#TwitterBan and the Techno-Politics of VPNs

Before the Nigerian state announced its Twitter ban on Friday, June 4, 2021, it was commonplace among internet users disenchanted by Nigerian economic conditions to speak of migrating to countries in the Global North. Canada became the most mythologized of these Western locations in internet discourses, becoming the subject of many a meme and comic social media post. Of course, for the mostly middle-class Nigerian population that is online, there exists the material reality of limited means to actually leave the country, with Canada and elsewhere lingering forever as a dream deferred. Until Nigeria decided to indefinitely ban Twitter.

With Twitter’s deplatforming of Donald Trump very much in the global media memory, the ban came after the social media company deleted a tweet from the Nigerian president’s account for violating its rules. In its official statement banning the company—itself posted on Twitter—the Nigerian government pointed to “the persistent use of the platform for activities that are capable of undermining Nigeria’s corporate existence.” Twitter, in the words of the country’s information minister, is essentially “the platform of choice to destabilize Nigerians,” a reference to Biafran seperatist politics. The “persistent use” argument became a reason for the violation of the online free speech of many Nigerians, an effect which also prompted the EU, US, and Canada to voice concerns over the decision.

Photo: Petter Lagson

That said, virtual private networks, or VPNs, have helped many Twitter users to circumvent what the government later termed “a temporary” suspension of the tech giant. This highlights the political dimensions and potentials of digital technologies, especially in a Nigerian context with some of the most active social media users in Africa. The techno-politics of the VPN means that activists and other netizens who express their views on Twitter, Facebook, and other public platforms can conceal their IP addresses—which would otherwise make them locatable—behind those of their VPN servers. Meanwhile, internet service providers are left in the dark about users’ actual internet activities and locations. While VPNs offer immediate solutions to a government-regulated internet, they also happen to make the dreams of travel possible for many would-be immigrants. As people physically present in Nigeria excitedly share tweets ostensibly from Canada, Germany, and other parts of the world, they are finally able to realize their dreams of leaving Nigeria behind. Well, at least metaphorically.  

Metaphors aside, there are real-world consequences to the resistance politics of the VPN. As the Nigerian government threatens to persecute digital subjects who bypass censorship and government-controlled internet networks, it recalls the state’s previous efforts to limit the purported spread of misinformation online. While fake news and misinformation are rife in Nigeria as elsewhere, this specific reason is actually an ideological façade for the government’s perennial, compulsive desire to regulate social media more generally. Never mind that the Buhari administration is notorious for what is regarded by many as a digital propaganda arm, the Buhari Media Centre (BMC) which is charged specifically to spread disinformation online.

The control of social media is why the Nigerian government reached out to the Cyberspace Administration of China to discuss plans to build an internet firewall. Like the popular Great Firewall of China, a separate Nigerian internet would give the government unfettered control over social media platforms—but there are even more disturbing implications. The alliance with China makes more legible the authoritarian dimensions of Nigeria’s president, Muhammadu Buhari, a former military dictator whose human rights record is less than stellar. Anyone who cares about civil society, free speech, and human rights must find the state’s digital silencing of its citizens worrisome. If the state succeeds in building firewalls and disrupting the protection that VPNs offer its netizens, future protests, both online and on the streets, will no doubt be different and potentially violent. 

This is aside from curtailing the gains made in a country where about half of the population are still digitally disconnected. Besides the fact that the internet is a great tool for political mobilization and participation in Nigeria, it is also an important space for cultural netizenship, that is, the comedic and artistic use of memes, cartoons, and other web images to circulate political and cultural perspectives online. Even more crucial are the entrepreneurial possibilities of digital citizenship. In a country with limited youth employment, governmental control of digital platforms potentially imperils a large number of innovative young people who rely on the internet to confront their economic precarity. As of January 2021, there were 104.4 million internet users in Nigeria; the country’s internet users increased by 19 million (+22%) between 2020 and 2021. The Twitter ban, the drive to block VPNs, and the efforts to further regulate Nigeria’s digital ecosystems more broadly will inevitably limit many of these users and the economic agency they find online.

