Social Media In Africa: The New Diversion Tool For Authoritarian Regimes

28 March 2019 marked a year since Chad banned the use of social media. The internet blackout in the North- West African country came after a series of protests broke out restricting access to the internet in the face of mass popular and political movements.

By Rawlings Magede

This is a new trend synonymous with most authoritarian regimes in Africa. The first two months of 2019 saw five African countries; Algeria, Zimbabwe, Gabon, the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and Sudan experiencing internet blackouts that were meant to thwart the mobilizing ability of social media.

To date, Chad has continued with the blackout and this has crippled communication and retarded development in the north-central country.

Perhaps the first considerable level of public attention on the impact of social media can be traced back to what is known or referred to as the Twitter Revolution that took place in Iran in June 2009.

The Western news media were filled with reports of tech-savvy protestors using Twitter and other forms of new media to protest against the re-election of former Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

Back home, the ascendancy of President Emmerson Mnangagwa into the highest office in the land heralded a refreshing wave into Zimbabwe’s political arena. For the first time in the history of the country, a sitting President had a Twitter account where he daily posts about government business.

This was then followed by a massive exodus of Ministers and Legislators as they opened or reactivated long forgotten Twitter accounts. All this was meant to encourage citizen participation in government processes as well as give real-time feedback on how various government ministries were being run.

This was a positive step given that recent statistics from Globalstats highlight that 18.43% and 41.47% of Zimbabweans are on Twitter and Facebook respectively hence this allowed citizens to interact, probe and highlight frustrations on the collapsing economy.

Has Social media helped democratize African countries?

Social media must be lauded as a platform that has enhanced citizen participation in the democratization of their communities and provided an avenue through which to vent emotions and frustrations.

A cursory analysis of several countries, however, highlights that it has only served as a mass mobilization tool for uprisings and demonstrations.

A good example is a way it was deployed in the fall of Sudanese President, Omar al Bashir. Several protesters posted live videos on the proceedings on the demonstrations against Bashir on social media platforms such as Twitter just as a way of informing the outside world on the developments in Sudan.

There is no doubt however as to the capacity of social media to mobilize masses. In 2010, in the Arab Springs, social media was massively deployed to mobilize and organize citizens in the ouster of Tunisian President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali and Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak.

The media in this context focused heavily on young protesters mobilizing in the streets in political opposition, smartphones in hand. Networks formed online were crucial in organizing the core group of activists, specifically in Egypt.

Civil society leaders in Arab countries emphasized the role of the internet, mobile phones and social media in the protests.

Since then, the wave on the use of social media to mobilize during protests has gained prominence and has even energized citizens under an authoritarian rule such as Uganda to mobilize during protests.

Robert Kyagulany (Boby Wine) the Ugandan opposition leader has so far intensified massive protests against Yoweri Museveni’s government despite being arrested numerous times by the regime.

“Any citizens’ uprising in any part of the world inspires people that share the same plight,” he says.

“What has happened in Sudan gives us so much confidence that we can face the military that is armed to the teeth. We are inspired to believe that we can now peacefully protest and raise our voices,” he said during a recent interview after developments in Sudan.

How he hopes to draw lessons from Sudan particularly on how to deploy social media among his young followers in his People Power Movement remains to be seen.

Do authoritarian regimes take social media seriously?

Despite the ability of social media to mobilize citizens to protest or register displeasure on various governance issues, in authoritarian regimes, the ruling elites’ use of social media only serves for political correctness and a diversion meant to distract citizens on critical issues.

In today’s Africa several presidents including Kenya’s Uhuru Kenyatta, South Africa’s Cyril Ramaphosa among others are quite active on social media platforms such as Twitter.

Back home in Zimbabwe, our own President has a Twitter account where he regularly posts. What is, however, odd about conversations on the Twitter account is his lack of response on issues raised by citizens.

The Twitter account only posts activities by the President but the President never responds to any issues raised on his platform despite the fact that he has in the past even confirmed through a video that the Twitter account was actually his.

As if that was not enough, his spokesperson, George Charamba in recent months announced and warned citizens not to take content on the President Twitter account serious as it doesn’t always reflect the President’s position on things.

He even went on to say that people (maybe those who man the Twitter account) were putting words into the president’s mouth through the account.

Such a confession, however, confirms the widely held view that for the new dispensation, social media is rather a detour meant to hoodwink citizens into believing that the regime is serious about using social media to better their participation in governance issues.

The same can be said for Presidents from Uganda, Paul Biya from Cameroon and Chad’s Idriss Deby among others.

In the final analysis, there is no doubt as to the ability of social media as an effective tool to mobilize and conscientize citizens on critical issues.

However, its use by authoritarian elites in Africa remains insincere and serves as a one-dimensional process that defeats the spirit of active citizen participation and engagement.

Rawlings Magede is a Development Practitioner. He tweets at @rawmagede and is contactable on vamagede@gmail.com