In Nigeria, Facebook’s Outage Reveals Dangerous Control

Tomiwa Ibukunle, a A 21-year-old businessman in Lagos, Nigeria, started his clothing and weapons business two months ago. He uses WhatsApp to advertise his business and exchange orders from customers, who receive 20 orders per day. But on October 5, when WhatsApp was all over the world (besides other Facebook platforms) for eight hours, his business did very well. “I just started my own brand, and I use WhatsApp on Business because it’s easy. But when I couldn’t find it, I started to worry because I had just put the new stuff I had and sent a few to my clients,” says Ibukunle. “I’ve finished the day with five orders, wondering where to start if WhatsApp stays down, because that’s where all my clients are.”

While Facebook’s outburst was a challenge for many users in the US and Europe, the results were felt particularly harsh in other parts of the world, where the company and its platforms are of paramount importance. In Nigeria, WhatsApp is a major means of communicating with families at home and abroad, and is also used in business. It’s over 95 percent of Nigeria 33 million media users use the platform. Having everyone on the same platform can be easy, but shutting down shows that Nigeria’s reliance on the app can be risky — and that it’s time to find some alternatives.

When WhatsApp was gone down in Nigeria, there were fears, and rumors that the project would not return. “I texted my daughter, and she never got to me. I thought it was an online affair until my nephew told me it wasn’t,” Nkechinyere Peters, who lives in Umuahia, says. “That’s when I started to worry, because WhatsApp is our main way of communicating. What if something happens and they want to call me? Or do I need help with something important?” To make matters worse, Peters heard that WhatsApp had been removed. “I believed it,” he says. “Everyone around me did.” The belief that the e-mails would never come back has made many anxious, unsure of what to do – and how to speak – if the rumors are true.

Some people with families far away from them shared the same. “My grandmother is old and sick,” says Chiamaka Eze, a Nigerian who lives in Benin. “And like her beloved granddaughter, she calls me from time to time when my parents or co-workers are not with her to help her choose drugs. But in the end, I couldn’t help her, and I was afraid she would take drugs because she was home alone.”

Consequences like this not only disrupt communication, but also put people at risk, as many important services are provided through the platform. For example, WhatsApp has a 24-hour hotline listed by Mentally Aware Nigeria for people who need advice or emergency assistance. Last year, BAIL reported over 10,000 people I have spoken to MANI since 2016.

In terms of business, WhatsApp is their favorite platform, on the Instagram and Facebook Market. WhatsApp supports business history and content lists that allow customers to know more about the products or services they want. It has become popular with entrepreneurs because customers trust the platform, as they “see the real-time stuff as we add to our status. There is also a kind of approach when we communicate in private,” says fashion designer Orji Eke. But the good news that WhatsApp for Business offers is immutable — and the businesses that rely on it are injured — as soon as the job goes down.

Atsu Davoh, CEO and founder of BitSika, a payment program that helps people send money internationally, says one company that manages WhatsApp, Instagram, and Facebook is a bomb that saves time for those who rely on this. “If we want to think of a real solution in the future,” he says, “things like this give us a good reason to set up a job in other countries.”

WhatsApp is great because a lot of people are there, but there are other ways. For people living in Nigeria, other options on the WhatsApp app include the Telegraph or Signal. The app has secrets that are not available on WhatsApp and have an open API. Home-based apps such as SoftTalk Messenger are also available. SoftTalk provides the ability to make international calls from the app, as well as have a storefront.

The shutdown suggests that Nigerians need to move to other programs, but for this to happen, there must be some good choices that are in line with what Nigerians are accustomed to. Advertisers should also provide funding for local programs and other pre-existing projects – such businesses will ensure that other options are available, and that communication is possible as soon as this happens.

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