To be clear, VPNs have always been central to global politics of resistance in the age of the internet. Moreover, in recent years, we have seen the intense politicization of these networks, from Hong Kong to Myanmar and now Nigeria. For instance, the private networks are the infrastructural basis for the deliberate subversion of government’s threat to punish anyone who breaks the Twitter ban law—which, frankly, is not constitutional. Many not only used VPN to continue the business of tweeting as usual, but have been mentioning government officials, public figures and politicians in tweets, while calling out government agencies who remained on the platform.

The political dimensions to VPNs also include how the networks made legible the marginality of oppressed communities. That many Nigerian netizens are able to tweet in Nigeria from, for example, the “United States” can often translate into an amplification of local Twitter trends in global online ecologies. With VPNs, therefore, resistance to structural inequalities and the suppression of dissenting voices become potentially more visible beyond local geographies since specifically regional hashtags can circulate literally from and in transnational contexts. The point here is that VPNs embed and disseminate politics, signaling more attention to how digital media and technology broadly become implicated in either the consolidation or disruption of power structures.

While digital subjects have always used VPNs in Nigeria before now, a senseless ban has given way to a new dimension of VPN culture that implicates it as a technology of resistance. And here is the stake of the Twitter ban and the various techo-political contestations around it: Nigeria’s entanglements with China mark the country’s government as an analog entity struggling to limit the power of its digital citizens. The state may eventually block VPNs, with or without China, but the resilience of its digitally savvy will still prevail. Meanwhile, travelling to Canada remains the goal of many who wish to flee Nigeria’s digital politics.

*A version of this article earlier appeared on Africa is a country.

Language and the Lagos Men That Become Useless

He is about to slump before her, overpowered by the strong hands that knot a grip around his neck. He struggles to fight back, seeking redemption in the eyes of onlookers in their face-me-I-face-you bungalow in the heart of Oshodi in Lagos. Before his erratic punches could land on her, she lets go of his shirt, stepping away from him but sending back a torrent of words that sting him: “Useless man! Useless man.” She claps her hands in triumphant mockery, summoning some artsy ululations to accompany the refrain of those biting words: useless man!  Anyone who grew up in Lagos has probably been in one of these scenes that reverse power dynamics and reveal a woman who achieves some rhetorical power over an abusive man, or if not, you may do some catching up by revisiting many a Nollywood film that thematically centers questions of use, usefulness, and uselessness. You may start with this movie, or this, or even this.  

But what does it mean to be a useless man? As evident in my opening anecdote, the intimacies of marriage sometimes produce the conditions for the emergence of a man that gets to be described as useless, but even more fascinating are the everyday discourses in the public arena that also manifest the various strains of the useful and useless, with specific socioeconomic and cultural indices underlying both. If, by now, you are already thinking of Sara Ahmed’s What’s the Use?, you are right on the money. The conditions under which “a useless man” becomes legible has been the most nagging question of my encounter with this very provocative book.

Ahmed explores what she calls an archive of use, exploring use as a technique of differentiation that produces subjects, shaping worlds and bodies. She undertakes an interdisciplinary and genealogical analysis of use, showing how “using,” “usable,” “in use” and “out of use,” “overused,” and “used up,” are expressions that are all entangled in an intimate relation that is historically significant in their discursive and complex associations. As use shapes people’s encounters with the world, it emerges rhetorically as a trace which invites further activities or inactions.

Deploying theoretical frameworks that mostly center queer and disability politics, she investigates the philosophical, economic, and material foundations of use, usefulness and even the useless. How use is used among scholars and how the idea of using or not being able to use or access spaces embody specific values we often take for granted. As she writes, for instance, “Doors are not just physical things that swing on hinges; they are mechanisms that enable an opening and a closing.”  Doors as objects have cultural and political uses that shape human relations and spaces.

I particularly like the ways in which Ahmed shows the usefulness of the useless thing or person, which as she reveals in the image of the willful killjoy—the disruptive, the queer, the racialized—is visible through the politics, histories, and performative underpinnings of statements of use. Of course, whether something or someone is useful or useless is a statement of judgment that is tied to value and as Ahmed shows, uselessness tends to be a leaky judgment. She writes that “the judgement of uselessness is useful: it allows something or someone to be made responsible for that which is not working, for the transformation of “a useful instrument” into “a useless bauble” or “a man of genius” into “an idiot.” You will have to read Ahmed’s book for a direct examination of her arguments, but her ideas, like I noted earlier, returned another type of the useless subject to my mind.

