In northern Nigeria, criticizing policies on social media can lead to jail

An air of pop music rises from the small courtyard hidden at the end of an alley in Gwale, a popular district of the large Muslim city of Kano, in the north of the Nigeria. It’s still early morning in December 2022, but Mubarak Muhammad and his two brothers are already hunched over their mixing desk. Music production is one of the many activities of the young man of 25, hyperactive on the Internet.

“I am also an actor, video director and creator of humorous content”, he lists. His bedroom and the adjoining courtyard serve as the backdrop for the sketches that the young man regularly posts on social networks under the pseudonym Unique Pikin. With his gentle gaze under his traditional Hausa hat, it’s hard to imagine that his pranks recently landed him in jail.

“It was a video we posted on TikTok five years ago that got us in trouble,” blows Mubarak Muhammad, who has more than 830,000 subscribers on this social network. In the offending sketch, Unique Pikin and his comrade Nazifi Muhammad suggested that the local governor, Abdullahi Umar Ganduje, has a habit of grabbing land in the region to sell it for gold. But faced with a deluge of negative comments, they removed the video only “a minute or two after uploading it “. Too late. It had already gone viral and was still circulating recently as local and presidential elections loom.

Those who dare step out of line

Summoned by the police on October 26, the two acolytes spent several days in detention, before being brought before a judge. Found guilty of defamation of the governor of Kano State, they had to pay a fine of 20,000 naira (42 euros) for disturbing public order and they received twenty strokes of the cane, administered on the spot.

For human rights lawyer Abba Hikima, who works regularly with Amnesty International in Kano, “this trial was held in an atmosphere not conducive to the proper conduct of justice”. He denounces, among other things, the “bullying” suffered by Unique Pikin and his comrade, a lack of legal representation and the absence of a medical certificate confirming that they were fit to receive corporal punishment.

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In Nigeria’s conservative north, social media users are quick to denounce and harass those who dare to step out of line. When he tried to support Unique Pikin, “tiktoker” Ali Nuradeen, aka Badoo, was met with a flood of hateful comments that quickly forced him to back down. Despite his patter and his 5 million subscribers on the Chinese social network, Badoo avoids political commentary to focus on light and wordless sketches.

“There is a real cultural and generational gap. Here, the real influencers are the mullahs and the preachers! », he says. Anxious to preserve his reputation and his income, the almost thirty-year-old has also chosen to abandon Twitter completely after facing charges of blasphemy on the social network, a crime punishable by death in the Muslim state of Kano.

“Vulnerability of the population”

For lawyer Abba Hikima “lack of education and a particularly low literacy rate” in this part of the country explain the vulnerability of the population, which “never has the reflex to defend himself in the event of abuse”. A statement shared by Baba Azare, whose 23-year-old nephew was arrested a few months after posting a derogatory tweet targeting the first lady of Nigeria, Aisha Buhari, a Hausa, originally from the north of the country, like the head of state. , Muhammadu Buhari.

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In June, in the midst of a university strike, Aminu Mohamed posted a photo of the president’s wife with this comment in the Hausa language: “Mama gained weight by eating poor people’s money. » On November 18, 2022, he was arrested by the secret police in his student residence at Jigawa University, a state neighboring Kano. “He was then taken directly to the presidential palace in Aso Rock, Abuja, without his family being informed”, recalls Baba Azare. On November 27, Amnesty International demands the release of the young man, who suffered abuse during his “unlawful detention” according to the NGO. The Nigerian press soon revealed that Aisha Buhari had filed a complaint for defamation and that she even participated in the beating in person.

“In the North, we are guided by Islamic principles of decency, respect for elders and tradition”

A solidarity movement is then organized on social networks, where thousands of users relay in English the message which led to the arrest of Aminu Mohamed and his indictment. “On closer inspection, it is mainly people from the south who have stepped up to defend it”, says lawyer Abba Hikima. The case quickly takes a more political turn, with in particular a call for national mobilization, launched by one of the main student unions in the country, to demand the release of the young man. Faced with these increasingly concrete threats, Aisha Buhari ended up withdrawing her complaint on 1er December.


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Perhaps the first lady remembered that it was on Twitter that the #Endsars movement began a little over two years ago against police violence and bad governance in Nigeria? This historic mobilization of youth had spread to the cities of the country, before being bloodily repressed by the security forces, who fired on a peaceful gathering on October 20, 2020 in Lagos.

“The variable is religion”

In his office at the Faculty of Communication at Bayero University in Kano, Professor Uba Abdallah Adamu is finalizing an intervention on the use of social networks in Islamic culture. “The variable is religion”, he says straight away. “In the North, we are guided by Islamic principles of decency, respect for elders and tradition. Of course we accept technology! Of course our young people can go on the Internet. But they must always comply with Islamic law, which notably requires respect for mothers, like Aisha Buhari. »

Professor Adamu also defends the suspension of Twitter in Nigeria, between June and November 2021. Access to the social network was blocked shortly after the deletion of two tweets by President Muhammadu Buhari. The Head of State – whose second term is coming to an end – had threatened to “deal with a language they understand” those responsible for violence in southeastern Nigeria, reviving the memory of the Biafra war, which left a million dead in the country in the late 1960s.

A message considered a call for hatred by Twitter, which therefore withdrew it. “They didn’t take the context into account,” sweeps away Uba Abdallah Adamu, who considers that this suspension did not go against the freedom of expression of Nigerians, but “aimed to protect the country against the excesses of social networks. »

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In northern Nigeria, criticizing policies on social media can lead to jail

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