The synchronicity of the shift of global economic power back to the East from the West, the galloping social inequities exacerbated in the 2007 financial crisis and the untrammelled pace of technological change present a revolutionary moment to activists around the world. Everywhere, they are using the technology of instant communication and transmission of complex data to attack and question political and economic authority. The prospect of universal access to information about what governments and corporations are doing with our resources is changing the nature of politics and the old social compacts.
In Africa, as elsewhere, this is upending traditional political parties and cutting across the interests of the elites that they represent. Staking out this new territory, a plethora of single-issue campaigns have grown up to powerful effect. Groups such as #RhodesMustFall seamlessly morphed into #FeesMustFall: signifying a shift from demanding the removal of a colonial relic to the call for the democratisation of access to education, with all its insurrectionary implications.
Not only did these campaigns push the South African government to change course, they rapidly picked up international momentum – thanks in part to the hashtags. The #BringBackOurGirls campaign in Nigeria – in response to the 2014 kidnapping of the Chibok schoolgirls – exposed the complacency of the Abuja government towards its obligation to protect the citizenry. As #BringBackOurGirls reverberated across continents, it evidently contributed to the defeat of the hapless Goodluck Jonathan in the 2015 presidential elections.
Other activist groups – such as those campaigning against tax evasion and contract collusion between multinationals and corrupt government officials, environmental despoliation and for the bolstering of land rights – are eagerly exploiting the possibilities of the conjunction of a crisis among ruling elites and the power of a new popular information order.
This all points to a new era of mass mobilisation powered by tech innovation and fast-track urbanisation. The struggles of farmworkers and land rights activists are hitting home across Africa, forcing incremental concessions from governments. But the power of coordinated, well-informed urban protest movements in the mega-cities of Lagos, Johannesburg, Nairobi, Cairo, Addis Ababa and Kinshasa is taking activism to a new level.
Already, protests against unfair property and sales taxes and failing public services are threatening local ruling classes. A new sense of economic nationalism, that African countries should claim a far bigger share of the value of their mineral and hydrocarbon resources, is challenging international capital. It is also questioning the corrupt collusion between local elites and corporations.
With this wind in their sails, this new generation of activists faces some tough strategic questions. Can their single-issue campaigns morph into broader social movements that could break the mould of post-independence politics?
Resisting the populists
There is also the risk that they will get coopted by opportunistic political parties. Resource nationalism, once the clarion call of the militants in the Niger Delta fighting military regimes and their corporate allies, has been subsumed, at least rhetorically, into national government policy.
As the populist regimes in Tanzania and Zambia put their demands for hiked royalties and tax takes to mining companies, the most probable outcome will be an opaque backroom deal with little discernible gain for working people. Significantly, both the Zambian and Tanzanian governments have ratcheted up repression of grassroots activists and critics of state corruption.
As established political entities try variously to capitalise on or douse the new protest energy, activists are calibrating their collaboration with traditional civic activists in the trade unions and faith groups. The evolving landscape in South Africa shows the complexity of these relationships.
Among the most radical groups in the country, Julius Malema’s Economic Freedom Fighters and the Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union led an extra-parliamentary struggle against President Jacob Zuma’s government and its alliance with local mine owners. But as Zuma’s collusion with his business allies in the Gupta family escalated to threaten the interests of national and international capital, a weird new alliance took shape.
Malema and his activists publicly confronted Zuma in ways that the mainstream of the governing African National Congress (ANC) were too scared to adopt. Much more quietly, ANC dissidents collaborated with civic activists to investigate the depths of political and commercial corruption, primarily but not exclusively involving the Zuma and Gupta families. Many of these investigations were financed by local corporations, keen to protect their commercial interests and latterly to trumpet their social consciences.
Sometimes these investigations snagged big international corporations such as the auditors at KPMG, which is now fighting for its reputation in South Africa. A great boost to this effort was the resilience of the country’s institutions, especially the office of the public protector and the constitutional court.
With the exit of Zuma and his arraignment on corruption charges this year, a new chapter has opened. It points to a rocky political road ahead. Zuma’s followers are trying to mobilise on an ethno-nationalist agenda in KwaZulu-Natal.