So, to return to my opening question, what does it mean to be a useless man in postcolonial Lagos? Of course, I might, and not because I grew up in the city, argue that there are more decent men in Lagos than there are the useless; we all know every city of the world has its useless men, but I am at this moment thinking of the specific accents of men who become useless. To paraphrase that immortal line by Simone de Beauvoir, one is not born, but rather becomes, a useless man.

Babatunde Olajide. Unsplash

Becoming useless in Lagos comes in different shades. From being or becoming economically unviable to sexually virile, uselessness emerges as a social construct that is rooted in cultural understandings of gender in the city. Take for instance, common scenarios of gender violence in a popular danfo in urban Lagos. Danfos are the ubiquitous, privately-owned yellow passenger vans that travel fixed routes in the city. While a danfo’s brokendownness and its driver’s penchant for risky driving are common aspects of the social and cultural repertoire of the danfo experience, the identities of the driver and his assistant (conductor) are often tied to verbal abuses of women. Some drivers spew drivels and sexually demeaning statements on female passengers, leaving them vulnerable as objects of ridicule.

One common response to such behavior is to be termed a useless man, usually a backlash against expressions of toxic masculinity. Or think about a danfo driver that drives off or attempts to while a female passenger is either alighting or getting on a bus is generally perceived as a useless man. While this behavior is not definitive of all danfo drivers, there appears to be an innate aggression to the experience of being a commercial bus driver in Lagos, an aggression that warrants the capacity to discursively mobilize language as an instrument of assault.

But danfo drivers or not, some men will normally be termed useless in aggressive confrontations with women, especially assertive, good-looking, and well-dressed women that challenge their patriarchal sensibilities. The woman’s class and gender become the intersectional premise of her assault; hence she mentally programs her hostile male interlocutor as a useless man.  At the slightest provocation, some of these men, disturbed by the growing power of women in society, would even call such women an “ashawo” (a prostitute), to which the women might respond with “useless men!”  It is not uncommon to hear men push back at this attribution. A popular retort is, “I have your type at home.” This loaded statement can be summed as the effort of the man of fragile ego to reclaim some power by invoking his marital connections as an insignia of domination over women who dare to speak back and challenge their cultural authority.

To give one final example, popular narratives of restaurant spaces are hardly complete without tales of men who, after eating, either refuse to pay or try to beat down an already established price. The women who serve in these eateries would normally regard these men as useless. Actually, the belligerence is not just rhetorical; it can also manifest as physical assault in restaurants where vicious men have the habit of hitting on women and going as far as hitting their buttocks. Implicated, therefore, in the cultural politics and social meanings of the buttocks in Lagos restaurants are men whose uselessness provokes the silent cursing of waitresses who may not be able to push back at such indecencies because of their economic precariousness and loyalty to female bosses who expect them to perform erotic subservience.

The norms of these spaces require that mostly young girls present themselves as desirable to men, present their bodies as objects to be spanked against their volition, as men enjoy the stolen pleasures of power and class. That way, these men easily return to the restaurants some other time, knowing there is little repercussions for their unwanted sexual advances. That is, until some of these women emerge from the shadows of silence and loudly assigning the spiteful category of the useless to the men in question. That crucial moment of refusal—when a woman describes a man who seeks to exercise dominion over her as useless may be imagined as a reassertion of rhetorical power that affronts the persistence of hegemonic masculinity in a society that still relishes the patriarchy.

This ability to finally speak back, recover the self through language and subjectivize a man as useless is what Ahmed might call a killjoy moment of feminism that arrests a horrid articulation of toxic masculinity in the public arena. As the performance of gender becomes bound up with people’s encounter with public spaces and the assertion of hegemonic culture, language is often one means of reclaiming agency, of disrupting oppressive gender systems. And as Ahmed argues, “if uselessness is what stops the whole thing from working, eliminating uselessness can be morally justified as the restoration of functionality.” If the assertion of uselessness proscribes the workings of patriarchal culture, the restoration of a more functional society that respects women us contingent on women’s ability to challenge useless men and their gendered practices.

In this power of language to interpellate, we may see that even uselessness has some use in its denunciation of patriarchal culture. That is a useful idea and women should use uselessness more. So why does this matter at all, or what are the stakes of a lengthy blog post on men that become useless? A social environment in which women are continually vulnerable to the violence of oppressive masculine culture needs to be seen for what it is. Useless.