Does Social Media have a role in African Politics?

Image courtesy of Flickr
Jonathan Kyobe

Jonathan Kyobe

Editor’s Note: Jonathan Kyobe is a contributing writer for the TechPost. He  is an IT Consultant, a Web and Graphic  Designer, blogger, Model and a Sport fanatic. Follow  @yellojona on twitter.

On March 4, 2013 Kenya held its presidential elections which were viewed by most analysts as largely free and fair. However, we must also note that social media and most notably Twitter had a very significant role to play towards the outcome of this election which Uhuru Kenyatta eventually won. Anyone that uses twitter regularly must be remembering the hash tags  #kedebate2013,  #kenyadecides and #254decides which were used so often before, during and after the elections. Kenyans used these  to monitor events, exchange opinions, get updates and rally for support for their candidates. Social media has its place in the politics of Africa and that of the whole world at large, or does it?

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Kenya presidential canditates

Twitter followers vs real votes for Kenya presidential canditates

Just like in Kenya, social media played a very important role in presidential elections in Ghana in 2012, Nigeria elections in 2011, Zambia elections in 2011 and South Africa.

We can’t talk about the role of social media in African’s politics and we don’t talk about Egypt. In the wake of the uprisings, Egyptians made use of social media to organize and inform the citizens about public protests. It provided a platform for people who were frustrated with the status quo to voice their opinions and gather support for coordinated protests. This finally led to the resignation of the president of Egypt, Muhammad Hosni Mubarak, on 11 February 2011.

The influence of social media has, however, not dissipated since Mubarak’s resignation. Debates on a multitude of political issues are constantly contested on various online social platforms. The social media activity surrounding the June 2012 Egyptian presidential elections served as an example of how social media is still playing a determining role in Egypt. There are also those who believe that in the future social media can serve as an indicator, or even a predictor, of election outcomes. The results from processing these sentiments show that the victory of Mohammed Morsi may have been predicted even before the second round of the election.

Most interestingly there is a new breed of politician who is not only content with being a commentator on social media platforms, but wants to use technology to influence politics and social reform. Obama did it well, email and social media played critical roles in the process of moving his political agenda throughout the 2008 campaign. Not only did he tweet up a storm, he built relationships with his constituency, donors and voters by sending email campaigns that had one underlying message, “Yes we can!” , Obama used email to engage the younger generation of Americans.  No other presidential candidate in history raised as much funds as he did, and all this was underpinned by a unified digital communications strategy. It’s political participation style.

Now back to Uganda. The role of social media in facilitating the Ugandan protests, and the government’s ubsequent retaliatory crackdown on protesters and users of these platforms, provides an interesting example of the growing phenomena of social media panic or distrust in Africa. Platforms such as Facebook, Twitter and blogs written within and outside Uganda played a fundamental role in driving the April 2011 ‘walk-to-work’ protests.

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Former Opposition leader Col. Dr. Kizza Besigye being arrested during walk-to-work protests

Citizens, opposition groups and civil society organizations striving to get around the government’s restrictions on their  right to peaceful demonstrations resorted to social media  platforms to air their grievances and organize protests.  For example, the group A4C(Activists for Change) adopted social media tools to drive protests during both the first phase of the April ‘walk-to-work’ (#walktowork) protests and the second-phase October 2011 demonstrations. During these ‘walk-to-work’ protests, Ugandans were mobilized through political blogs, Facebook and Twitter, and these platforms gave momentum to the protests.

The Ugandan government authorities reacted by imposing a ban on these protests and summarily arresting and detaining activists and protesters. Similarly, to stop the role and impact of social media platforms in facilitating these protests, the regime employed various strategies.

For example, in April 2011 at the height of the ‘walk-to-work’ protests, the government suspended the use of social networks, although the regime denies doing so. According to reports, the Uganda Communications Commission (read here) wrote to service providers requesting them to ‘block the use of Facebook and Twitter’ and ‘to eliminate the connection and sharing of information that incites the public’. Consequently, the April and October ‘walk-to-work’ protests lost their momentum, which can be attributed to   government interventions. The default explanation regimes give to justify their anti-social-media strategies is that the platforms incite public disorder and regulating the platforms is essential to protect national security.

The significance of social media has opened up new possibilities for Africans to engage with each other and with their political representatives, and contribute towards an inclusive and broad-based political process. It has been argued that access to, and the provision of, information has the potential to stimulate political engagement and help citizens make more informed political decisions.

However, the engagement with these platforms is not without limitations or challenges. The contexts within which the platforms facilitate African’s involvement are characterized by numerous socioeconomic and political challenges, which hinder the full (and equal) exploitation of online platforms. Limitations to freedom of expression related to media freedom, freedom of information and freedom of assembly restrict the free use of social media tools and will have a negative impact on African’s participation in Politics. Social media thus provide the potential to get around these limitations to access and provision of information.

How effective this form of crowd sourcing will be, only time to tell. One thing has become very clear though; technology is influencing, not just the political landscape but all spheres of our lives in Africa and will continue to do so in ways we can’t even imagine yet.

Image courtesy of Flickr

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  • Hoepfner

    Thanks for a very informative article, I just think you went, wrong at the heading already, while there is no denying the social media role all over the “developed” world has a role to play, it’s certainly NOT TRUE IN AFRICA!!!!!!!
    Your figures and numbers suggests that thousands are influenced by Social Media, but the millions vote what the chief tells them to vote!

    • Thanks for your comment. In my view, social media in Africa faces limitations that range from economic to to social to policitical. Most of africa doesnt have access to internet, and many more can not access it. Others face ignorance and political persecution. However, as the trend is, surely internet penetration (resulting in social media usage) is on a definite rise in the continent. The few that thousands on social media are an are extrapolation of the broader mass around the continent representing the same issues these people face. Whethe this form of politics has a role in Africa is a Question only time can answer. One thing is certain though, people in Africa are emracing it.

  • Moses

    Great piece of writing Jonathan, I totally agree with you that Social media a lot of influence on politics not only in Africa but the rest of the world as a whole.

    • Thanks for the comment Moses. Of course, this trend cuts across the whole world. This article tries to show the aspect of Africa.

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  • Gav

    Interesting article. Here is another that makes similar conclusions based on the growth of mobile technology:

    • Thanks for reading the article. yes, very similar to this article.

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