President Cyril Ramaphosa, himself a billionaire with mining interests, is desperately trying to woo Malema and his militants back into the big tent of the ANC. If successful, it would be a huge blow against the country’s radical and popular protest movements.
Outside South Africa – with its liberal constitution and battle-tested institutions – the going is rougher still. There are signs that the era of foreign-funded non-governmental organisations – under heavy attack in Egypt, Ethiopia, Sudan, Tanzania and Kenya – is drawing to a close. Strong and brave local sources of finance for civic activism and social movements are thin on the ground.
Yet the abiding strengths of the new activism are its resilience, innovation and ability to connect, nationally and internationally. In 2005, the idea of a protest developed primarily online would have been impossible across much of the world, where mobile phone and internet communication was prohibitively expensive. But the creativity of activists has changed that. From the Black Lives Matter protests in the US to pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong, organisers are using online platforms to organise, keep supporters informed and mobilise public sentiment.
Before this, movements relied on physical meetings and door-to-door campaigns to inform citizens. That labour-intensive approach was an easy target for arrest and reprisals. Producing printed material was equally risky as the charges for being in possession of ‘seditious material’ could rise to the level of treason. Today, social movements use digital platforms like WhatsApp and Signal to disseminate information. That does not require a meeting or shielding participants from state surveillance.
These days, activists in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Gabon and Cameroon are finding that a protest without a hashtag is unlikely to get attention outside their countries. And without that attention, atrocities and reprisals from the state are brutal and swift.
A digital strategy is no guarantee of success. But the absence of one in the context of falling international attention to countries leaves activists with a Sisyphean task. Used well, these platforms protect activists by keeping attention on the cause when the state censors other media.
Urban activism peaked during the Arab Spring, when in Tunisia and Egypt much of the political resistance was cultivated online. In her 2017 book Twitter and Tear Gas, techno-sociologist Zeynep Tufecki talks to activists in the region who say that without the digital revolution, their campaigns would have foundered.
New broom on twitter
South of the Sahara, the most successful youth-led political movements in recent years – Le Balai Citoyen in Burkina Faso and Y’en a Marre in Senegal – tapped into the coincidence of young populations and the exponential growth of mobile technology. Le Balai Citoyen cultivated an active social presence that allowed it to broadcast its message directly to audiences with minimal state interference. This online pressure sustained the momentum that eventually ended president President Blaise Compaoré’s 27-year rule. In Senegal, Y’en a Marre’s combining of art, music and popular culture with protest quickly gained traction on Facebook and Twitter, fuelling demands for octogenarian incumbent Abdoulaye Wade to step aside and hand over to younger leaders.
Since 2017, persistent protests in Togo have brought the tiny country unprecedented international attention. Its news rarely registers regionally, let alone internationally. Nominally led by the main opposition party, the weekly and biweekly protests call for the end of Faure Gnassingbé’s 13-year presidency, viewing it as an unwelcome continuation of his father Gnassingbé Eyadéma’s 38-year rule. Week after week, activists show up in red or pink T-shirts, taking over boulevards, blowing whistles and chanting messages like “Faure must go!”
Farida Nabourema, a 28-year-old activist and organiser who has become the face of the Togolese protests online, explains: “[This] is a coalition of efforts by political parties, civil society organisations and trade unions to bring down the military regime that has been ruling Togo for over 51 years because we realised that the country wasn’t moving forward.” She is the founder of the ‘Faure Must Go’ movement and executive director of the Ligue Civile Togolaise, a coalition of groups advocating for the restoration of the 1992 constitution. For the Anglophone world, Nabourema’s tweets and Facebook posts are a key source of information on the season of discontent, a role that Nabourema did not seek but has embraced.
Activism is in Nabourema’s bloodline. Her grandfather campaigned against the German and French colonial regimes, only retiring once independence was achieved in 1960. When the 1967 revolution brought in Eyadéma’s authoritarianism, her father took up the mantle – and was repeatedly arrested and harassed for participating in anti-regime movements.
Networking the activists
Yet Nabourema was almost entirely focused on her studies until it became obvious that Faure would follow in his father’s footsteps, overturning the constitution and crushing any resistance while pursuing a lifelong presidency. “My father was the vice-president of the electoral commission for the 2015 general election and he resigned from his position because he said that it wasn’t worth it – [the regime] will never allow a free and fair process,” she recalls, realising that her only hope of changing Togo would be to help other people in the country come to the same realisation.
