#IfAfricaWasASchool, a twitter hashtag that started trending last Wednesday has spread much like a wildfire through Africa’s internet community. Thousands of tweets imagining Africa as a school have been posted and naturally, some of the tweets express views on politics. Deutsche Well caught up with the brains behind the hashtag, Mr Winston Manjengwa and he had the chance to express his views on the role of the social media in politics. He said the social media was already a platform for African people to speak out about different issues. He said, “If you look at things that happened in South Africa last year, it did make a difference and that started via social media. If you look at #ThisFlag in Zimbabwe right now, it started via social media it’s already making an impact.”
With some of the movements that have started on social media platforms causing headaches for politicians, numerous governments have tried to block access in their countries but with an array of technological solutions to these restrictions, that has not been effective. After all, why are some African governments fighting social media platforms when they should harness them to get information from their grassroots support base?
Politics cannot win over freedom of expression
VOA reports that on the 20th of August, police in Burundi arrested eight people for circulating defamatory anti-government statements on social media. In Ethiopia, authorities periodically shut down access to social media as a reaction to the Oromia protests in March. Zimbabwe has gone further and proposed a law to deal with what it terms “cyberterrorism”. Angola went on to create the “Angolan Social Communications Regulatiory Body to ensure adherence to new media laws while Mali blocked social media in Bamako after protests. In Uganda, access was again blocked during the February elections. With more and more voices finding political space to air their views on the internet, countries have also heightened their restrictions on the form of expression allowed and in some cases, some governments have even blocked access to social media networks. Sadly for them, they are simply not technologically equipped to deal with VPNs and similar means of circumventing the restrictions. Manjengwa says, “As much as African governments will try to block the internet to stop the movements started on social media, they can’t succeed in 2016 because technology is advanced and our voices have become too loud.”
This is the new reality that states have had to face. Technology now overpowers political declarations and orders. It is now also clear that the war the politicians are fighting is not against social media. Instead, it is a war against ideas and the propagation of a culture of accountability. The tricky thing about ideas is they cannot be physically fought. A new generation of Africans is rising up and calling leaders to task because after all, leaders work for the people and not the other way round. It must come as a shock to most regimes which have been in power for decades and have never been questioned. Their reaction is however, backward and retrogressive. Fossilised ideas of governance which borrow from tyrannical and dictatorial principles will not work in this new Africa. Leaders should simply learn to be accountable. Blocking the internet is no solution.
Use the internet for service delivery
For the onlooker, it seems governance is now easier than ever before. Ideas, complaints and criticisms are consistently being expressed on public forums and the responsible leaders are using these to formulate policies and improve their constituencies. In cases of police brutality, it is sadly citizens who call for attention to this who have been accused of inciting violence in their countries. Where is the logical sense in that? Why should images of the ridiculous brutality of governments voted for by the victims be censored? Let the world see. Let bad governance be exposed so that it may be fixed. Silencing calls for improvement is essentially a brazen refusal to improve. Leaders should start using their twitter and Facebook accounts for the better. All countries should have Presidential social media accounts, what is there to hide if everyone is working diligently? Only cowards are afraid of criticism. All ministries in governments should have active media accounts to capture feedback. This is how strong institutions will be built. There will be less corruption and less complacency in government institutions. Leaders cannot be allowed to be bigger than the people who make them leaders. Social media platforms are there to help achieve this balance that most countries have failed to achieve on their own. Only governments with skeletons to hide are fighting them. Come out to the open. Use social media to communicate policy considerations and get feedback. Join conversations instead of stopping them. Social media platforms should not be a responsible and hardworking leader’s enemies. Criticism should not be equated to terrorism.
As John Mbaku, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution says, “Part of the problem we are seeing now is that some of these governments, not all of them, but some of them, are using those anti-terrorism laws to spy on citizens and gather information that doesn’t really help them fight terrorism, but helps them control the population so that they can continue to perpetrate themselves in government indefinitely.”