Melissa Harris-Perry: I'm Melissa Harris-Perry and this is The Takeaway. Earlier in the show, we discussed this week's Supreme Court decision affirming the free speech rights of young people, even when they direct that speech against officials in authority. Is a protection unavailable to tens of millions across the globe who live, work, create and resist without this protection.
Earlier this month, the Nigerian government banned Twitter throughout the country. The move came in the wake of a dust-up between the social media site and Nigeria's President Muhammadu Buhari. Twitter removed a tweet from the president which seemed to threaten dissidence with death by the way the president referenced the brutal civil war of the 1960s.
Shortly after the president's tweet was removed, the Nigerian federal government suspended Twitter, but be clear, there is much more at stake here than the ability to craft cute hashtags and launch pithy zingers. In many places around the world, Twitter has been a democratizing force, allowing ordinary citizens to share information, organize resistance, and draw international attention to abuses by the state.
In Nigeria last fall, young people used Twitter to reveal the brutality of the country's special anti-robbery squad with the hashtag #EndSARS. Joining me now to discuss her reporting on silencing social media and how artists in Nigeria are fighting back is Mankaprr Conteh. She's a staff writer for Rolling Stone. Mankaprr, thank you for being on The Takeaway today.
Mankaprr Conteh: Hey, Melissa, I'm really glad to be here.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Walk us through what happened between the Nigerian president and Twitter.
Mankaprr Conteh: Earlier this month, President Buhari took to Twitter to condemn recent attacks on public infrastructure that were taking place in the country's South East region. Many understood that condemnation to be a threat and so in the tweet, he evoked Nigeria civil war between separatists in the east and the military.
At the time Buhari was in the army fighting against secessionists. When the conflict ended in 1970, as many as up to 3 million people were killed, primarily of the Igbo ethnic group in the east. In the since-deleted tweet, Buhari promised to treat the people he said were misbehaving, and that's a quote, in "the language they understand". Which many saw as an implication of violence.
In my reporting at Rolling Stone, I spoke to a couple of artists on the tweets, the ban, and the way forward, and one artist, King Perryy, a 20 something-year-old musician called the statement genocidal, and so lots of Nigerians on Twitter flagged the tweet and the next day it was taken down for violating the site's policy on abusive behavior.
Melissa Harris-Perry: I want you to back up for me a little bit and talk to me about why an artist was in the middle of this, who are these artists and what is their relationship to resistance relative to the state?
Mankaprr Conteh: Going back to artists like Fela Kuti in Nigeria, there's a history of artists standing up for the rights of the people in their nation, but most recently in the End SARS movement that took place in Nigeria in October of 2020, artists who are gaining critical acclaim across the globe from Nigeria, like Burna Boy, Wizkid, Tiwa Savage participated in this youth-led movement against police brutality that ballooned into a bigger movement calling for the end of bad governance.
At the time, I was previously working at Pitchfork before joining Rolling Stone. The fact that these huge Nigerian Afropop artists were participating in this movement allowed a site like Pitchfork to amplify the movement because there was a music angle.
Now when the Twitter ban had happened, I was really interested in thinking about what artists thought should happen next and what ways they thought they should participate in a movement to encourage free speech and protest.
Melissa Harris-Perry: What does the Twitter ban look like in practice? I know you wrote a bit about some folks finding a way around it with VPNs.
Mankaprr Conteh: Following the announcement of the Twitter ban in Nigeria, Twitter became unavailable through normal means. I've read reporting that telecom companies just heeded the president's orders against making Twitter accessible. The VPNs have allowed people to move around the ban and access Twitter as they normally would.
Melissa Harris-Perry: This week reporting in CNN stated that Nigeria announced there would be talks with Twitter. What are you predicting these talks could mean for the status of the ban in Nigeria?
Mankaprr Conteh: It's hard to say. Also this week, the ECOWAS Community Court of Justice, which is a site of resolving human rights issues in West Africa also ordered that the Nigerian government not target, arrest, or prosecute anyone for the use of Twitter. A suit was brought against the Nigerian government by an NGO and concerned Nigerians in the country.
It's really hard to say what will come of the talks, but it would be really, really unfortunate considering how important Twitter and social media was in the End SARS movement and not only social movements, but in the artists that I talk to everyday life in Nigeria. Katy Perryy, who I mentioned previously, and another artist named Joe Boy, both incredible Afropop acts from the country. When I asked them what the ban meant for them as artists, they really directed me to what it meant for everyday people, people who run businesses and interact and receive new clients through Twitter, people who crowdsource funding for donations, for things that they need on the app. It would be really unfortunate if these talks between Twitter and the Nigerian government don't encourage and result in the lifting of the ban.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Can you just say just a little bit more about what the special anti-robbery squad is?
Mankaprr Conteh: The special anti-robbery squad was a unit of the Nigerian police force that young people felt particularly targeted by. They were raising claims of extortion, intimidation, harassment, and even violence, and sometimes reportedly fatal violence at the hands of the special anti-robbery squad.
After the End SARS movement or in the midst, rather, of the End SARS movement, the government announced the disbanding of the squad, but there were reports that people who were employed by it would just be filtered into other units of the Nigerian police force. That disbanding didn't necessarily satisfy the protestors.
Melissa Harris-Perry: All right. Now I want you to just pause and give me a little bit of Rolling Stone here. Tell me a bit more about the music itself. What does it sound like and how is it impacting the world?
Mankaprr Conteh: Growing up as a Sierra Leonean American, African music, West African music, and even particularly Nigerian music, with Nigeria being an extremely populous country in Africa, having a large entertainment sector, has really defined so much of my experience and so much of the experience of other Black and African people in the country, in the US and in the diaspora.
Nigerian Afropop can sound like R&B. It can sound like house and dance music. It can sound more traditional. It can be really instrumental. It can be programmed to be electronic. It's so hard to describe it in one way, but I know in my personal experience, it makes me feel really seen and connected to my Africanness.
The world, in recent years, has really caught on. Spotify just became available in many, many more African countries than in previous years and months. I think that's a testament to the way that people across the world want to access this music and people on the continent especially want to access it more easily.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Mankaprr Conteh is a staff writer for Rolling Stone. Mankaprr, thank you for taking the time.
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