Across Africa, citizens using social media to battle for democracy
In 2001 the African Union (AU) was established, succeeding the Organisation of African Unity (OAU). The change signaled a shift in political will for a continental unity for dealing with common challenges such as economic rebuilding, growth, democracy, social cohesion, peace and stability. Modeled on the European Union, the AU also hoped to showcase Africa as a significant player in global affairs. To date, some regions have made progress toward the democratisation process.
Up to 12 out of 15 countries in West Africa can arguably be described as democracies after having successfully held elections which saw the peaceful transfer of power. Freedom House in its annual report on freedom around the world indexes countries progress in political rights and civil liberties. The 2016 Freedom in World report singled out Ivory Coast, Liberia and Nigeria (all in West Africa) among countries with largest improvements in political rights and civil liberties. Similarly, the rigorous yet prestigious good governance award for former African heads of states established in 2006 has been won four times: Joaquim Chissano (Mozambique) in 2007, Festus Mogae (Botswana) in 2008, Pedro Pires (Cape Verde) in 2011, and Hifikepunye Pohamba (Namibia) in 2014. The Mo Ibrahim Prize by Sudanese millionaire, Mo Ibrahim was set up to “celebrate excellence in African leadership” with strict criteria such as strengthening democracy through transparent elections and human rights.
— Mo Ibrahim Fdn (@Mo_IbrahimFdn) June 21, 2016
Despite the modest progress in democracy registered around the continent, the changes at the turn of the century have not had so much impact in a continent rife with political instability. From Angola to Zimbabwe (A to Z) all African countries have experienced one form of political instability or the other. Since the emergence of independence from colonialism in the 1950s, the continent has witnessed over 200 successful and failed coups. Sub Saharan Africa is famous not just for coup de’tats but it is home to most of the world’s longest-serving heads of states and governments. The United States will celebrate its 240th independence anniversary in July 2016 with a 44th president in office. When President Obama boasts of being the leader of “the world’s oldest democracy”, he may not realise that the combined time in office of only Africa’s top ten longest-serving presidents have covered the entire history of American democracy. Many blame the political woes of Africa on the effects of slave trade and colonialism meted on the continent by Western “invaders” and “imperialists”. But more than half a century of socalled political independence for most countries, Africa is still synonymous to poverty, hunger, conflict and political instability. Political opposition in many African countries is highly fragmented, news media is utterly weak and civil society severely underfunded. But with the rising popularity of information and communication technology tools, many in Africa have now turned to social media to battle for democracy.
Social media trends
The Internet and digital technologies in general have the potential to enhance political participation. The use of social media as a communication tool is well established. Some scholars argue that social media is now an integral part of our daily lives, affecting various aspects of our living: social, economic and political. All over the world, not less in Africa, the internet—and in particular social media—has become a useful tool for ordinary citizens (the general public) to express their views and opinions.
In October 2015, university students from across South Africa launched a civil engagement on hiking students’ fees. The students-led movement started when students at the University of Witwatersrand called for a decrease in students’ fees and an increase in staff wages. Through the #FeesMustFall hashtag, (which became the second most popular in South Africa at the end of 2015), the movement spread across the country. The movement eventually led to a national shutdown of universities, prompting President Jacob Zuma to announce that there would be no tuition increments for the 2016 academic year.
Similarly in Uganda, in the run up to the presidential elections in February 2016, many netizens took to social media to share their views and opinions. The hashtag: #UgandaDecides became popular and on Election Day the Uganda Communications Commission (UCC) initiated a 24-hour social media shutdown. The shutdown according to the government was a “security matter” but rights groups condemned the move as an attempt to silence the masses. But the effort to cut off people did not go well. Users turned to Virtual Private Network (VPN) tools to access social media amid the shutdown. Social media turned out to be extremely popular and according to experts over one million VPNs were downloaded during the course of the shutdown which lasted for four days. Furthermore, many countries in the region such the Gambia, use single gateway giving government absolute power to shut down the entire Internet at will. Chad, Congo and Ethiopia have all cracked down on social media users during elections. And more recently, Ghana, considered a role model in democratic practice in the region shocked the world when the country’s police chief announced government’s intention to shut the Internet during presidential elections slated for November 2016.
In April 2016, rare protests broke in The Gambia demanding for electoral reforms and the resignation of longtime ruler, President Yahya Jammeh. The first protest led by opposition youth-activists was quickly crushed by security forces loyal to Jammeh. However, following news of the death in detention of one of the protesters, an unprecedented wave of protests started. Through the hashtag: #GambiaRising and other logistics and coordination, many more joined the protests, which turned bloody from across the country. From April to date Gambian authorities have successfully crushed all the ensuing protests after detaining over 100 people including leader of the main opposition, United Democratic Party (UDP).
Sanna Camara, a Gambian journalist describes how popular social media is in the country and beyond.
Internet penetration in Africa
Technological innovations in Africa are seen as almost impossible as the continent is said to be home to one of the most disconnected regions of the world. With a number of countries ravaged by violent conflict, diseases and hunger, Sub Saharan Africa also houses low quality and inferior infrastructure. The continent has the lowest average on Internet penetration globally. But mobile phone penetration is significantly high across the continent with some countries having over a hundred percent coverage. However, according to reports Sub Saharan Africa is the world’s fastest-growing mobile region with the industry contributing over US$100 billion in 2014.
The African Union on Twitter
There are more than 20 active Twitter accounts associated with the AU, including the official Twitter handle of the AU Commission. These accounts include the organisations’ sub organs and agencies, ambassadors and delegations around the world, spokespersons, initiatives, etc. The AU just like its European counterpart, the EU uses social media more like a one-way communication tool. In a recent content analysis of over 1600 tweets from the AU and EU commissions’ Twitter handles that I conducted, results showed that both organisations do not interact significantly with their followers. Further analyses indicated that the organisations are more concerned with polishing their public image and building trust between and among their stakeholders. Some argue that weak innovation and low Internet penetration in Sub Saharan Africa pose a significant hurdle for the full utilisation of social media.
Harnessing mobile penetration
However, communications experts and social media strategists contend that the high level of mobile phone penetration can be utilised to enhance the output of social media communications.
“In Africa we skipped the landline telephones phase and went into mobile phones. Many countries in the region have the same number of mobile phones as any developed country, some actually have higher mobile phone penetration than the United States,” a Congolese activists told me on condition of anonymity.
Linda Weiner, communications expert with experience working with transnational organisations believes that tech tools in Africa are adopted to suit the needs and aspirations of local people. She pointed to examples such as Mpesa (mobile money) and Ushahidi (crisis mapping) in Kenya and Frontline SMS in Uganda as remarkable innovations meant to enhance local needs.
Thus, Sub Saharan Africa may lack the high rates of Internet penetration rates such as it is in the Western world but that does not render social media useless on continent. High internet penetration rate is important but not a prerequisite for the harnessing of the potentials of social media use on the continent.