From time immemorial, Africans have used social media for various reasons and some of these are promoting online businesses, content creation, communication among others. When used accordingly, social media can be a valuable addition to any business, organization or country’s communication strategy.
In Africa, a few countries have either enacted tough laws on the use of social media, or shut it down altogether. In January 2021, the Ugandan government ordered a ban on social media platforms till further notice. This was because some parties had resorted to using Facebook for campaigning ahead of the Country’s general elections.
The US social media giant said that it had taken a network in Uganda linked to the government’s ministry of Information for using fake and duplicate accounts. However for Uganda this was not its first shut down, In 2016, all social media platforms were shut down ahead of the country’s general elections. Mobile money platforms were also suspended during this period.
Uganda isn’t the only African country that faced a ban on social media. In 2021, access to social media platforms was banned after the country’s high school exams leaked online. This came a year after the same platforms were shut down when the Tigray’s People Liberation Front seized some military bases in Tigray. The TPLF accused Prime Minister Ahmed Abiy of centralizing power at the expense of regional states.
In June 2021, the Nigerian government banned the use of twitter, this came after Twitter temporarily suspended the Nigerian President Muhammed Buhari’s tweets warning the people of SouthEastern people in his country. The Nigerian government claimed that the Igbo people wanted a potential repeat of the Biafran Civil War due to the insurgency in the area. However, the ban was condemned by Amnesty International, the British, Canadian and Swedish diplomatic missions to Nigeria. Three days later it was recorded that the ban cost the country over 6 billion naira and would also contribute to the country’s worsening unemployment rates.
In 2016, citizens of the Gambia noticed that their internet had been shut down but on the eve of their country’s general elections they discovered it was a deliberate act by the ruling government. It should be noted that the Gambia was the first Sub-Saharan African country to shut down its social media and since then more African countries followed suit.
Despite headlines about Tech booms and fast-growing startups, African governments are getting worse when it comes to internet freedom but an increasing number of digital rights activists and organizations are fighting back. A survey by Whitehead Communications found that 57% of citizens were using VPN(Virtual Private Networks) to bypass social media taxes.
Social Media is enabling most Africans to engage in the participatory governance cycle in the global public square but their leaders kick back forcefully. This is not the kind of power that many governments want their citizens to have. In Senegal, political tensions during local elections in January led to fears of widespread violence through online mobilization. Their President Sall termed social media as a “cancer of the modern world” hence planning on enacting laws to regulate it.
In 2019, the Rwandese government enacted laws to regulate social media users especially content creators and online journalists which meant that they had to present journalist credentials and a paying license to the Rwanda Media Commission. The government restricted the types of online content that users can access, particularly material that strays from the government's official narrative.
For Political Elites in Africa accustomed to manipulating electoral messages to secure votes, these platforms challenge their positions of privilege. An increasingly networked society in Africa has implications not only for political engagement but also economic development. Countries are relying on emerging technology to help power economic growth and internet based forums enable greater reach of many businesses to potential customers. Rather than adopting spontaneous responses reflected in laws, governments should recognise that these forums present a certain accessibility that citizens wouldn’t have and enable them to express legitimate concerns with those who govern.