Today, 14 July, 2022, in a huge win for human rights, the Community Court of Justice of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS Court) declared that Nigeria’s seven-month Twitter ban was unlawful. While the blocking, initiated by President Muhammadu Buhari in June, 2021, was lifted in January, the Court held that it violated the freedom of expression of people in Nigeria. The Court now requires the government to take steps to ensure it does not repeat similar acts of censorship in the future.
“The #KeepItOn coalition commends the ECOWAS Court for making a public stand on the impact of internet shutdowns on freedom of expression and the right to information in this win not just for Nigeria, but for people around the world impacted by censorship online,” said Natalia Krapiva, Tech Legal Counsel at Access Now. “We encourage more courts to follow ECOWAS’ lead on defending human rights of people at risk, and more lawyers to fight internet shutdowns in court.”
The Buhari administration banned Twitter in June, 2021, in evident retaliation for removing a tweet by the President which threatened violence against Igbo ethnic nationalities, severely impacting people across the country who used Twitter as a tool for communication and engagement, activism, and business.
“Strategic litigation has proven to be a powerful tool in the global fight against internet shutdowns,” said Felicia Anthonio, #KeepItOn Campaign Manager at Access Now. “From Zambia to Sudan, Togo to India — and now Nigeria — civil society has fought all the way to the highest courts to bring an end to shutdowns. Let this ECOWAS victory stand as a warning for government actors: when you interfere with our rights online, we will hold you to account.”
The complaint was filed by a number of Nigerian civil society organizations, including the Socio-Economic Rights and Accountability Project (SERAP) and Paradigm Initiative. Access Now, along with Electronic Frontier Foundation, and Open Net Association intervened with an amicus brief. The ECOWAS Court found the Twitter ban to violate both the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights and the UN Charter, and ordered the Nigerian government to take legislative steps to guarantee the rights of the plaintiffs and to pay their litigation fees.
This is not the first time the ECOWAS Court upheld the digital rights of people in West Africa. In 2020, the Court ruled that 2017 internet shutdowns in Togo were similarly unlawful.
The amici thank Sterling Solicitors and their Counsel Deji Ajare for the excellent legal assistance in this case, and Hinako Sugiyama, former Legal Fellow at Access Now, for research and drafting.