The Digital Citizenry Revolution in Africa

Citizens are monitoring elections, challenging dictators, claiming basic rights and building communities. African civil society takes control of digital space.

Visit of Iain Macleod, Secretary of State for the Colonies, to Northern Rhodesia (1960); demonstrations by the United National Independence Party (UNIP).

Visit of Iain Macleod, Secretary of State for the Colonies, to Northern Rhodesia (1960); demonstrations by the United National Independence Party (UNIP). The National Archives UK. Open Government Licence.

Citizens are monitoring elections, challenging dictators, claiming basic rights and building communities. They are changing the rules because they do not play along with the system. Subversion is involved, but so is tradition. They had been underestimated by the system and all the authorities, so they got used to carving out their own paths. Over the past few years, digital campaigns, web 2.0 initiatives, and an incipient cyberactivism have been changing the social and political participation scenario in Africa. Sometimes the results are a resounding success, but there have also been frustrating failures. Their main strength is their very existence and, above all, the fact that they are introducing alternatives that are closer to grassroots citizens.

“Until the lions have their own historians, the history of the hunt will always glorify the hunter.” This is a proverb popularised by Nigerian writer Chinua Achebe, who as it happens, is quoted in the first information panel in the exhibition Making Africa. It is a true declaration of intent alerting visitors to the aims of the show. The yearning expressed by the great Nigerian intellectual is now as close as it ever has been to becoming reality. And all we have to do in order to start savouring these histories is look into certain corners of the universe that the internet offers us. It may sound strange, but the lions are already writing their own histories in the digital world.

Social media, web 2.0 tools, the communication potential of the internet, and the context of the information society have once again shaken up the foundations of the world as we knew it: many (though not all) people and communities who nobody listened to in the past can now speak out loud and clear. And this trend is sweeping through all the nooks and crannies of the African continent, which was probably the world’s most silenced and ignored region. Contrary to the claims of certain racist discourses expressed from time to time, Africa has always been part of history. But it is certainly true that history has not always been written or told by Africans. Today – actually, in recent years – an increasing number of collectives actively participate in the social and political life of virtually all African countries, and are getting the most out of the potential of ICTs.

Foto_blogActivists from the Benin bloggers association acting as observers in the 2016 elections.

Activists from the Benin bloggers association acting as observers in the 2016 elections. Photo: Maurice Thantan. CC-BYLicense

Elections are probably they clearest example of this situation. Now, whenever elections are called anywhere in Africa, a grassroots initiative is invariably organised to monitor them. The organisers are often blogger collectives accompanying civil society organisations, always with the aim of influencing the process. In other words, of attaining elections that are transparent, peaceful, participatory, and without fraud. Citizens increasingly want to play a leading role in these processes, and they are willing to accept responsibilities, belying the idea of “slacktivism” that is often associated with cyberactivism.

One possible timeline of this phenomenon could start in the year 2008, inKenya, where a group of bloggers tried to stem post-electoral violence by offering a mosaic of information made up of the partial information conveyed by each protagonist. That experience gave rise to Ushahidi, which turned out to be one of the greatest global crowdsourcing successes, given its subsequent spread. That timeline could then jump forward two years and over 4,500 kilometres, to the Ivory Coast in 2010, where bloggers and experienced social media users tried to encourage healthy debate during the campaign, reacted against post-electoral violence, and even played a key role in directly helping the victims of the fratricidal outbreak.

But we can perhaps pinpoint the tipping point of this phenomenon in Senegal in 2012, when bloggers faced almost a month of confrontations on the streets between police and a broad sector of society that was disappointed and angry at the authorities. They fought for transparency and for a more participatory democracy, and designed a campaign to draw attention to the possibility of electoral fraud. They implemented a device to monitor irregularities at all stages, from the ballot box to the recounting of the votes. Most importantly, their campaign was a success: they managed to involve broad sectors of civil society and a great many anonymous citizens, they achieved recognition (a posteriori) from the political actors and (immediate) attention from international media. The elections played out as they had hoped – peacefully and without any major suspicion of fraud, with a change of president thrown in.

In the wake of the experience of the Senegalese bloggers, there have been a series of similar initiatives in a growing number of countries and an increasingly systematic way. Ghana, Nigeria, Guinea, Burkina Faso, Uganda, and Tanzania, have been some of the scenes of campaigns that have tried to get social media users involved in the political debate and to take responsibility for the proper course of the elections, with “proper course” meaning the actual process, unrelated to election propaganda. The clearest example of the fact that there can no longer be elections without digital monitoring took place on 20 March this year, which was dubbed Africa’s “SuperSunday” because four presidential elections were scheduled in four countries on the same day, as well as a legislative election and a referendum for a constitutional reform. In Benin, Nigeria, the Republic of the Congo, and Senegal, voting was accompanied by 2.0 citizen monitoring.

fastafrica

#FastAfrica campaign.

In recent years, cyberactivists from several African countries have stood up to controversial regimes at great personal risk: in Ethiopia since 2014, in Burundi and the Democratic Republic of the Congo since March 2015, and in the Republic of the Congo over the last few months. The have accompanied grassroots opposition processes that have been milestones in Africa, such as the citizen uprising in Burkina Faso in late October 2014 that ended with the resignation of president Blaise Compaoré after twenty-seven years in power, and the resistance to a coup almost a year later. Only a month after this attempt at rebellion, the country was organising presidential elections under totally normal conditions, with the active involvement of the country’s cyberactivists. There have been other similar civic actions – without the restrictive connotations that the term may have in the West – throughout Africa.

Cyberactivists have shown that they are prepared to risk their lives and their freedom, and confirmed their conviction that information is an essential tool for consolidating democratic participation. In this sense, social media have contributed to an initial break with the past: the end of the monopoly over the control of information. Cyberactivists have carried out their work by building communication channels ranging from blogs and information platforms to hashtags and Facebook groups, for example. These channels manage to get around the rules that had been previously imposed. They are independent of the authorities and of economic interests and they break the usual control mechanisms of those in power. Even so, they manage to make an impact that counteracts that of the conventional media and, occasionally, achieve greater international impact.

It may seem paradoxical to draw attention to this international impact, as though it were necessary for salvation to come from outside of Africa. But its importance is not just a Eurocentric (and egocentric) habit, it is about the fact that most of those cyberactivists have discovered that one of the pillars of the regimes they are struggling against is their international recognition – they legitimise themselves through their prestige and their image abroad. This explains the efforts to silence the dissident voices there, and also the insistence of the dissident voices to make themselves heard.

All of these actions, campaigns, and initiatives have continued to break down the status quo. They have gradually become social and political actors, either through the positive recognition of the authorities or their attempts to overthrow them. And they have done so without following the “rules” of conventional organisations. Cyberactivist communities have grown quickly because they are appealing, but their membership and operating principles, their dynamics and interests… are unlike those of other civil society organisations. The fact is that they have enhanced the public sphere and given a leading role to groups that had not been taken into account before, particularly urban youth, a growing sector of the population that is full of promise for the future.

Now the lions can explain their own stories on the net, and we can now read online narratives and histories that no longer glorify the hunters.

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  • MSOMI | 26 June 2016

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The Digital Citizenry Revolution in Africa