Africa’s Facebook converts

After keeping the Nigerian people and his rivals second-guessing him, President Jonathan pulled the rug under their feet when he announced his 2011 presidential bid with pomp and ceremony.

However, the cheer leaders were not the “ordinary” Nigerian voter, for the “breaking news” was done on Facebook, one of the Internet’s social networks, which has more than half a billion users worldwide.

By Sunday evening, the media reported that President Jonathan had more than 200 000 followers on his Facebook page.

It was a first for the Nigerian leader, “beating” his South African counterpart President Jacob Zuma, for South Africa was the first African country to have direct Internet connectivity, where countries like Zimbabwe used their Internet gateway.

After the Facebook announcement, the news was THEN reported by Nigeria’s mainstream media!

How many in Africa’s most populated country understood what President Jonathan had done, and what implications it had on how he would solicit their support and votes? One of the reasons given for using cyberspace was to attract young people since they are the once (in Africa especially) who care so much about the Internet.

But in as much as I love these gizmos, the move was a bit disturbing. It was also alarming because it is no secret that the majority of African voters are rurally based. Basics are a luxury. Many African countries belong to that category where people live on US$1 per day.

As I write, the realisation of the eight MDGs are the major subject of discussion at the 65th Ordinary Session of the United Nations General Assembly, where 10 years has seen very little progress. The attainment of the goals, five years before 2015 is nothing but a mirage in sub-Saharan Africa.

At worst, Africa continues to be described as poverty-stricken, disease-riddled, especially the HIV and Aids pandemic and malaria infested. The June 19, 1994 New York Times piece titled “‘Lost decade’ drains Africa’s vitality, spreading want and misery” would still read the same today, since it is reported through Western lenses.

I also unpacked the Nigerian president’s model and asked myself whether we adopt models that are relevant to the generality of the people, despite the fact that ICTs are here to stay.

After President Jonathan’s move, can we also now say that Africa has entered the terrain where “technologies of power” rule the roost? Will it add value to governance issues not only in Nigeria but on the continent as a whole?

Even before the dawn of the Internet, analysts have argued that politicians manipulate any medium to best advantage and communication mediums like the television have done remarkable things for the political process in that it revitalised democracy because politicians have access to a wider national audience.

But, is that the same with ICTs, social networks in particular, for on Facebook, you have to communicate directly with your followers. It is very interactive. Knowing how busy politicians are, these are things run by their offices, so who will these followers be friends with?

What did that announcement also mean especially when former Nigerian vice-president, Atiku Abubakar, this Tuesday, said that he was not aware that President Jonathan declared his intention to contest the 2011 election… last Saturday?

Political differences aside, was the former president questioning the manner in which the announcement was done — on Facebook? How many Nigerians and other African politicians are also equally surprised with the new trend?

It is also an incident that raises questions on what constitutes democratic participation in the age of ICTs. Are these computer-mediated communication systems offering a new promise for African peoples so that they have an inalienable right to participate in issues pertinent to their existence?

In today’s world, some would describe President Jonathan’s move as moving with the times arguing that Africa would ignore the exponential technological developments at its peril. Leap-frogging where necessary is unavoidable, as the Nigerian leader did.

But I still ask whether this adds value to the African cause? Has Africa reached that stage where it can afford this? Who is benefitting when it is evident that come 2015, all the eight areas under the MDGs would not have been met by all African states?

With the little I know and understand about the Internet in particular, I have always concluded that it’s a territory, already charted — not virgin territory. Others did it for us and determined the rules of the game. All that we are doing is to be net consumers, and in some cases with no clue of the consequences.

After President Jonathan’s move, I also asked whether democracy in the Western African country dogged for four decades by military dictatorships had now come of age — through ICTs.

Followers or friends on social networks is by invitation, and it can be extended to anyone who has access to the technology? How many Nigerians and other people from Africa have access to the Internet? Does that followers translate to actual voters on the ground? What is the Internet penetration in Africa like right now?

How about technological literacy? In Zimbabwe we are proud that we are ranked number 1 in literacy ratings in Africa, but what exactly does literacy mean in the age of ICTs? Does that literacy also mean literacy in the operation and application of ICTs?

While Western countries can confidently claim that they are information societies, Africa cannot for it is not only agro-based economy, but it’s oral culture is still very deeply entrenched. We hope to be information societies, but we are not yet there.

However, if politicians become full converts of ICTs they stand to benefit because:

ICTs can enable even ordinary people to break down the information monopolies that decide their fate and give them increasing opportunities in participating in the affairs of the state. Meeting on cyberspace are easier to arrange than rallies and more people can participate in decision-making.

They offer group communication irrespective of time or space and they are generally less expensive than other modes of communication.

They are very impressionistic and with long-term exposure, can shift or build public opinion on issues, to the politician’s advantage.

ICTs can help sensitive politicians to the fact that “the public knows what’s going on” thus creating an atmosphere of accountability. It provides platforms for different sources of information and views, and alters perceptions.

President Jonathan, we hope, has also introduced citizen government interaction in Africa despite the fact that pragmatics of using electronic meetings raise basic questions about the nature of relationships between citizen and government and among citizens. For example, how much direct citizen involvement is manageable?

Will simple procedures about democracy still work when thousands of people, all with different viewpoints participate through a singular medium like Facebook? And how are the issues consolidated for policy formulation?

One writer Johansen argued that for every positive metaphor inspired by the potential of electronic meetings, there is usually a negative metaphor.

“If the global village promises peace and brotherhood to the world, its twin, the wired nation suggests eavesdropping, domestic espionage, etc”.

Does Africa understand these metaphors? When we share views with the rest of the world, especially people who have access to the technology, but are not necessarily our constituents, what are we saying? When the real voter’s is muzzled by lack of access to technology, whose views are we using to shape the politics of the day?

Whose prescriptions are used in shaping a better Africa — those of world-wide-web or the people’s?

Lessons drawn can best be summarised by what Odhiambo said in 1993: ” . . . the most important geostrategic question for Africa is the empowerment of the . . . people in order to resurrect their will to self-improvement and self-realisation.

The long-term essence of poverty is not so much poverty of material goods and services, but rather poverty in inventing a feasible future, and then having the social will and the means to consistently work for the attainment of that goal in the medium-term . . . “

Notwithstanding the talking points around the announcement, this was an unprecedented move in an Africa always described as lagging behind, and if the trend is replicated by others, it would mean that African politicians are not only the latest converts to gizmos like the Internet, but that they are now prepared to revolutionise the political landscape so that it moves with the times.

[email protected]

Pin It