Social Media, Not Political Parties, Are the Strongest Emerging Opposition in Africa

Demonstrators in Khartoum march to protest against the Sudanese government’s subsidies cuts and austerity measures on January 16, 2018. Credit: Sudan Tribune / HRW

In December 2016, when activists in Sudan called for a two-day protest to oppose the then spike of prices, including stay-at-home strike, President Omar Hassan al-Bashir challenged them to come out to the streets: “This regime will not be overthrown by keyboards and WhatsApp.”

That is exactly what protesters did two years later. Sudan has been ravaged with protests since mid-December 2018. People are taking the streets daily to demand Bashir step down after 30 bleak years of deplorable economic conditions and a dire political situation.

The embattled president recently uttered a similar but re-packaged message. Exactly in the same town of Kassala, which seems his only base of support, he told his supporters: “Changing the government and changing the president will not be through WhatsApp nor Facebook, but will be through the ballot box.”

Sudanese people are very much aware of Bashir’s sham elections where average voters could not even name a single contender. The tyrant neither arrived nor stayed for 30 years in power with ballots. In addition, Bashir has been indicted by the International Criminal Court for war crimes.

Unlike 2016, when protesters scattered after the president’s challenge, this time they were prepared to face live ammunition and tear gas, unarmed.

Bashir’s security recently launched a media crackdown using different measures including imprisonment of local journalists, expelling international media, and repeatedly confiscating prints of local newspapers. The most popular social media sites and messaging apps have been since banned, but citizens challenged this using VPN encryption. That is also how they have been coordinating protest and staying in touch to keep up the movement’s momentum.

Like Bashir of Sudan, many aging African dictators are facing a new wave of dissent enabled through social media. For years the plights of citizens haven’t been heard because of frail independent local media and lack of access to international humanitarian organizations. Now, thanks to modern technological tools and innovations, citizens are able to communicate horizontally and tell their own stories. The information monopoly has been challenged; ordinary citizens can now organize and confront their autocratic regimes from below.

African autocrats who have cemented their rule by isolating their citizens are growing wary of the emerging scene. During elections or early signs of possible challenges across the continent, it has become an established practice for oppressive governments to ban internet or target most popular social media sites. This has happened, among others, in the Gambia,  Zimbabwe, Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), and Gabon. That is also why various rights organizations have called on the Nigerian government to keep the internet open during upcoming elections.

Social media and their dissident users are becoming the prime targets and existential enemies of many autocratic African leaders. For close to a year now, one of the region’s most impoverished countries, Chad, has banned social media to silence protest against a constitutional change that would allow President Idris Déby (since 1990) to stay in power until 2033.

Cameroon’s Paul Biya, aka the “absentee president” who had allegedly spent about four and half years of his 36 years as president on “private visits out of the country, is facing a new social media-based challenge to his unabashed rule. Biya has imposed different measures to stifle dissent in the Anglophone region that targeted social media and messaging apps including a total internet ban. Due to difficulties in safety and access, traditional media outlets cannot accurately cover areas where about a half-million people have been displaced and hundreds killed indiscriminately by government soldiers. Citizens resorted to social media and messaging apps to document, communicate and share their plights. During his long and stern rule, Biya managed to control his narrative through different mechanisms of extreme policing and access limitation. Such practice is becoming difficult at the age of social media.

Eritrea’s autocratic regime, which managed to silence all voices thanks to ban of independent media and closing access to the country, is also facing similar challenges through social media. The Eritrean government has made accessing internet extremely difficult, if not impossible. Despite the challenges, many locals would try to access to stay updated or communicate with the outside world. Citizens have long given up on the state media that ceaselessly recycle propaganda. As the only newsworthy information leaks to the international media or the huge diaspora community through social media, the elites in power have been troubled as they cannot impose total control over such means of communication. Since major events pass uncovered in the local state-media, in an attempt to address the mounting pressures, the furthest the state agencies go in coverage is to tweet about it. For example when rare demonstrations followed by hundreds of arrests became impossible to cover up by the state as videos of the demonstration leaked and reached international media, the minister of information only then  responded in a tweet to downplay it.

On December the 19th, when Eritrea’s four-star general and a minster survived an assassination attempt, the Eritrean social media were flooded. While all the state media and official communication went mute, only after three days the Eritrean ambassador wished the minister a quick recovery and condemned the action on a tweet. Apart from that there has not been any official communication from the state.

Thanks to smartphones, many locals inside the country are increasingly becoming bold enough to share and bypass the stringent control of information imposed. This information is communicated to the huge diaspora community which amplifies the messages, in turn pressuring the regime and discrediting its legitimacy.

Social media have also reportedly played a major role both in exposing the heinous crimes committed by the Ethiopian ruling party, EPRDF, and pressuring the government to change. Prominent Ethiopian activists Jawar Mohammed, who was a central figure in galvanizing protests against the government from US attested, “You cannot imagine this revolution, this change without social media.” Eskinder Nega, who has been released after six years in jail for his dissident activism also warns, “If [Ethiopian Prime Minister] Abiy Ahmed does not deliver the promise of democracy, then we’ll be back to social media.”

Many authoritarian regimes, such as in Cameroon and Ethiopia, have also used draconian anti-terror laws to silence the opposition. The “anti-terror” legislation passes of course without much backlash among the Western donors. Using controversial law, the Ethiopian government had arrested (now all of them are released) prominent bloggers and journalists, and sentenced them to years of imprisonment. The previous prime minister has labeled bloggers “terrorists.”

Cameroon President Paul Biya retaliated against journalists using the controversial anti-terror law, in which journalists would face trial in a military tribunal. If found guilty by the military court, journalists could face up 20 years of imprisonment.

Many powerful nations around the world, particularly China and Israel, have been equipping the autocratic regimes with modern tools of internet surveillance, communication interception, and malware viruses.

The international community has been exhibiting an alarming complicity in enabling the autocratic regimes. Recently, Eritrea’s ruler, who leased his port to the Saudi-led coalition forces to attack Yemen, has been generously rewarded. He received highest honors from Saudi Arabia and United Arab Emirates (UAE); the UN Security Council has lifted its sanctions against Eritrea, which later joined the United Nations Human Rights Council. In an example of a major political contradiction, the Eritrean regime that was accused of committing “crimes against humanity,” along with Cameroon, an even worse human rights offender, joined UN’s highest human rights offices.

The autocratic regimes which have cemented their power are very much aware of the growing social media influence of the dissidents contesting their rule. During the whole season of the Arab Spring, the Eritrean state media never covered any of the protests, possibly fearing the rippling effects of the protests. Recently Sudan’s Bashir described the ongoing unrest: “This is an attempt to copy the Arab Spring in Sudan, these are the same slogans and appeals and the very wide use of social media sites.”

As they become more interconnected and bypass severe information control, citizens across these repressive countries have become emboldened in the face of armed repression. That is why, as Sudanese dissidents are demonstrating right now, there should be no turning back or compromise within these waves of social media-based rebellion.

Abraham T. Zere is executive director of PEN Eritrea in exile. Among others, his work has been published in The Guardian, The Independent, Al Jazeera English, Africa is A Country, Dissent Magazine and Index on Censorship Magazine. Follow him on Twitter @abraham_zere