Social movements have been an active part in sub-Saharan Africa since the colonial struggles and ongoing through the post-colonial era. It is not a new phenomena. And the Arab Spring did not become an African Spring. We know that for certain now. I’m talking about the spread of revolutions in sub-Saharan Africa. Not when it will happen, but rather why it will probably not.
The early reports of the Arab Spring gave promising estimations on democratic change. The big hero in all of this was social media. New media would be the giver of change and autocratic regimes ought to look out. I’m not sure if it was because of reporters’ habit of picking the topics close to them. Maybe also their lacking capability of identifying with people from the Global South. As we followed the scenes from our own mobile devices, we saw the revolution spread country by country, and most of us cheered with the people.
The later more analytical reports of the Arab spring, especially after the spread of revolution halted and we saw the struggles the countries involved are facing now, gave a more critical image of what new media actually had provided them with. New media were tools used by the actors in these movements and that is what they were, tools. Yes, they did provide the actors with a platform to spread information and mobilise, but it was (and I know I am skipping a whole bunch of other reasons, read Zenyep Tufekci’s book for the full story) the actors’ tech-savvy knowledge and new media literacy that made the whole revolution possible. The reason for the huge spread we saw was because the countries involved shares similar cultural, economic, geopolitical and historical backgrounds.
Making the impossible, possible
This why we need to be more considerate to the criterias mentioned above when trying to estimate social change. Unfortunately, most Western based theories of social movements and online activism fails do this. I will not provide you with a glorious inclusive theory. I will try to discuss the possibilities of an African Spring (more geopolitically correct would be “Sub-Saharan”, so I will stick with that from now on) with these perspectives in mind.
Besides connectivity (by that I mean internet connection, mobile services etc.), which are the main tools needed for online activism and mobilisation online? Well, firstly we need devices (mobile phones, laptops, tablets etc.) and users to receive messages and information. Inspired by Heeks’ ICT Value Chain, I’ll list as few examples of users we can find in a sub-Saharan context:
- Active users who uses ICT solutions in their daily life in order to send money or upload and share information to neighbours
- Passive users who only uses the devices to receive information
- Intermediate users who might not own a device themselves but are benefitting from others using ICT
- Delinked users without any connection to ICT
Digital literacy and incentives
So far looking rather optimistic, but we also need resources like electricity, phone services and money to use (locally very expensive) ICT solutions and here is where we are starting to see the struggles.
A user of any ICT solution needs digital literacy. If we don’t understand the information in front of us and what it is for, then how can it help us? Beyond that we need incentives to even accept the information. A farmer might be struggling with a severe drought due to climate change. The livestock are dying. How can we expect him or her to take action towards an oblivious government? When the real emergency is to save the lives of the animals?
Regulations and Policy
To add on further, we also need to take new media regulations and policy in consideration. Take Uganda as an example. Due to previous collective action and protest, the government has implemented several laws in attempt to control online activism. Before the fall of the Mugabe administration in Zimbabwe, Mugabe appointed a “social media minister” with the responsibility to investigate cyber security threat to the country. Both national and international media saw this move as an attempt to take control of collective action online prior to the upcoming elections in 2018.
Governments in the sub-Saharan context also possess strong control over local Internet service providers. They can order them to limit access in time of need and disturbances, with reference to the laws implemented for these purposes.
In addition, there is a need to understand the traditional media landscapes in sub-Saharan countries. For those who are based in the global north, media systems might be a part of the public sphere where democratic rights are being displayed on a daily basis. To include NEW media as another public sphere is only natural in those contexts. What happens in those countries where the media landscape is not a public sphere and being used as a propaganda tool by authoritarian regimes? Would the natural category of new media be an extent of those actions as well?
What do the people themselves say then?
I actually asked a friend of mine from Zimbabwe if he felt a sub-Saharan spring is near. This is his reply:
“Firstly, I think the likelihood of something like the Arab Spring happening in Sub-Saharan Africa is diminished because of how badly most of the Arab spring states are doing now. Syria, Libya, Yemen, are all doing terribly and stuck in seemingly endless wars now. I do however think the surprising end of Mugabe’s rule, relatively peacefully, through in-party struggles and military involvement makes other long-term rulers’ positions less stable. I think of South Africa specifically where it’s increasingly looking like the ANC might impeach Zuma in a bid to cast all their collective failings on him and, they hope, cling on to power democratically thereafter.”
Somehow, I am agreeing with my Zimbabwean friend. There are already several digital divides (adding new media literacy here). The government control of online access in African countries makes it harder for activists to mobilise and call for collective action. Seeing it from this perspective, I can only agree with the pessimist side of the “internet will save the world-discussion”.
Heeks, R. 2017: Information and Communication Technology for Development (ICT4D). Abingdon: Routledge.
Mutsvairo, B. 2016: Digital Activism in the Social Media Era-Critical Reflections on Emerging Trends in Sub-Saharan Africa. Cham: Springer International Publishing.
Tufekci, Z. 2017: Twitter and Tear Gas-The Power and Fragility of Networked Protest. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.