How a man from Peckham caused Nigeria to shut down Twitter
Biafran separatist leader Nnamdi Kanu, center, speaks to his lawyers in the federal court in Abuja, Nigeria Friday January 29, 2016 - AP
Supporters see him as a returning hero of liberation, who is reliving a long-lost dream of an African nationality from his apartment in the far south of London. Critics see him as a dangerous insurgent who belongs behind bars.
Like or loathe him, though few would argue that Nnamdi Kanu has come a long way since he ran Radio Free Biafra from a council house in Peckham.
The 52-year-old, who leads the campaign to revive the former breakaway state of Biafra, sparked President Muhammadu Buhari's extraordinary decision two weeks ago to ban 200 million Nigerians from using Twitter.
Nigeria's President Muhammadu Buhari - AFP
This, in turn, has sparked a worldwide dispute over freedom of expression that has swept everyone from Silicon Valley tech giants to ex-US President Donald Trump - not to mention the millions of Twitter users in Nigeria.
Mr Kanu, who is also a UK national, started Radio Free Biafra a decade ago when he was living in London. The web-based pirate radio station is committed to restoring the short-lived Republic of Biafra, which separated from the rest of Nigeria in 1967 and sparked a civil war that claimed a million lives.
He returned to Nigeria in 2015, where he then skipped bail on allegedly trumped-up charges of treason. As a refugee, he leads the banned Indigenous Peoples of Biafra separatist group (IPOB), whose armed arm, the Eastern Security Network, is accused of attacking Nigerian security forces.
He regards multi-ethnic Nigeria as a "zoo" and explains: "We want a free and independent Biafra or death."
Such shock-jock rhetoric infuriated Mr. Buhari, a stern ex-general who fought on the government side in the Biafran War. On June 2, the president tweeted a blunt warning to the separatists, saying, "Those of us who have been in the fields for 30 months and been through the war will treat them in the language we understand."
To Mr. Buhari's anger, Twitter then deleted his post, saying he was violating its "Abusive Conduct" policy. Two days later, the president banned Twitter entirely from Nigeria, sparking protests from its own citizens and freedom fighters around the world.
Mr Buhari defended the decision, insisting that Mr Kanu used his own Twitter with 300,000 followers "to instruct his loyalists to kill Nigerian soldiers and police officers."
The government blames the armed wing of IPOB for the rising tide of lawlessness in recent months around their stronghold in the former Biafra region in southeastern Nigeria. Police officers were killed, government buildings attacked, and in April more than 1,800 prisoners fled a mass prison in the city of Owerri.
A day after Mr Buhari announced the Twitter ban, the platform also deleted a tweet from Mr Kanu's account. It said: “Any army you send to #Biafraland will die there. No one will return alive. ”Mr Kanu was also banned from Facebook in February after posting a video allegedly showing a pro-Biafran militia killing cattle of Fulani herders
Mr Buhari's Twitter ban was praised by Donald Trump, who himself was thrown from Twitter for claiming his posts contributed to the riots in the U.S. Capitol in January.
"Congratulations to Nigeria, which has just banned Twitter because it banned its president," he said.
However, critics claim that Mr Buhari overreacted to the Twitter ban and censored a social media tool used for advertising by 40 million Nigerians as well as many companies.
They claim the real reason for the ban was Twitter's role in the #EndSARS protests against police brutality, which saw huge street demonstrations last year over the attacks by Nigeria's Special Anti-Robbery Squad. Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey encouraged donations to one of the leading organizational groups.
Mr Buhari argues that California tech moguls need not grapple with the aftermath of such protests, to which police have reacted violently.
"We have not forgotten that #EndSARS resulted in the deaths of 37 police officers, six soldiers and 57 civilians while destroying billions of naira worth of real estate," his spokesman said.
With Boko Haram still running amok in northeastern Nigeria, and a flurry of bandits and mass kidnappings in the northeast, government officials say they cannot afford Mr Kanu to stir up another armed riot in Biafra.
Nonetheless, many Nigerians point out that Mr Kanu and IPOB are minor compared to the security threats in northern Nigeria that have claimed thousands of lives.
Andrew Obuoforibo, a Nigerian political analyst and podcaster, told The Telegraph: “Buhari pays far less attention to other more violent groups than Kanu and IPOB. I think he just used Kanu as an excuse to ban Twitter because Jack Dorsey donated money to the #endSARS protest.
"If Mark Zuckerberg had also donated money, Facebook could also be banned in Nigeria."
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