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The trouble with social media in Africa

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The trouble with social media in Africa

Although there is increasing internet use and online activism in Africa, it has not measurably improved the quality of governance or citizen participation in government. This is because the people online are not a homogenous group of activists whose only interest is in selflessly holding government accountable, writes Matthew Adeiza.

The latest Mo Ibrahim Index on Good Governance’s data on internet use in Africa shows Nigeria at 38th place out of 52 countries ranked in Africa, with just 28.8% of citizen participation. This is a deterioration of 18 points from the 2006 rankings by the same foundation.

To put the Nigerian scenario in perspective, the country is the worst ranked nation in the West African sub-region, and the fifth most deteriorating in the whole of Africa.

Interestingly, in the same period, internet use skyrocketed from 8 million users in 2006 to 45 million in 2011, while social media (largely Facebook and Twitter) has grown from almost zero to over 4 million users in 2011.
Just one year ago, Nigeria was undergoing what was potentially a revolution. The government announced the removal of the gasoline subsidy on 1 January 2012 and the sudden rise in the prices of basic necessities, ranging from transport fares to foodstuffs, sent many Nigerians to the streets to demand a reversal of the decision. Over the next two weeks, protests paralysed many cities across the country, which eventually forced the government to restore partial subsidy. The use of social media was reportedly instrumental to the protests, galvanising people of divergent ethnic groups and religions in a rare show of unity.

The protests were successful in many ways. The level of information sharing among educated Nigerians via social media greatly increased, and one may argue, led to several corruption probes into the petroleum industry, even if the findings of such probes were never implemented.More importantly, the protesters successfully won over some international experts who were apparently too detached from reality to understand the anger of the protesters. The Columbia University professor and special advisor to UN secretary general Ban Ki-moon, Jeffrey Sachs, had to apologise after his Twitter timeline was inundated with protest tweets for allegedly describing the subsidy removal as “a bold and correct policy”.

Besides the power to talk back on social media, however, not much has changed in Nigeria as a result of internet activism. The government remains largely wasteful and corruption scandals are becoming as common as the cassava bread that is purportedly eaten in Aso Rock, the seat of government in Abuja.

In order to understand this misnomer, where increasing internet use and online activism have not measurably improved the quality of governance or citizen participation, we have to look at the structure of online interactions where change is supposed to be engineered.  
People online are not a homogenous group whose only interest is in selflessly holding government accountable, but a heterogeneous community with as diverse interests and motivations as the offline world.
Arguably, the biggest online influencers are traditional media – newspapers and television stations, especially – whose social media accounts have hundreds of thousands of followers, and whose websites receive millions of visits every month.

This group of social media users are primarily working to drive traffic back to their websites. These websites publish the offline editions of news that do not necessarily fit into the activist internet dominant narratives.
There are also popular blogs with massive followerships, often in tens of thousands. While a small number of these blogs are activist and political in function, the majority provide entertainment and other light-hearted materials.

At the level of individual users, top influencers with large followings include active politicians who use the internet to promote themselves; out-of-favour-politicians-turned-pseudo-activists who usually take a populist stance on issues and would do anything to get attention; celebrities who promote themselves and their businesses; and youth activists who are interested in engaging government for better governance.
Generally, Nigerian activists – online and offline – tend to engage in a daily routine of criticising the government and its officers. Unfortunately, it is impossible to change a system by criticising it and failing to offer an alternative; or worse still, failing to build cross-sectional coalitions that could effectively challenge that system.
For the vast majority of users, the internet, and specifically, social media offers a platform to connect with friends and discuss everyday issues ranging from religion to relationships. Significantly, too, these users do not have the social capital – large followerships – to exert any serious political influence.

Understanding this scenario helps us to appreciate why increasing internet use is not translating into higher levels of participation for ordinary citizens.
In Nigeria, as in many African countries, structural barriers continue to prevent active citizen participation in government, while ensuring that politicians are hardly ever held accountable for their actions.
To break through these barriers, activists need to go beyond individual brilliant online efforts to strategic consensus building across ethnic and religious divides that will force politicians to take them seriously. This has not happened in many African countries.

Take Egypt for example. When the youth took over Tahrir Square to demand an end to President Hosni Mubarak’s government in 2011, they possibly did not envision that the protests alone would guarantee democracy; or that the same methods used in organising protests would fail in mobilising voters in post-Mubarak elections.
So the “digital revolutionaries” were shocked when the parties they supported could only win 1.4% of the parliamentary vote in the first post-revolution election, while the well-organised Islamist parties won over 70% of the votes. One year later, the revolution appears to have been hijacked and people have been back on the streets.

Kenya, another internet giant on the continent, has not fared any better. Its participation ranking in the Mo Ibrahim Index fell by 16.7 points from 66.2% in 2006 to 49.5% in 2011. Within the same period, internet users in Kenya grew from 2.8 million to 10.5 million users.
In both Egypt and Kenya, as in Nigeria, society is divided along ethnic and religious lines that make it easy for politicians to capitalise on areas of differences to distract attention from their own wrongdoings.
While such sectional divisions are not the only problems faced by African countries, they act as a significant obstacle to ordinary citizens’ participation in government.

Africans have to adapt technologies to build bridges across these divides to make our people less susceptible to petty manipulations by leaders who do not care if Africans participate in deciding their future.
The point is not that the internet is incapable of enriching democracies in Africa but that we have started our celebrations of victory even before we have won a few battles.

The truth is that Africans may never be able to tweet their way to better participation in governance. A functional democracy, after all, cannot be designed through a 140-character message. It has to be negotiated and the internet could serve a useful logistical role to bring people together for such deliberations.

So far, Africans have done very little of this. As it stands, we are being allowed to complain online while politicians continue to do what they like offline.

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