, visited the governor to discuss the deteriorating security situation in Adara land. On his return home, he and his wife were kidnapped by suspected Fulani herdsmen. His wife was released, seven days later. But the monarch was killed—even though the Adara people had paid a ransom. Not long after, despite the warnings he received in April, Kefas published a post titled “How the Kajuru Genocide Started,” arguing that the killing was not a random criminal act but a political murder. (Kajuru is the epicenter of violent attacks against farming communities in Kaduna state.) Despite the trouble it would lead to for him, Kefas is proud of the post. “It was the first time anyone had boldly written any article with a chronicle of events that connect the dots in a way that points to the complicity of the Kaduna state government in the happenings in Southern Kaduna,” he told me in an interview. With the absence of a sanctioned press reporting comprehensively on the Southern Kaduna crisis, Kefas said he stepped into the information void and created awareness about the killings through his social media activism.

“At the peak of those killings, whenever a village is under attack, the villagers will call me instead of calling the government or calling the security agencies,” he told me.

I asked Kefas how he verified most of the sensitive information he shared, considering that he was not a trained or professional journalist.

He said that he trusted his sources, as they were credible individuals such as community leaders and traditional chiefs. “There has never been any occasion where any information given to me turned out to be false. Instead, when they tell me they have 10 casualties, at the end of the day, there may be up to 50,” he said.

On some occasions when he received distress calls from community leaders, Kefas said he could hear a staccato of gunfire in the background and screams of women and children running for their lives. “In my mobile phone that is currently with the police, I have call records with gunshots in the background, commotion and people running. In that mobile phone, there are some images that have never been shared in the public domain.” The phone has been with law enforcement since May 2019, when he was arrested and remained in detention for 162 days.

Kefas believes that his phones were tapped well before his arrest, and for a long time he refrained from using his personal device. Instead, he felt more comfortable using his work phone. Despite his precautions, he said the Nigerian police were able to find and arrest him after monitoring his phone communications with a close friend.

The same strategy has been used several times by the Nigerian police. Since 2017, there have been at least four documented cases of the Nigerian police using phone records to lure, arrest, and arraign journalists with criminal charges for their work, according to a report published by the Committee to Protect Journalists in February 2020.

When Kefas asked the detectives who came to arrest him if they had a warrant, they presented a bulky document that contained several of his tweets and Facebook posts about the Kaduna governor and developments in the state since 2017. (He says some of them were only retweets, though.)

In the petition, Kefas was accused of inciting disturbance and injurious falsehood against the governor of Kaduna state via his Twitter account @realKefason—an account now deactivated by Twitter for inactivity, during the period Kefas spent in detention.

Kefas was charged with defamation of character, injurious falsehood, inciting disturbance, and cyberstalking. Under Section 24 of Nigeria’s Cybercrimes Act, “cyberstalking”—an offense often used by Nigerian authorities to target journalists and activists under President Muhammadu Buhari’s regime—stipulates a punishment of a roughly $15,500 fine, three years of imprisonment, or both.

Social media and free expression are in crisis all over the world, but if in the United States that largely centers on calls for regulation in response to the proliferation of misinformation, in countries like Nigeria, the picture is even more complicated. On June 4, the Nigerian government banned Twitter entirely. (The ban remains in effect, though many people are getting around it by using virtual private networks.) In Nigeria, social media has been a vital source of uncensored information—such as Kefas’ posts about the atrocities in Kaduna. But the Nigerian government uses it as both a tool and a weapon to identify and punish dissent as well as to suppress undesirable speech. How Africa’s most populous nation resolves the struggle between democracy and the impulses of authoritarian rule—as well as the freedom social media can engender and the threats it can also pose—remains to be seen. But it is clear that this is a critical moment for the future of Nigeria.

Kefas is only one of several victims in the wave of civic repression that is sweeping across Nigeria, targeting activists, prominent opinion leaders, and journalists.

In November 2018, activist Deji Adeyanju was arrested and detained for criticizing officials of the Buhari regime on social media. He was subsequently rearrested and spent 78 days in detention before his release on March 1, 2019.

On Aug. 1, 2019, Abubakar Idris, a young Nigerian who often criticized Kaduna’s governor and the Buhari regime on social media, was abducted by suspected agents of the State Security Service from his residence in Kaduna. Amnesty International has said that Idris is a victim of enforced disappearance.

On Aug. 3, 2019, Omoyele Sowore—a human rights activist, founder of the online newspaper Sahara Reporters, and a presidential candidate during Nigeria’s election earlier that year—was arrested by the State Security Service after he called for a mass nationwide protest. In September 2019, he was charged with “conspiracy to commit treason” and “insulting” Buhari. Despite two separate court rulings ordering Sowore’s release from detention, the State Security Service refused to release him. Following international outrage and pressure from six U.S. lawmakers, Sowore was released on Dec. 24, 2019, albeit under strict bail conditions that bar him from leaving Abuja, the country’s capital. (He remains under these restrictions.)

On Oct. 20, 2020, during Nigeria’s #EndSARS protests against police brutality, Nigerian authorities met protesters with excessive military force, killing at least 10 people according to Amnesty International. Obianuju Catherine Udeh, popularly known as DJ Switch, livestreamed the attacks to her more than 900,000 followers on Instagram. Udeh, who said she counted at least 15 bodies of protesters shot by Nigerian security forces, has since fled Nigeria after claims she was being targeted by the authorities for her viral livestream of the violent attacks.

More recently, in January, the Nigerian government blocked access to the privately owned online newspaper Peoples Gazette after a series of reports critical of Buhari’s government.

Nigeria is currently listed in the CPJ 2021 prison census among countries where journalists are in detention. (CPJ cited the case of journalist Luka Binniyat arrested in November over a complaint by Samuel Aruwan, the Kaduna state commissioner for internal security and home affairs.)

Kefas said that social media has become the nightmare of Nigerian authorities seeking to exert absolute control over communication and information dissemination. “In Kaduna state, whenever you hear the governor speak, he is not really bothered about the terrorists that are known to be terrorizing the villages. His obsession is with social media users. And so also is the federal government.” (El-Rufai did not respond to a request for comment.)

The Nigerian situation, Kefas noted, would escalate further without any international pressure from countries like the U.S.

Unfortunately, the chances of U.S. political leaders stepping out to intervene in external circumstances are slim. “We haven’t even figured out how to address the problem in the domestic context,” Joel Simon, the executive director of the Committee to Protect Journalists, told me in an interview. “So the global context is for now, I think, completely out of reach.”

Susan Benesch, faculty associate of the Berkman Klein Center for Internet and Society at Harvard University and founder of the Dangerous Speech Project, said Kefas’ story illustrates how social media can be a force for good and a tool in the hands of governments who want to silence dissent. Social media allows activists to accomplish all kinds of things that they couldn’t without the internet. But “it’s the very same feature that allows certain governments to persecute them,” she told me in an interview.

In August 2019, during Kefas’ detention at the Kaduna Convict Prison, Kefas’ mother paid him a visit and pleaded with him to forgo his activism. But Kefas decided that he would devote his life to activism and that there was no going back. He remains active online, including on Twitter—and the attacks in Kaduna are still happening.

Although he now walks as a free man, he remains concerned about his personal safety. He remains afraid that he might meet the same fate as Abubakar Idris, who has not been seen since August 2019.

Future Tense is a partnership of Slate, New America, and Arizona State University that examines emerging technologies, public policy, and society.