The other day on Al Jazeera’d THE STREAM programme, a Nigerian activist said that social media had played a big role in the on-going protests against the removal of subsidies that have sharply increased fuel prices at the pumps in the oil-producing country.
He said the Nigeria government was caught by surprise when the protests started because it was not paying attention, and the officials who paid attention didn’t imagine that social media could mobilise Nigerians too.
Perhaps they thought that that is supposed to happen in countries like Tunisia and Egypt, not south of the Sahara desert.
All this raises what have become the unending questions of the last year; did social media actually play any role in the recent youthful uprisings in Africa and the Middle East, or were other forces that we can’t yet identify at work? Are we just too lazy to do the homework and better understand what these “social media” movements are? The questions are many.
I have a theory. If the revolution ends, and the Facebook and Twitter activists are NOT in power, then you know that social media played a key role. That might seem counter-intuitive, because if the social media activists are the key movers, why shouldn’t they take power?
One reason is that when it comes to politics, social media is an anti-system and anti-hierarchical technology. Without a system and hierarchical command structure, you CANNOT capture power. The failure of the social media activists in Egypt, for example, to take government, is therefore proof of their success. Social media will probably not produce a group that takes power any day soon, because it is essentially anti-politics in its nature.
Secondly, another powerful impact of social media is what I would call the “leapfrog effect”. It allows unlikely candidates to get into the game, and groups that are marginalised, like youth, to have their day in the sun as we saw in North Africa.
It is easier now for female candidates in Africa, to leapfrog patriarchal vetting processes of the “old-boy” networks and “wise elders”. For example, Kenya’s former Justice Minister Martha Karua, who frightens the male establishment, launched a bid for the presidency built partly on perhaps the smartest use of Twitter and Facebook of any Kenyan politician. The “boys” continue to dismiss her, but Kenyan women and young people, I sense, are paying attention.
In countries where you have iron-fisted regimes, social media seems able to attract the “less committed”, the “Cappuccino democrats” who engage with politics from the safety and remoteness of their computers, while sipping their cappuccinos. In dictatorships or half-democracies, it’s crucial to get out on the street to confront the system, and these Cappuccino Democrats won’t. But now a low risk door has been opened for them – even forwarding a link or posting a photograph of a policemen beating down protestors on YouTube does make a difference, especially if 1,000 of them are posted.
Thus social media has partly solved the “isolation problem” for the brave democrats who take on the tear-gas lobbing police, because now the Cappuccino democrats can play the role of the fans and supporters in sports. Fans don’t score goals, however loudly they cheer their side. By they boost the players’ morale, and make them feel that even if they lose, they were “not alone” as suffering Liverpool might say.
Now, one of the problems of politics in Africa is that the extremes always win, and our often ethnicised or religion-fuelled politics marginalises centrist voices.
Social media is one vehicle that has been able to re-engage the centre and build bi-partisan bridges.
In Uganda, a very successful short message (SMS) campaign in 2007 led to protests and, significantly, the halting of the government’s decision to exercise the ecologically important Mabira Forest and give chunks of it to a dodgy Lugazi sugarcane firm. That campaign was easily the most bipartisan project of recent Ugandan politics.
Without one clear leader who can be painted into a political corner, it is difficult to characterise to tar a digital movement with a divisive brush. Thus old Africa is losing one of its most potent weapons – the ability to demonise reform leaderships.
© Charles Onyango-Obbo / twitter@cobbo3