There are significant differences between Nabourema’s activism and that of her father and grandfather. “I am Togo’s very first cyber activist,” she says. “I started using social media in 2009. I founded a blog in 2009 about Togo when I was in the US, where it was easier and cheaper than in Togo. And from 2009 and 2016, my blog was the most popular Togolese blog, focusing mostly on politics.”
Cyber activist is a broad term that Nabourema uses to refer to the thousands of activists who are using digital platforms to build movements for social change. With the advent of Facebook and Twitter, more political organising is shifting online, and activists like Nabourema are demanding that this round of protests in Togo, unlike the many that have gone before, be seen and heard around the world.
Nabourema has travelled to work with other West African groups, which speaks to another key characteristic of this new wave of advocacy – transnationalism. Activists are finding ways in which their experiences are connected and forming links beyond national boundaries. From its origins in Missouri, Black Lives Matter became a rallying cry for African refugees in Israel protesting racism. It inspired the #RhodesMustFall movement in South Africa, in which students called for the removal of iconography celebrating the racist foundations of the state. Le Balai Citoyen activists have travelled to the DRC to connect with activists there, supporting the formation of La Lucha, a group campaigning to end Joseph Kabila’s contested 15-year rule.
At the formation of the Organisation of African Unity in 1963, African countries decided to retain colonial borders, triggering a shift in political outlook that persists today. With the notable exception of the anti-racist struggles in Namibia, Zimbabwe and South Africa, political advocacy became more and more inward-looking and focused on fighting individual state struggles.
The current wave of advocacy resists that, building communities of activists connected by their political outlook rather than their national identity. In some ways, it is a counter-narrative to the increasing use of international platforms like the African Union to protect the interests of powerful actors. In 2014, Kenya began lobbying for African countries to quit the International Criminal Court (ICC) in response to charges of crimes against humanity for President Uhuru Kenyatta and deputy president William Ruto, a call that was embraced by many presidents on the continent. Yet grassroots organisations in countries like the DRC and Burundi saw the ICC as their only hope against increasing state violence and unresponsive institutions at home, underscoring the gap between the interests of citizens and their leaders. More activists began looking outside their borders to build networks of groups with similar interests.
In 2016, Togo’s Nabourema travelled to Gambia to meet and support activists calling for the end of Yahya Jammeh’s 22-year rule. “I knew it was dangerous, but I wanted to go. And I was there until Jammeh left,” she says. “I learnt that there was so much effort made prior to the elections. To even manage to win elections organised by Jammeh in the most complicated situation, it took years of advocacy.” Without this African outreach, Nabourema argues that she would never have invested so heavily in building an offline structure – ‘know your rights’ training and other awareness-raising initiatives – to support the online work.
Pulling the plug
Successful digital activism relies on the fundamentals of political organising as well as mastering the nuances of electronic communication. Threats to this new form of activism are as common as the opportunities. Nationwide internet shutdowns are the go-to response for states dealing with political upheaval. Between 2015 and 2016, there were more than 30 internet shutdowns in Africa. And the government switched off the internet in parts of Ethiopia for more than two years in response to anti-regime protests. In response, hacktivists – internet activists who specialise in building tools to circumvent state or institutional control – developed platforms like FireChat, an app that uses Bluetooth connectivity to build internet networks and allow people to stay online.
Still, for every example of a successful protest in the digital era, there are at least 10 examples of those that fail. The most successful movements are those that use digital platforms to enhance communication while maintaining significant effort offline, as Nabourema has learnt. “These platforms have been very helpful for me – 80% of the people that I have worked with on the struggle for the last few years I have never met physically,” she notes. “[But] it has been a cocktail of events. Teachers have been striking for months. Students haven’t been in class for even half of the time. Medical doctors and practitioners have also been participating in the strike. Politicians are also organising protests. We see the regime as a tree, and we feel that it is rooted very deeply. We have to be able to knock them down at all levels.”
This article first appeared in the May 2018 print edition of The Africa Report magazine
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